Men’s soccer typically receives the lion’s share of attention from football fans and the international media, but things are beginning to change. The National Women’s Soccer League has created an entertaining product with some of the world’s most popular players and is seeing popularity increases that allow for league expansion. Their success could be driven to an even higher level, with the biggest women’s tournament in the world coming to Canada this summer. This Women’s World Cup comes at the perfect time for organizations like the NWSL, which will benefit from the world’s attention being turned to women’s soccer in North America.
The 2015 Women’s World Cup has received negative attention for the use of synthetic playing surfaces, which pose an increased injury risk for players. In spite of this, the world’s best teams will be sending their best players, who will be eager to lift the trophy at the tournament’s end. The World Cup has traditionally been the biggest stage for women’s soccer and has seen some of the greatest moments in the history of the sport. It is a stage where elite players can assert themselves as some of the greatest of all time.
With the tournament around the corner, it is a good time to evaluate the greatest players in the history of women’s football. Some of these women will have a chance to add to their already enormous legacies, while others will serve as managers or commentators. These players have had a lasting influence on the game and set a precedent for future generations of young players to follow. They have all earned the right to be considered among the greatest to ever play the sport.
20. Shannon Boxx
Shannon Boxx was a soccer prodigy out of Torrance, California and earned All-American honors before attending Notre Dame. Boxx then played the most games in the program’s history and helped the Fighting Irish capture a National Championship before bouncing between several professional teams. After struggling in her early professional career, she considered retirement. But after spending time with the USA’s U-21 team, she was planning to attend the 2003 World Cup as a spectator.
Boxx then found herself called into the squad, and after a good run of form was starting in the defensive midfield role in the opening match of the World Cup. Her international career took off from that point, and she has been a regular member of the squad ever since, scoring 27 goals in her 189 caps for the USWNT. Boxx was able to find success in professional soccer and now serves as a veteran leader on the Chicago Red Stars.
19. Louisa Necib
As far as superstars of the current generation go, Louisa Necib is certainly among the best. Often referred to as the Female Zidane, the French-Algerian Necib began playing with the boys in her neighborhood. Once she found her way into the local club setup, she quickly became a target for the youth national team and was signed by Clairefontaine. After helping the club earn promotion to Division 2, she joined Montpellier, but it was only a short stay because Lyon came calling in 2007.
Since joining Lyon, Louisa Necib has blossomed into one of the best players in the world. With virtually unparalleled technical ability, Necib has an aptitude to play almost any pass. She has helped Lyon capture 7 Division 1 titles and 2 UEFA Women’s Champions League crowns, while earning a Puskas Award nomination in the process. She was also named in the 2011 World Cup’s All-Star Team after helping France to a 4th place finish.
18. Brandi Chastain
Few moments in sports history have been as iconic as Brandi Chastain’s celebration following her World Cup winning penalty in 1999. The image of Chastain clad in a black sports bra, sinking to her knees in triumph has circulated the globe and inspired a generation of women. Chastain is one of the greatest players in American history and has played a role in the rise of soccer in America. After a Freshman Player of the Year campaign with Cal, knee injuries forced her to miss two seasons. At that point, Chastain transferred to Santa Clara and helped them to two Final Four appearances in the College Cup.
After being called into the United States Women’s National Team set up in 1988, she regularly featured for them for the next 16 years. She played every minute of their 1996 World Cup Gold medal campaign despite suffering another serious knee injury during the semifinal. Chastain’s 30 lifetime goals in 192 appearances are impressive, especially considering Chastain played defender in almost half of her matches. She finished her career with two Gold medals, one Silver medal, and of course the glory of her 1999 World Cup clinching kick. Chastain will likely feature in the broadcast team for this summer’s World Cup.
17. Hanna Ljungberg
Hanna Ljungberg made her debut for the Swedish National Team at the age of 17 in 1996 and is one of the greatest players in her country’s history. Ljungberg would become the most prolific scorer in her country’s history over the next 12 years, scoring 72 goals in her 130 appearances. Ljungberg also excelled at the professional level, with record setting performances in the Damallsvenskan. She set the record for goals scored in a single season with 39, while leading Umea IK to 7 Damallsvenskan titles and two UEFA Women’s Cups. Ljungberg’s Swedish scoring record was only recently broken by Lotta Schelin.
16. Kelly Smith
Kelly Smith began her football career by getting kicked out of the Watford Boys Club, but quickly caught on with Wembley and Arsenal Ladies. Once she was identified as the top scoring prospect in England, she was fast tracked into the English National Team at the age of 17. She stunned in her debut, but could not attend the 1995 World Cup due to it conflicting with her GSCE exams. Smith would shine with England and for several American professional teams between stints with Arsenal Ladies. She has earned plaudits throughout her career and finished 3rd in Ballon D’Or voting in 2009. Smith remains the top goal scorer in England’s history with 46 goals.
