You want to listen to Abby Wambach, not just because she’s an audacious bomb of vitality, not just because she’s a member of the United States Women’s National Team and not just because she’s more likely to punctuate a sentence with a diving header than a period.
No, you want to listen to Abby Wambach because she’s the best soccer forward in the world. I’m not just talking about women’s football, as those on the continent would say; Wambach has scored more international goals than anyone, man or woman. So when she talks about the sport – and her plans to ensure its future here in the U.S. – you pay attention.
It all started 12 years ago, when Wambach stepped onto the pitch for her first game as a professional soccer player and felt something entirely new. In college, she’d already been a star, bringing the Gators their first NCAA championship as a freshman and graduating as the University of Florida’s all-time leading scorer in 2001. But this experience was different, a heady rush of financial independence, recognition and that great love of her life, soccer.
“Just walking out to the fans, as a 21-year-old kid, just out of college, everything was ahead of me!” she remembers. “Little did I know that I’d have the career that I’ve had. But even just being a professional, making thirty thousand dollars a year, that was something as a woman, as a female professional athlete, that I could kind of stand a little bit taller for.”
Since then, two women’s pro leagues have collapsed in the U.S., but Wambach has continued to rise, winning a pair of Olympic gold medals, being named FIFA World Player of the Year and eternally cementing her badass status when she had a gushing head wound stapled on-field in order to return to play after a literal head-on collision at a 2010 World Cup qualifier. During a match, Wambach is equal parts hammer and scalpel, pushing forward with blunt advances toward the goal and often finishing with deft, downright surgical diving headers.
To mount the kind of scoring that’s her specialty, you either have to be incredibly stupid or completely fearless, and she isn’t stupid. For a lot of spectators, seeing Wambach skull-punt that soccer ball past the keeper is a come-to-Jesus moment. Sentient beings don’t watch her throw dome that aggressively without realizing that the best female soccer players rival their male counterparts in technique, speed and toughness.
But while Wambach is a breathtaking talent, there’s a gendered exceptionalism that often comes with praise of her play, which she knows is problematic: Namely that she plays “like a man.”
“If somebody were to tell me that I play like a girl, that would be an offensive thing,” Wambach says. “Now, when you flip that on its head and say, ‘Oh that girl, she plays like a dude,’ I still find it offensive. I understand the sentiment – it’s supposed to be meant as a compliment. But I also think, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m a female. I play like me. I play like Abby Wambach, and I always have and I always will.’
“The reality is,” she continues, “I know women’s sports will have made it when we start talking about ‘playing like a girl’ and it’s a compliment.”
For more than a decade, Wambach’s influence on the game has been more than a matter of playing like a girl, though. When a microphone is shoved in her grill, she’s not exactly the type of athlete who lets forth with stock quotes about playing her best. Instead, Wambach shoots off about the inherent sexism in FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and the long-term structural reverberations of the upcoming World Cup. Her plan? To win the tournament and parlay that victory into a more expansive women’s league with more corporate sponsorship and a larger audience.
I meet Wambach in Jersey City, just ten days before the USWNT’s first match of the Women’s World Cup against Australia (Monday, June 8, at 7:30pm ET on FOX Sports 1) and one day after the indictment of 14 FIFA executives and officials on 47 counts of fraud and corruption-related crimes. As a result of those charges, FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced his resignation, a move that can only be seen as a boon for gender equity in the sport. Blatter’s grand plan for developing women’s soccer, after all, was to recommend that all them pretty lady players wear tighter shorts, to heckle female board members – “Say something, ladies. You are always speaking at home, now you can speak here!” – and to permit a federation culture so flagrantly misogynistic that in 2014, the governing body’s weekly published an article arguing, “Football is a simple game that only becomes complicated once you attempt to explain the active and passive offside rules to your wife.” It’s all pretty incredible when you consider that Blatter is a former PR guy.
“I think that he just personally believes that men should be in power and that women should probably be at home, making babies,” Wambach says.
She would love to see FIFA headed by someone like Sunil Gulati, current president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. Gulati has offered unprecedented support to women’s soccer, conceptualizing a plan to maintain the viability of women’s club soccer by bankrolling the pro salaries of USWNT players with USSF money, thereby alleviating the financial burden on the nascent National Women’s Soccer League. The plan prioritizes a long view of soccer development and acknowledges mutual benefits in a successful women’s pro league. According to Wambach, Gulati is a visionary.
And FIFA needs a visionary to even approach gender parity. Last year, Wambach, along with over 80 other players, filed a lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association alleging gender discrimination in the form of artificial turf. Men’s World Cups are played on the preferred medium of natural grass, while the women will play this year’s Cup on the artificial stuff. Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with Abby and her teammates.
“We had to do a survey a couple years ago about turf and what kind of turf we’d like to play on, not giving us an option. It was like ‘A, B, C, D, E.’ There was no option like ‘I never want to play on turf. I want to play on grass only,'” Wambach says. “So they put themselves in a position to say, ‘Oh, but you guys said you’d be OK with this kind of turf.’ Well no, we weren’t given ‘Option F’ – that we don’t want to play on turf at all.”
In January, the players dropped their lawsuit when it became clear that legal proceedings would not conclude in time for the World Cup games. Wambach still believes they would have won. But what really gets her is FIFA’s refusal to revisit the turf decision after Scotts Miracle-Gro volunteered to donate $3 million worth of natural grass to the six Canadian sites.
Last year, FIFA published a list of ten key development principles for women’s soccer. Fifth on the list was “Women’s football is at a different development stage to men’s football, and differs in other important respects on and off the field – hence it requires special focus and expertise to thrive. Therefore, expertise in women’s football is a valuable and unique skill set. Such experts should be involved in all key decisions about the women’s game.” If FIFA adhered to its principles, it minimally would have agreed to the use of natural grass in the final games of the Women’s World Cup at the players’ concessionary suggestion.
But Wambach isn’t bitter about the World Cup. This, her fourth and final, carries more heft than any prior – and not just because the U.S. hasn’t won the tournament since 1999. With eight teams added and a new requirement that each register a roster of 23 to bring the player numbers on par with those of the men’s division, Wambach sees in these amplifications the optimist’s domino effect. In essence: the increase in teams indicates that women’s soccer has been developed to the extent that there are enough quality players to run 23 deep, and their participation means more money for national teams to prepare, which means more players are able to improve globally, meaning a higher level of play is introduced and ultimately, the sport comes closer to the spotlight.
In her grand vision of the future, former players stay involved in the game, whether as coaches or managers or in governance; sustainable women’s club teams come to thrive; more marketing dollars were allocated toward women’s soccer. Eventually, better compensation extends to players, and the engaged audience grows. Wambach can’t help but smile just thinking about it.
“I want to try to look at it as, ‘Hey, what do we have and what can we continue to push for?’ Because we’re women; we like to fight. We like to fight for everything that we get because we’ve had to all of our lives,” she says. “That’s something that excites me. It challenges me. I don’t know what my future holds after playing soccer, but this is definitely something I’m going to work toward: Making women’s football even more female-friendly.”