The 2019 World Cup in France has shone the global spotlight on women’s football like never before, and the sport continues to grow in popularity, both in terms of participation, and spectators, as it continues to spread throughout the World. It has also encouraged more people to look back at the history of the game and to ask who have been the best women soccer players ever.
While these judgments are always subjective, here are some of the names likely to be in contention.
Marta (Marta Vieira da Silva is a Brazilian striker who is widely regarded as the best female player of all time. She has been named FIFA Player of the Year six times, and, during the 2019 World Cup in France, set two new records. She became the first player (male or female) to score in five different World Cup finals, while her penalty against Italy, her 17th in World Cup finals, made her the highest goal scorer of all time in FIFA’s most significant international tournament.
She began her playing career in the backstreets of her home town, using grocery bags as an improvised ball, before starting to play with a local boys’ team. A scout discovered her from Vasco de Gama that wanted to start a women’s side, before making her way to Sweden, and Umea IK.
Since then she has had an itinerant club career, alternating between Europe and North and South America – she currently plays for Orlando Pride, in the National Women’s Soccer League. However, wherever she goes, she scores goals and averages nearly a goal a game for both club and country.
Mia Hamm, USA
Mia Hamm is regarded as the first international star of the women’s game.
The forward began playing football at an early age, and, at aged 15, became the youngest player to appear for the US National Team. She went on to win the World Cup with the USA in 1991 and 1999, and to claim Olympic gold with the team at Atlanta in 1996, and again in Athens in 2004.
When she retired from the game, she had made no fewer than 276 appearances for the national team, and had scored 158 goals, a record that stood until another American, Abby Wambach, broke it.
Hamm, at the height of her playing career, was a massive media star. Widely regarded as the most marketable athlete of her generation, she had numerous sponsorship deals, appeared in TV commercials with Michael Jordan, and had her own video game.
Five times US Women’s Athlete of the year, she was the first female player inducted into the World Hall of Fame.
Birgit Prinz, Germany
Birgit Prinz is a retired German international who played in five World Cups, and scored 14 goals in the finals, second on the all-time list only to Marta. She won the World Cup with Germany in 2003 and 2007 and was a runner-up with them in 1999. Besides, she won the European Championship with Germany five times and picked up three Olympics bronze medals with them.
FIFA World Player of the Year for three successive years, she was named German Player of the Year 8 times in a row. A prolific goal scorer for her clubs FSV and FFC Frankfurt and Carolina Courage, she managed a goal a game for them over an 18-year career. She played 214 times for Germany and scored 128 times, a national record.
Since retiring she has become a sports psychologist for both the Hoffenheim male and female teams and the German national side.
Abby Wambach, USA
Abby Wambach is the all-time international goal scorer in women’s football, with 184 goals in 255 appearances for the United States. She was part of the team that defeated Japan in the final to win the World Cup in 2015, and won Olympic Gold in Beijing in 2008, and again in London four years later. FIFA Player of the Year in 2012, a year earlier she became the first soccer player, of either gender, to be named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
Wambach was known for her physicality and aggressive approach on the field. While never the most mobile of players, she had excellent positioning and became known for her headers - a diving header became her trademark. Although she was primarily known as a striker, she could also drop back into midfield to help supply her teammates – she is third on the all-time list of assists for her country as well.
She played her entire club career in North America, with two spells playing for Washington Freedom interspersed with a period at Ajax America Women, and later Western New York Flash. She was also briefly player-coach with magicJack.
In 2015, Time Magazine named her in their list of 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Christine Sinclair, Canada
Christine Sinclair has just played what may be her last game for her country after the Canadian captain finished on the losing side against Sweden in the last 16 of this year’s World Cup. If that is to be the case, it brings down the curtain on a remarkable international career which has seen her score 182 times in 282 appearances, two short of the record set by Abby Wambach.
At club level, she has won championships with three different clubs – the 2010 WPS Championship with FC Gold Pride, the 2011 WPS Championship with Western New York Flash, and the 2013 and 2017 NWSL Championships with Portland Thorns FC.
Physically active, she is known for her athleticism and skills on the ball and her accurate finishing. Canadian Player of the Year on no less than 14 occasions, she helped her country win the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup, the 2011 Pan American Games, and also secure bronze medals at both the 2012 Olympics in London, and the subsequent Games in Rio four years later.
A leader both and off the field, Sinclair has received a host of awards in her native Canada and been featured on the country’s postage stamps.