Sissi left her small town of Esplanada, Brazil when she was 14 to become a professional footballer. Two years later, she began featuring with the Brazilian National Team and would rack up 30 goals over the course of her career. Sissi played professionally with several clubs including Palmerias, Sao Paolo, and Vasco de Gama and was a part of the WUSA’s short-lived run in America. Sissi was unable to participate in the inaugural World Cup in 1991, but made up for it at the 1999 World Cup. She shared the Golden Boot with seven goals in the tournament, and ultimately a third place finish. Sissi continues her career in football as a manager and coach.
14. Julie Foudy
Julie Foudy is one of the greatest and most recognizable soccer players in the history of the United States. After starring with the Stanford Cardinal and earning two nominations for the MAC Hermann Award, she would go on to play for the Sacramento Storm. Before even completing her collegiate career, Julie Foudy was a regular member of the USWNT. She would go on to serve as co-captain for nine years and captain for the final four years of her international career. Foudy won two World Cups out of the four she appeared in and two Olympic gold medals in addition to a silver medal. She served as the captain of the San Diego Spirit until the league folded. Since Foudy’s retirement in 2004, she has served as ESPN’s leading color commentator for women’s matches. She remains an active voice in favor of equality in the men’s and women’s games.
13. Lotta Schelin
Lotta Schelin began her athletic endeavors excelling in several sports before setting her attention on football full time. She made her professional debut at the age of 17 with Goteborg and quickly became one of the top players in the league. Three years after making her professional debut, she was called up to the Swedish National Team and has since represented the nation at the Olympics, World Cup, and Algarve Cup. She eventually made her way to Lyon, where she helped the club to seven Division 1 titles and two UEFA Champions League trophies. Schelin also helped Sweden to bronze finishes at the 2011 World Cup and Euro 2013, while along the way becoming the leading goal scorer in the country’s history. She will lead the Swedish National Team as they search for success in Canada this summer.
12. Tiffeny Milbrett
In high school, Tiffeny Milbrett was a prodigy, earning three Oregon 3A Player of the Year Awards to go along with being placed on Parades All-American list twice. She earned three NSCAA All-American awards in her collegiate competition with the University of Portland and finished with 103 collegiate goals, good enough for 2nd all time. In 1991, she earned her first call up to the USWNT in a career that would see her earn 204 career appearances. Twelve of Milbrett’s 100 career goals with the USWNT came during the World Cup and Olympics, which helped her earn a gold and silver medal, in addition to the World Cup title.
With three Olympic appearances and three World Cups already under her belt at the age of 29, Cristiane still has a lot of time to add to an already impressive career resume. She has excelled in professional leagues in six different countries including Russia, South Korea, the USA, Germany, Sweden, and Brazil. She is one of three women to have scored a hat trick in the World Cup and the only one to have accomplished the feat twice. She was the top scorer of the 2004 Olympics, which helped Brazil to the first of two silver medals she has won. With 74 goals to her tally, she is the second leading scorer in her country’s history, and looks to add to that number this summer.
10. Michelle Akers
The inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 was taken by storm by Michelle Akers when she earned the honors of Golden Boot and champion after scoring 10 goals during the tournament. Akers was already a veteran with the USWNT before graduating from the University of Central Florida with a Hermann Trophy. Following her triumph at the 1991 tournament, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a condition which she dealt with for the remainder of her career. She would overcome this to appear in 153 matches for her country and scored an incredible 105 goals during that time. She finished her career with a gold medal, two World Cup titles, and a 1998 Goodwill Games gold medal.
9. Nadine Angerer
In 2014, Nadine Angerer made history by becoming the first goalkeeper in football history to be recognized as the FIFA World Player of the Year. Aside from holding that unique distinction, Angerer spent nearly a decade as the second choice keeper for the German National Team behind Silke Rottenberg. She won six major titles as a backup, but when given a chance at the 2007 World Cup, she was an instant success. Angerer did not concede a goal during the entire tournament, including a valuable penalty save against Marta in the Final. Since then, Angerer’s career has taken off as she helped Germany continue their streak with five consecutive European Championship titles.
8. Kristine Lilly
Kristine Lilly has earned more career international appearances than any other player in soccer history, an honor beaten by no man or woman. Lilly was a prominent part of four consecutive National Championship teams for the University of North Carolina and earned the Hermann Trophy along the way. Lilly made her debut for the USWNT in high school and would go on to play in five World Cup tournaments for the USA, including the victorious campaigns in 1991 and 1999. She also won two gold medals and silver medal in the Olympics, while also featuring for several iterations of the Boston Breakers. Lilly scored an incredible 130 goals during her 352 appearances with the USWNT and possesses one of sport’s most coveted records.
7. Christine Sinclair
Christine Sinclair is one of the players currently competing for the honor of being called the best women’s player in the world. Sinclair has been a member of the Canadian National Team since 2000 and has been a vital part of their success in recent years. Sinclair led all freshman in scoring during her first year at the University of Portland and helped the team to two National Championships during her time there. Sinclair redshirted in 2003 to play in the World Cup and helped Canada to a 3rd place finish. Sinclair finished the 2012 Olympics as the tournament’s leading scorer and earned a bronze medal following a controversial elimination against the USA. Canada will host the tournament this summer and Sinclair remains the country’s most prominent player, with 11 Canadian Players of the Year awards to her name.
