Last month in a friendly match against South Korea, Abby Wambach scored four first-half goals as the United States Women’s National Soccer Team cruised to a 5-0 victory in Harrison, New Jersey.
Over the course of the opening 45 minutes Wambach, who had come into the encounter just two goals shy of all-time goalscoring leader Mia Hamm, not only caught up to the women’s soccer icon, but passed her as well, setting a new mark of 160 goals by the time she was replaced by Christen Press in the 58th minute.
Given the accomplishment, Wambach can be considered a “mover” in this edition of our 10 Greatest Female Soccer Players ranking—both solidifying her legacy as a top-10 player and making a case for inclusion in the rarified air of the top five.
But it’s an altogether elite group of athletes, and omission from this list should not in any way detract from a player’s achievements. It’s just, quite simply, a very, very good group.
To that end, readers may think of one or two names they might have included in the ranking. If so, they can be added in the comments section below.
In any event, the following 10 slides should be viewed as a celebration of women’s soccer, so let’s begin with the 10th-greatest player in its history.
Renate Lingor retired from both club and international football in 2008, but over the course of an illustrious 22-year career she was the engine room for both FFC Frankfurt and the German national team.
A technical specialist with the capability to take a well-placed free-kick, the now-37-year-old won five national titles, two UEFA Cups, three World Cups and a pair of Olympic bronze medals.
Only Bettina Wiegmann, Ariane Hingst, Kerstin Stegemann and Birgit Prinz earned more than Lingor’s 147 caps for a Germany side that was one of the women’s game’s first powerhouses.
At some point during the 2013 season, Christine Sinclair will become only the second player to surpass Mia Hamm’s 158 international goals.
Sinclair, the Canadian captain and record goalscorer, led her national team to the CONCACAF Women’s Championship in 2010 and the Pan American gold medal in 2011. The following summer she won Olympic bronze, scoring a hat-trick in a losing effort against the United States in the semifinals.
The 30-year-old is also a two-time WPS champion and currently represents Portland Thorns at club level.
No American player has earned anywhere near Kristine Lilly’s 352 caps, earned in a career that began in 1987 and ended just three years ago. She was right in the thick of it as women’s soccer rose in prominence with each World Cup and Olympic tournament.
The attacker, who contested an incredible five World Cups (winning two of them) and is a three-time Olympian (winning two gold medals), was sometimes lost in the hoopla surrounding international teammate Mia Hamm, but on her own credentials she certainly deserves a place on this list.
At club level she represented Boston Beakers of the old WUSA for four seasons and is now a coach for the side, which competes in the NWSL.
Cristiane and Marta are to Brazil what Lilly and Hamm were to the United States. But like Lilly, Cristiane makes this ranking on her own accomplishments.
The 28-year-old forward has silver medals from the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, each of which Brazil lost in extra time to the United States. In 2007 she earned a runners-up medal at the World Cup following a 2-0 defeat to Germany.
Her 31 goals from 45 international appearances (the Brazilian women’s national team plays far fewer matches than its American and Canadian counterparts) mark her out as one of the game’s elite goalscorers, and at club level she has won silverware with both Santos and Potsdam.
China were one of women’s soccer’s first superpowers, taking Olympic silver in 1996 and losing the World Cup final to the United States on penalties in 1999, four years after a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the same side at the semifinal stage.
Leading the way for her national team was forward Sun Wen, who scored 106 times for China in 152 matches.
In 2002 she was named co-winner of the FIFA Female Player of the Century award alongside Michelle Akers of the United States.
No female footballer has scored more than Abby Wambach’s 160 international goals; Hamm and Lilly are the only Americans with more than Wambach’s 61 assists.
But what’s most impressive about the 33-year-old’s offensive production is how much of it has come at the very highest level, on the very biggest stages.
Twenty-two of her goals have come in either the World Cup or Olympic Games, and she has twice found the back of the net in an Olympic gold-medal match.
Homare Sawa is one of women’s soccer’s greatest-ever playmaking midfielders.
A prodigy in the centre of the park, Sawa made her senior club debut at the age of 12 and earned her first international cap for Japan just three years later.
In 2011 she won both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot as Japan beat the United States on penalties to win the World Cup, and last summer in London she helped her side to an Olympic silver medal.
The highest-scoring non-North American in women’s soccer history, Birgit Prinz tallied 128 times in 214 matches—just two fewer than Lilly in 138 fewer games.
A three-time FIFA World Player of the Year, she led Germany to back-to-back World Cup titles in 2003 and 2007 and won Olympic bronze in each of 2000, 2004 and 2008.
Her CV also includes eight Bundesliga titles and three UEFA Cups at club level.
Marta might be the most talented women’s soccer player in history, but despite being named FIFA World Player of the Year for five years straight beginning in 2006, she has yet to win a major international title with Brazil.
In 2007 she and her teammates finished runners-up to Germany in China, and in both 2004 and 2008 they lost Olympic gold medal matches to the United States in extra time.
Still, Marta is the sort of player who can dominate a match both in the middle of the park and up front, and in 72 appearances for her country she has tallied 80 times.
Women’s soccer’s first superstar, Hamm first put on the United States jersey when she was 15, and as a 19-year-old helped her country win the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The sport’s all-time leading goalscorer until less than a month ago, she remains well atop the assists chart and found the back of the net 13 times in Olympic and World Cup matches.
But despite her World Cups, Olympic gold medals and NCAA championships, Hamm, perhaps more than anything else, is looked upon as a pioneering figure not only in women’s soccer, but in women’s sport in the United States.
During her playing career she quite simply transcended the sport she dominated.