Hope Solo, USA
Hope Solo is a former national team goalkeeper for the USA, who holds a host of records to her name – the most international appearances 9202), the most wins (153), shut-outs (1020, and the longest undefeated streak – 55 consecutive games. She helped her team win the 2015 World Cup, and also the Gold Medal at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
At club level, she played for Philadelphia Charge in the Women’s United States Association, until that league folded and she headed to Europe, first with Kapperbergs/Göteberg in Sweden, and then Olympic Lyonnaise in France. She then returned to the US to play for the likes of Saint Louis Athletica, Atlanta Beat, and Seattle Reign.
A controversial figure on and off the pitch, Solo was suspended for six months for comments she made about Sweden after the USA lost to them at the Rio Olympics. She and her husband, former American football player, have had several brushes with the law, including assault charges, and drug and alcohol offenses.
Homare Sawa, Japan
Sawa is a former Japanese player who captained her country to World Cup success in 2011, and an Olympic silver medal a year later. She was named FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year in 2011.
A midfielder with an eye for goal, she played for Japan between 1993 and 2015, finishing with a total of 205 caps, and 83 goals, both of which are national records.
It was she who scored the vital extra time equalizer in the 2011 World Cup Final against the USA, forcing the match to a penalty shoot-out, which her side went on to win. Sawa finished that tournament with both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot.
She was equally efficient at both scoring and creating goals, and had a long and illustrious club career as well, principally playing in her native Japan with Nippon TV Beleza and INAC Kobe Leonessa, alternated with two spells in America with Atlanta Beat and Washington Freedom.
Sawa is considered the most elegant female soccer player ever to come from Japan.
Michelle Akers, USA
Akers had a remarkable career, not least because injury and illness forced her to reinvent her position on the pitch. As a young woman she was a potent striker, but, after she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome, she dropped back and began to play as a defensive midfielder, helping to thwart goalscoring opportunities, as opposed to converting them.
At 5 foot ten, she had an imposing physical presence on the pitch but was deceptively quick, helped by her long stride. Akers was a member of the first-ever United States women’s national team in 1985 and scored her country’s first ever goal in a draw with Denmark. Six years later, she helped her side win the inaugural Women’s World Cup scoring both goals in the Final against Norway, as the USA ran out 2-1 winners. That brought her tally for the tournament to ten, which included five goals in one game.
After her move back to midfield, Akers helped the USA win Olympic gold in 1996 in Athens, and then to secure another World Cup triumph in 1999. Forced to retire at the age of 34 because of injury, she finished with a record, for the time, of 107 goals from 155 international appearances. She continues to promote women’s soccer in the USA as a spokeswoman and advocate.
Christie Rampone, USA
Defender Christie Rampone played for the United States national team 311 times – only her former teammate Kristine Lilly made more international appearances. She played ion 4 World Cup finals and four consecutive Olympic Games and captained her country to gold medal success in Beijing in 2008, and London four years later. She was also a World Cup winner in 1999 on home soil, and a runner-up in 2011.
Renowned for her strength and athleticism on the field, Rampone battled back from serious injury on several occasions, and she also had to cope with the debilitating effects of Lyme disease. Despite these problems, and taking time out of the game to have two daughters, she continued playing for Sky Blue FC – the team for who she was briefly player/manager in 2011 – well into her early 40s.
Rampone was an infrequent goal scorer – she found the net just four times in all those internationals. That was not her job, however. Her function on the pitch was to stop them being scored, and she did that to significant effect throughout her long career.
Carli Lloyd, USA
Co-captain of the US women’s national team, Lloyd has been named FIFA Player of the Year twice and has made more than 278 appearances for her country, scoring 113 times in a career that is still very much active. She currently has the third most international caps for her country and stands fourth in the all-time list when it comes to goals, and seventh when it comes to assists for the USA.
A two-time Olympic champion, Lloyd had the distinction of scoring the gold medal-winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 finals. She also had the honor of captaining her country to World Cup success in 2015 in Canada, a tournament that saw her score six times, including a hat trick against Japan. She was awarded the Golden Boot, given to the best player in the competition.
Her club career has seen her feature for several US teams, including Central Jersey Splash, Western New York Flash and Houston Dash. She currently plays for Sky Blue FC.
Lloyd is no angel on the pitch – a loan spell with Manchester City’s women’s team was cut short when she received a three-match ban for elbowing an opponent.
She continues to set records. In the 2019 World Cup, her goals in the USA’s opening group games against Thailand and Chile made her the first woman to score in six consecutive World Cup games.
Like any low scoring sport, goals are what win soccer matches. Everybody has their own criteria when it comes to defining what makes a great goal. For some it can be a moment of individual brilliance by a gifted player, whilst, for others, it is the aesthetic of a team move that inspires them.
The context of a soccer match also counts. Whilst a great goal scored in a regular league can be memorable in its own right, one scored in a vital cup game, or in a championship decider has more weight because of its significance.