6. Sun Wen
Sun Wen shares the honor of being named FIFA’s Female Player of the Century, and is possibly the most successful Asian footballer in the sport’s history. Sun Wen’s father was a recreational footballer, who would take his daughter to matches. Wen clearly caught on because by 1989 she was playing professionally for Shanghai. At the age of 17, she would be capped by the Chinese National Team and would go on to lead them as China hosted the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. Sun Wen went on to play in four World Cup tournaments, including the 1999 World Cup, where she scored 10 goals and earned Golden Ball and Golden Boot Awards. Sun Wen also led China to four consecutive Asian Cup titles, but also managed a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics.
5. Homare Sawa
Homare Sawa helped uplift the nation of Japan in the wake of the enormous tragedy of the combined tsunami and nuclear disasters that affected her nation. Sawa and the Japanese National Team were seen as beacons of hope as they lifted the 2011 World Cup following a stunning win over the United States. Sawa has been playing with the National Team since the age of 15, where she scored four goals on her debut. She is now the country’s all-time leader with 82 goals in 196 appearances.
Sawa starred for the Atlanta Beat, Denver Diamonds, and Washington Freedom during professional stints in America, but has returned to professional play in Japan. In 2011, she was voted World Player of the Year largely for her heroic efforts at the World Cup. Last year she returned to the National team to help Japan win the Asian Cup. In spite of this, her status for the 2015 World Cup remains in doubt, with manager Norio Sasaki leaving her out of recent squads.
4. Abby Wambach
Abby Wambach has been considered among the best players since she was a youth talent in Rochester, New York. Wambach entered the University of Florida as the country’s most coveted soccer recruit. She would go on to three All-American nominations, while setting school records in virtually every offensive category. Her goal scoring prowess was quickly noticed by the USWNT, and she was called into the squad in 2001. She was drafted by the Washington Freedom of the WUSA in 2002 and would go on to score 23 goals for them before the league folded.
Wambach’s success on the international level has made her the most prolific goal scorer in American soccer history, with 178 goals in 237 appearances. She has led the USA to two Olympic gold medals, but has managed only second and third place finishes at the World Cup. She was recognized as the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year, but remains focused on becoming a World Cup champion. She has taken a sabbatical from the Western New York Flash in order to focus on training for the 2015 World Cup, and it remains to be seen if this has had a positive effect on her condition.
3. Birgit Prinz
Considered by many to be the greatest female European footballer, Birgit Prinz has an incredible resume for any player. Prinz has won eight Bundesliga titles, 10 German Cups, and three UEFA Champions League trophies. She has also won two World Cups, five consecutive European Championships, and the Algarve cup. Prinz was awarded the FIFA World Player of the Year Award three times, wresting the honor from Mia Hamm and then challenging Marta with five second place finishes. She remains tied with Marta for the World Cup scoring record and now serves as a sports psychologist for Hoffenheim.
2. Mia Hamm
Mia Hamm is the greatest American footballer of all time, regardless of gender. Hamm was a champion going back to high school and she earned a spot on the team at the University of North Carolina. Hamm was an immediate success, leading the Tar Heels to two National Championships in 1989 and 1990. She then sat out a season to focus on the 1991 World Cup, where she led the USA to victory over Norway in the final and scored two goals in the tournament. Hamm then returned to the Tar Heels and promptly won two more NCAA titles. The Tar Heels lost only once in matches where she played.
Following a 3rd place finish in the 1995 World Cup, Hamm led the USA to a gold medal when they hosted the 1996 Olympics. Her international success continued in 1999, when she scored twice during the World Cup and once again led the USA to victory in the final. She would go on to win two more Gold medals in Sydney and Athens before retiring. Along the way she was given two FIFA Player of the Year Awards in addition to two second place finishes. Her USA goal scoring record of 158 was only recently broken by Abby Wambach.
Marta Vieira da Silva is currently the greatest soccer women’s soccer player in the world and is also the greatest of all time. From 2006 to 2010, she was named FIFA World Player of the Year five consecutive times, a feat which had never previously been accomplished by any man. She has achieved success in professional leagues from Brazil to Sweden and the United States, but is still seeking her first World Cup title. In 2011, Brazil was eliminated by the United States, but Marta was able to tie Brigit Prinz’ World Cup record with her Silver Boot performance.
In spite of all the success and awards Marta has been decorated with, her story is still largely unfinished. Marta has scored 91 goals in her 91 games for Brazil and that impressive scoring record has made her the leading scorer in the country’s history. She is still playing professionally for Rosengard, but constantly remains in search of a contract worthy of the greatest female footballer in history. She has played for six different professional teams since 2009 and won league titles almost every step of the way. Her talent is enormous, but the world has yet to recognize her true worth. Maybe after the World Cup this summer, it will.