Jamie Whitehead on why Abby Wambach’s relentless pursuit of the World Cup was admirable, but not endearing.
The relationship between professional footballers and the general public are often interesting cases to observe. John Terry and Steven Gerrard share more in common with the other on the field than either may care to admit, but the public’s (general) perception of the two differs wildly.
Whereas both were graduates from the youth academies of their respective clubs and both captained those sides to European Cup wins (they’ve also both found themselves on the losing side in the final of that competition) and captained their country, the latter is held in much higher regard than the former.
There are many potential reasons for this. Not just the old stereotype of Liverpool being that famous old football club from the North and Chelsea the founding members of Club Noveux-Riche. Terry’s highly publicised court case and alleged extra-marital affairs have done little to endear him to the public at large whereas Gerrard’s loyalty to Liverpool, his playing of the role of perpetual underdog and the fact he has, in comparison, largely carried himself in the way one would hope and expect a professional athlete would have no doubt influenced our way of thinking, even if it did so without us realising.
As the excitement of the World Cup dies down and the domestic leagues resume, US forward Abby Wambach finds herself at something of a cross-roads when it comes to her own public image.
Although far from Public Enemy Number One, Wambach enjoys a tepid relationship with her own perception. And whereas few would begrudge her the honour of finally getting her hands on the World Cup, like a ruthless entrepreneur, she’s had to make decisions that have, in the long run, been to her benefit whilst at the behest of the team.
Wambach missed out on being part of the 1999 World Cup squad which won the World Cup “in their own back yard” (Wambach had previously played in both the 2003 and 2007 editions). With the quality in the squad and factoring in the United States had won two of the first three World Cups (the other coming in the inaugural competition in 1991) a sixteen year wait to add a third star to the jersey felt inconceivable.
At thirty-five, Wambach was always going to play a bit-part in Canada. The attacking finesse of Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan was always going to take preference over an ageing forward who had made the conscious decision to remove herself from the professional game entirely in an effort to keep herself fresh for the tournament in Canada.
The intervening years were the defining ones. Without actually winning the World Cup itself (and the US came desperately close in 2011, losing to Japan on penalties in the final. They had been leading during the game. Wambach scored), it’s hard to see what more she could have achieved on the field.
At club level, Wambach’s achievements have been a far cry from those on the international stage. Drafted second in the 2002 Women’s United Soccer Association draft in 2002 saw her join the Washington Freedom, a club she would later return too. The first spell lasted only one season.
Her inclusion in the squad for the Women’s World Cup divided supporters of the US Women’s National Team. On the one hand, the legendary status afforded to her was a plus point but arguments started over whether or not she deserved a place in the side on name only. Indeed, Wambach came into criticism from former US national coach Pia Sundhage on the eve of the tournament, saying that if she was still in charge, Wambach would only be used as a substitute.
Current coach Jill Ellis took a similar viewpoint, with the now veteran striker starting, as captain, in two of the seven games played. Carli Lloyd would undertake captain’s duties in the other games, before coming off herself and handing the armband to Wambach for the final eleven minutes of the final.
Further controversy surrounded Wambach’s inclusion when she declared that she would not play in 2015 in order to keep herself fresh for the World Cup, despite holding a professional contract with North American Women’s Soccer League Franchise Seattle Reign.
Away from the field she caused further controversy, yet received the support of NBA star Kobe Bryant, as she led a coalition of players in calling for grass surfaces, as the World Cup was to be played on artificial turf. Her argument was that the men’s World Cup would never be played on anything other than natural grass. The complaint eventually became a lawsuit from her, Japanese international Homare Sawa and Marta of Brazil. Ultimately, the case was dropped, but it showed a certain side of Wambach that veered upon the untouchable. The lawsuit and the decision not to play in 2015 had left a bad impression. A browse through the social media accounts of other members of the team shows that Wambach is liked by her team-mates, if not all sections of the US Soccer world.
And after the final in which the United States put five past a hapless Japan and Carly Lloyd scored a hat-trick? It was Wambach whom, with one goal all tournament, collected the trophy with another former captain Christine Rampone. Wambach is also prominent in many of the victory shots after the game. She achieved what she set out to do, and little regard for what others thought.
As Wambach calls time on her international career she can reflect upon a medal haul which includes two Olympic golds, two World Cup bronze medals, a World Cup runners-up medal as well as a winner’s medal in 2015 alongside an incredible 183 goals in in 249 games for her country.
Unquestionably, Abby Wambach has achieved enough in her career to rightly claim her place in the annals of history of Women’s Soccer in the United States. How that history will choose to remember her is a different matter entirely.