Kim Little, the low-profile world-beater
"Kim Little is the most talented player I have ever played with. She is great at everything. Her passing and vision and technical skill are, I believe, the best in the world."
This is the kind of praise that would resonate coming from anyone. And Hope Solo is not just anyone. As the most-capped goalkeeper in USA’s history, and a long-term colleague of stars such as Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, Solo has spent over a decade-and-a-half playing with – and against – the elite of women’s football. Few, therefore, can bestow such compliments with the same authority.
Nor is hers a lone voice, with Laura Harvey – coach to both Solo and Little at Seattle Reign – equally glowing in her assessment of the Scottish midfielder. “In my opinion, Kim’s the best player in the world right now,” said the two-time NWSL Coach of the Year. “In this league, she’s playing against the world’s best and they just can’t get near her.”
Major tournament frustration In struggling to subdue the inventive, elegant Little, American defences have simply followed an established pattern. The 25-year-old recently spent the NWSL off-season playing for Melbourne City and, naturally, lit up Australia's W-League, inspiring her team to the title in their debut campaign. As the league’s outstanding performer, and having already pocketed Player of the Year awards in both the US and England, where she won four championships with Arsenal, Little’s excellence has been established year in, year out – and on three different continents.
Given all this, you might wonder why she was not in the final reckoning at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala, and why many of the players she regularly outshines are considerably better known. The answer, of course, is that the Scot is, well, a Scot. Little’s nationality has dictated that she not only sat out last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, but every major tournament she has been eligible for save for the 2012 Olympics, when she represented Great Britain. "I feel bad for her,” said Megan Rapinoe, another club team-mate. “It is kind of like a Ryan Giggs situation."
Little, though, has no time for self-pity. And while international competitions shape the perception of women’s football and its players in a way they do not in the men’s game, she is dismissive of the notion that Scotland is holding her back.
“I don’t think of it that way at all,” Little told FIFA.com. “I’m just desperate for Scotland to make it to a major tournament and for me to play my part in taking us there. It’s really not about me playing in one of these competitions anyway, much as I would love to do that. In football, it’s always about your team and, as players, that’s something we always need to remember.
“In terms of where I sit in the best players in the world, that’s also not something I think about. My focus is always on playing to my potential and scoring and creating goals so that my team can win matches and trophies. You obviously need confidence in yourself to bring out your best attributes on the pitch, but I don’t think there’s a need to be arrogant or self-centred to be a great player.”
Humble and genuinely unselfish in her outlook, Little appears to prove her own theory. She is also a firm believer that, for all that her multiple trophies and individual honours have been won in club football, international achievements need not elude her forever.
Scotland, beaten in the play-offs for the two most recent major tournaments, have after all begun UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 qualifying with four straight wins, scoring 24 times in the process. Though group rivals Iceland are higher-ranked and boast superior big-tournament experience, Little believes a long-awaited breakthrough could be in in sight. “This is as good a chance as we’ve ever had to qualify for a major championship,” she said. “I’m confident we’ll make it.”
Mixed play-off fortunes The Scots’ EURO campaign resumes on 8 April, just ten days before Little kicks off her third NWSL season. In each of the first two, she has been named in the league’s team of the year and Seattle have topped the regular-season standings. Play-off success has eluded them on both occasions though and, consequently, Little considers herself to have unfinished business.
“I’m a very competitive person and it’s been very frustrating to fall at that final hurdle,” she said. “We’ll be aiming to put that right this year and we definitely have the team to do that.
“I do still find the play-offs a bit strange. I’m just so used to a system back home where the champions are the best and most consistent team over the entire season. But I can see the other side too, and I realise the play-offs bring some excitement. And they’re great games to play in. Winning helps, of course!”
Little experienced that joy first-hand in Melbourne, and having now sampled the top flights in Australia, England and the US, is well placed to offer an assessment of the three leagues.
“They all have their own appeal,” she said. “The NWSL is very high-tempo, and the quality is extremely high. There are added challenges from England in terms of the travel and the distances involved, but it’s a fantastic league to play in. It’s great that it’s into its fourth season now and we’re hoping that the Olympics gives it another boost, just as the World Cup did last year.
"Right now, Australia’s league is of a slightly lower standard than both the US and England – I’m sure they would admit that themselves – and the season there is shorter too. But all three leagues have their attributes, and I can see great potential in them all.”
Each and every one has been graced in the truest sense of the word by this outstanding footballer. Little’s admirers will now hope that, having illuminated club football, she can soon justify their glowing words in the international arena.