It’s taken a few days to sink in, but sink in it has: one of my favorite eras in soccer, the Abby Era, is over.
Abby Wambach played her last game for the USA Wednesday, walking off the field at the New Orleans Superdome to the roars and cheers of more than 30,000 fans and the hugs and tears of her teammates and coaches. She departs with an all-time record of 184 goals in 255 U.S. appearances, which includes 22 goals in 30 matches played at the Women’s World Cup and Olympic Games.
In her first appearance, she replaced former international Tiffeny Milbrett late in the second half of a 4-1 victory Germany on Sept. 9. 2001. Two days later, four airliners hijacked by terrorists crashed into buildings and an open field, killing thousands and forever changing perspectives of life in the United States and around the world.
Maybe this terrible juxtaposition of unrelated events is why, to me, the Abby Era stands out. Her strength, power and physical dominance were not universally lauded and her garrulous persona sometimes wore thin on her teammates, but a game or training session or press conference with Wambach almost never lacked for drama and relevance.
No player, coach, or journalist captured more succinctly the drive and determination that propelled Japan to victory on penalty kicks in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final. Shattered by disappointment during a postgame interview, Wambach nevertheless spoke eloquently of players whose nation had been ravaged by a nuclear catastrophe and saw in them a spirit of rebirth: “They were playing for something much greater than themselves.”
Wambach saw her own staggering accomplishments in much the same light. Scorers are more often selfish than selfless and nobody has scored more for a national team, but Wambach always played down her feats and boosted those of her colleagues. During her 14 years of national-team service, she played with the greats of a past generation -- Mia Hamm, Kris Lilly, Julie Foudy, Joy Bielefeld, Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillian -- and crossed into a second age with Christie Rampone, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, and many others.
By her own admission, the most coachable player she’s not. When she told me years ago, “I’m a strong woman,” she was referring to her mind as much as her muscles. While she never put herself ahead of the game and her teammates, and battled through fouls and injuries and rehabs that would test any athlete, she needed convincing and motivation just as much as other top players.
Former USA women’s head coach Pia Sundhage, herself a former international who had also coached in the WUSA before taking over the national team in 2007, gave some insight into Wambach’s persona during an interview four years ago. (Under Sundhage, the U.S. women won the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medals and lost that 2011 WWC final to Japan. Wambach missed the 2008 Games with a broken leg and scored four goals in the 2012 competition.)
“The first year, you don’t know the players very well, and I think that was good,” said Sundhage of 2008. “I didn’t know Abby, and I looked at it in a positive way. I come from Sweden and coached in China, and we didn’t have an Abby-type player. She came in and she was unfit. Deep down, I felt that she would be very important to this team and she is a star. Sometimes she was too much and I just let her know, and she’s been very good with that. Sometimes she’s too loud.
“She wants to coach everybody at times and she shouldn’t coach everybody. But she does a much better job with that today. It’s contagious to be around her, it’s great to be around her. One thing I have to ask myself, ‘How big can a star become before she destroys the atmosphere? Can she become too big?’ So far I think we’ve done a tremendous job -- all of us, coaching staff and the players -- with that. We respect Abby and she is a star, but she knows that she needs the team behind her as well.”
The players themselves sometimes gave Sundhage the methods by which she got them back on track. “Sometimes we videotape players [in practice], and it’s funny,” said Sundhage. They come out and say, ‘Oh, sh**, it’s that bad?’ And I don’t have to say anything.
“Abby, sometimes she doesn’t show up for practice, so to speak. I just have to make sure she understands what I see, and I’m not taking away the responsibility from her. Sometimes her Achilles hurts a little bit, and then she has to be responsible for the treatments and so forth.
“I understand she has a bad day at times, but she can’t have two bad days in a row. My job is make sure I’ve seen it, I’ve paid attention, and it’s up to her whether she wants to change that and take some pride in that.
“She loves to be a team player and she loves to play for this team. It’s fairly easy, as long as I give her a heads-up: ‘Hey, Abby, are you proud of this performance?’ She’ll say, ‘Ahh, not really.’ So the next morning she’s in there.”Wambach was in there for a long, long time, and to put it bluntly, she didn’t appeal to some observers enamored of Hamm, Foudy and Brandi Chastain as darlings of American soccer femininity. A soccer executive who didn't share this narrow view referred to comments about "a man among girls." That was early in her national team career, which isn't long ago at all.
She’s not the first lesbian to represent the USA but the combination of her butch haircut and bruising style brought the issue front and center. In the past few years, several U.S. players have come out publicly; Wambach, who routinely posed for photos wearing a suit with teammates decked out in dresses, never had to.
Defining eras in the world’s game, or any other major sport, is sometimes clearcut and sometimes not. A rule change can trigger a dramatic change, such as when the number of defenders required to determine offside was changed from three to two in 1925. In professional boxing, the mandating of gloves in 1889 ended the bare-knuckles era, and baseball changed significantly in 1909 when introduction of a cork-centered ball ended the dead-ball era. (Of course, that’s when pitchers also starting using emery and pine tar and saliva to doctor up the ball, and thus began the Spitball Era.)
A player’s career could be used as the timeline of an era, but since most top players are members of great teams, the lines get blurred, and for teams, players come and go constantly. Johan Cruyff’s brilliance led the Netherlands to its first World Cup final appearance in 1974, yet the Dutch reached the 1978 final without him. Did the Pele Era end when he retired from playing for Brazil (1971), or the Cosmos (1977), or does it continue until the majority of people agree on which player has surpassed him? Teams like Liverpool, Barcelona and AC Milan have been through several amazing eras, and so the glory years are often linked to a coach or player(s). The Messi Era rolls on, thank goodness.
The Abby Era is over only in the sense of her international career. Presumably, she’s to keep on playing at some level, and also go into coaching or broadcasting or motivational speaking or business, or all of the above, for she goes into everything she does with a brazen confidence that is infectious. There’s power in her words as well as her deeds.
Ask a stock question and she’ll reel off a stock answer, yet probe into how a team evolves and she’ll reply, “That’s the lineage of life, isn’t it? The more veteran you are, the more you try to help the younger players who’ve never been in your position or seen the things we’ve seen.”
On the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, ESPN The Magazine asked dozens of athletes for their memories and observations. Wambach, as she did so often for the USA, rose to the occasion:
“The longer I've played, the more I've come to understand the power of sports and their ability to grab our hearts. Representing our country, especially after 9/11, is an honor and helps me appreciate what otherwise might have felt like just a sport. The truth is, every time we step on the field, it isn't just a game. We represent an entire nation, a culture and a way of life.”