There have been many goals scored from half-field throughout the history of football, but none on a bigger stage than Carli Lloyd’s in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015 Final against Japan. Hers, after all, was a strike to seal a historic hat-trick and, ultimately, USA’s third world title.
Many fans may not realise that Lloyd nearly quit football altogether at the end of her university playing career, making her record-breaking performance in Vancouver all the more unlikely and impressive. The US star became the first player to score a hat-trick in a Women's World Cup final and she joined Geoff Hurst - hero of England's men's 1966 win - as the second to do so in at this stage of any World Cup.
“It was years and years of preparation,” Lloyd said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “In the beginning of the tournament I was not doing as well as I could. I think I was trying to be too perfect and that doesn’t happen in life. Nobody’s perfect.
“Once I had that belief and confidence that I was gaining from each game in the World Cup, by the final I was able to just go out there and make things happen and not think too much about what I needed to do.”
USA and Japan were playing in a rematch of the 2011 final, when Japan won on penalties in an emotionally-charged encounter following the devastating Fukushima nuclear disaster. In Canada, the Stars and Stripes were anxious to end a 16-year title drought, while the Nadeshiko looked to establish a dynasty of their own. Both sides also had hopes of sending their respective legends off with a trophy, as Abby Wambach and Homare Sawa were both on the eve of retirement.
Japan and USA both grew into the tournament, winning several of their games by fine margins - a clear indication of the development in the women’s game. It could be argued, though, that Jill Ellis’s team entered the final higher on confidence following their 2-0 semi-final win over a strong Germany side in Montreal. Japan, for their part, had edged a brave England team in Edmonton only after an unlucky injury-time own goal from Laura Bassett.
“I woke up before my alarm,” Lloyd recalled of the morning of the final. “I actually went for a light, 15-minute jog in the streets of Vancouver. I was cruising through the streets and in the zone. The night prior to that was one of those nights where it was a good, restful sleep but I kept waking up and thinking about the game. I was just really, really ready. I must say, I probably had more anxiety and nerves for my wedding day than for the World Cup final!”
When the ball left my foot I knew that I couldn’t have hit it any more perfect.
Lloyd certainly was in the zone. Within five minutes, she had scored from two set pieces with instinctive, well-anticipated moves. In the 14th minute, Lauren Holiday scored USA’s third with a volley following a failed clearance from Japan's defence. And then it happened.
Intercepting a misplayed pass in midfield by Japan, Lloyd turned with one touch, took another past Rumi Utsugi before looking up and launching a shot with her right foot as soon as the ball kissed the halfway line.
“It was split second,” Lloyd said. “It was instinct. Every single game I play I’m always checking to see where the goalkeeper is. She was really off her line. When the ball left my foot I knew that I couldn’t have hit it any more perfect. It was like I was playing in the park with my friends and I just happened to go for it at that moment.”
On another day, Japan goalkeeper Naomi Kaihori could have saved the shot. However, Lloyd’s audacity in the moment seemed to throw her off balance. Back-tracking and stumbling, Kaihori reached for the ball in desperation, but her efforts were in vain. The momentum Lloyd had created was too much for Kaihori and Japan. Within 16 minutes of a World Cup final, USA had a 4-0 lead, an inconceivable situation at kick-off.
“I don’t think she was expecting it one bit,” Lloyd said. “A lot of goalkeepers these days play with their feet. They have a tendency to be off their line and up higher. I don’t think she thought it was going to be hit at all.”
Later in the year, her strike was one of ten nominees for the 2015 FIFA Puskás Award, an accolade given to the best goal scored in the year. Although it didn’t win, she knows full well that sealing a hat-trick in a World Cup final cements her place in world football history.
“I think what’s cool about it is that everyone remembers that shot and that game. It’s almost become this icon, the ‘Carli Lloyd shot’, the midfield shot.
“Afterwards I was getting all sorts of messages from young kids, adults, boys and they were trying the ‘Carli Lloyd midfield shot’. It’s pretty cool because most people wouldn’t go for that and then I did it and it just gives people a different perspective that, if you don’t try it, you never know if you’re going to make it.”