Abby Wambach finished the final chapter of her fairytale career on Wednesday when USA lost to China PR 1-0 in New Orleans as part of the FIFA Women’s World Cup™ champions’ ‘Victory Tour’. Despite the defeat, which clearly was not how the 35-year-old anticipated leaving the game, Wambach walked off the pitch for the last time not only a global queen and two-time Olympic gold medallist, but as international football’s all-time leading scorer.
There is, however, much more to Wambach’s tenure with the Stars and Stripes than just trophies, records and individual awards. After Wednesday's final bow the world will be saying farewell to one of the toughest - both mentally and physically - and most spirited footballers the beautiful game has ever seen.
To celebrate one of the most iconic individuals in the women’s game, FIFA.com takes a look back at ten significant moments during Wambach’s playing days that demonstrate not just the Rochester, New York native’s impressive collection of accolades and accomplishments, but her defining qualities as both a player and a person that helped lift her to the pinnacle of football.
6 December 1998
Several years before she broke records on the international stage for USA, Wambach was heavily recruited to represent several top tier universities across the nation, and she ultimately chose the University of Florida. Wambach moved from Rochester to Gainesville in 1998 to play in a programme that had only been founded three years prior. However, despite her status as a first-year player, Wambach scored 19 goals for the Gators en route to winning the national championship earning her first taste of success she would go on to experience throughout her career.
24 August 2003
Upon joining Washington Freedom of the now defunct Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) in 2002, Wambach was paired up front with USA legend Mia Hamm, giving her the chance to learn from one of the best on a daily basis. It became clear in 2003 that Hamm would pass the baton off to Wambach to take the mantle of leading women’s footballer in America, and Abby took that responsibility in her stride. She matched Hamm’s goalscoring prowess in the 2003 season and earned MVP honours in the championship final with a two-goal performance to hand Freedom the league title.
21 September 2003
Less than a month after lifting the Founders Cup with Washington Freedom, Wambach made her debut at the Women’s World Cup in front of 34,144 fans at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, starting the long journey that resulted in glory in Vancouver this year. Wambach led USA with three goals during the tournament despite the Americans’ disappointing third-place finish, following a 3-0 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals. USA 2003 was an early setback for Wambach, but one that only fuelled her desire for future success. "I felt responsible," Wambach said of the semi-final loss. "After '99, it being the next World Cup in the US, regardless of circumstances, I was the one piece that was different from '99. That World Cup ended up being a good thing as that failure definitely shaped the success of my career later on. I remember [the German players] running around so happy for so long. She (USA coach April Heinrichs) saw me watching. She said, 'Come on, let's go inside,' and I said, 'No, I want to remember this'."
26 August 2004
Wambach claimed her first Women’s Olympic Football Tournament gold medal in Athens against Brazil in a match that she won for the Americans in the 112th minute with one of her trademark headers. While she and her team-mates rightfully celebrated the big win, Wambach later reflected on her mindset after the victory. “Standing on the podium at Athens 2004, I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to do it again,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to be standing in that same spot again. And I stepped off that podium and that’s when I started training for the next Olympics.”
11 September 2007
Four years after USA 2003, Wambach and Co would once again suffer an early exit at the World Cup, but this time around it left a scar - literally. In USA’s first match at China 2007, Wambach went up against Korea DPR’s Ri Kum-Suk and the two clashed heads. Desperate to remain in the game, Wambach sprung up and sprinted to the dressing room to receive stitches. "I was really screaming at him (the trainer) to hurry it up, which probably wasn't helping things much,” Wambach recalled after the match. And despite the gruesome nature of the injury she sustained (and very similar to another incident a few years later during a World Cup qualifier against Mexico when she received a few staples in the head on the pitch to keep on playing), Wambach viewed the event as just another day at the office. “For me, it's just part of the game," she said. "I'm a big girl and I like to throw my body around. When you do that, you always know you're going to get a bump here and there. It's no big deal."
17 July 2008
No stranger to playing through pain, Wambach received a serious setback, one that neither staples nor stitches could mend less than a month before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, denying her the opportunity to defend her gold medal from Athens. Breaking her leg in two places during an Olympic tune-up against Brazil, Wambach casually signalled to the medical staff that she needed attention before being calmly stretchered off the pitch and into a waiting ambulance, but there was never an ounce of concern or worry on her face. “I realised in that moment and accepted in that moment that my Olympic dreams were not going to be what I had planned,” Wambach said. “I accepted the reality of this situation. This was a deep down acceptance of my reality. A lot of the times when you freak out about stuff is when you are more unsure of reality. It was an all encompassing moment. I wasn’t freaked out.”
10 July 2011
Unsurprisingly, Wambach returned to the world stage stronger than ever as the Americans looked to rebound after two disappointing World Cup results at USA 2003 and China 2007. And while the Stars and Stripes fell just short in the Final against Japan, Wambach created history once more with a last-gasp equaliser against Brazil in the 122nd minute of their quarter-final encounter. Wambach’s dramatic header was voted the greatest goal ever scored at the Women’s World Cup by FIFA.com users just before Canada 2015.
7 January 2013
Wambach was recognised as the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year at the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala after another stellar performance at the 2012 London Women’s Olympic Football Tournament. Wambach helped steer USA to the gold medal, avenging the Germany 2011 Final defeat to Japan with a 2-1 win at Wembley Stadium and her performances throughout the competition earned the American the prestigious honour. Always one to shy away from individual praise, Wambach quickly mentioned the efforts of her team-mates when she went on stage to receive the award. “Winning any individual award is a total product of the team that you play for,” she explained. “I’ve never scored a goal without receiving a pass from somebody else.”
20 June 2013
During a friendly against Korea Republic, Wambach equalled and then subsequently broke Hamm’s long standing record of 158 international goals with four first-half finishes to send her into footballing history. Nearly ten years after winning the Founders Cup together, Hamm offered high praise for her former team-mate: “I’m just so proud of her. Watching those four goals, that’s what she is all about. She fights for the ball, she’s courageous and she never gives up. Her strength and perseverance is what makes her so great and it’s what defenders and opposing teams fear. From being her team-mate early in her career, I know all she ever wanted to do was win and she continues to do that.”
5 July 2015
Finally, 11 years and 287 days after first appearing at the Women’s World Cup, Abby Wambach at last won it. Appearing as a second-half substitute during USA’s stunning 5-2 win over Japan in Vancouver to claim the Canada 2015 title, Wambach accepted her winner’s medal and hoisted the Trophy in front of the American fans, capping off one of the greatest careers in history. But, true to form, Wambach refused to take the credit and went so far to include everyone involved in USA’s record-setting third Women’s World Cup. “This whole team,” Wambach explained shortly after the Final. “It’s totally a 23-player roster…I’m so happy for this team because everyone on this team deserves this. This is a championship for everybody.”
Following USA's 1-0 defeat on Wednesday, where Wambach could not add to her record tally of 184 goals, she offered these parting words before walking back into the dressing room for the last time: "These younger players have so much to look forward to. The team is in their hands now. I’m OK walking away now. I know everyone wanted to get me a goal. It’s probably why we didn’t score! I’m so honoured and blessed to be a part of this team for so many years."