Whatever It Takes, Abby Wambach Is Ready And Willing
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- If it means ending a wait that is now a less than a week shy of 16 years, older than many of the fans expected to fill BC Place in a sea of red, white and blue on Sunday, Abby Wambach will bide her time on the bench.
If asked, she will watch the beginning of Sunday's Women's World Cup final against Japan from that vantage point. She will, if asked, watch the game conclude from there. She probably won't be asked to do both, having started three times and had a part in all six games the United States previously played in this tournament, but anything is possible on the day she will step on a World Cup field for the final time in her career as the U.S. tries to win the final game of the tournament for the first time since 1999.
So often the finisher, the most prolific one of all time, she waits willingly to see the conclusion of an era she will inevitably define.
Which isn't to say she will wait patiently.
"All I care about is winning this World Cup," Wambach said of her role in advance of the final. "And, of course, it being my last World Cup chance, we're one game away. It excites me. And it's really nerve-racking. It's brutal. I'm not going to say this because it's brutal to sit on the bench because I'm not playing; it's brutal to sit on the bench because I really feel like it's taking years off my life. I now understand what my parents have been going through. I get what our friends and family talk about, how stressful it is, because you don't have control of the outcome of what's going on unless you're on the pitch."
On this stage, even she has struggled to control that outcome when on the pitch in previous World Cups. When there is only one outcome that matches a team's expectations, both those of the public and, frankly, those of the participants, there is ample room for disappointment. Just as Wambach has done almost everything there is to do in the sport, the teams on which she has played have also done almost everything there is to do. Almost.
"I think that obviously the legends of the '99 World Cup obviously set a very high standard for this program," said Heather O'Reilly, who earned her first cap not long after Wambach did so in 2001. "It's been really cool for me as a player to have been here for many years and see the development of the game. A lot of good players have come in and out. And our mission is always the same, and that's to win these major tournaments."
O'Reilly isn't the sort to haphazardly choose her phrasing. She said major tournaments for a reason. Most of the United States players on the field Sunday have won a major title. Many of them have done so against Japan; many members of the U.S. team beat Japan to win gold in the most recent Olympics. This is not a generation that has come up empty on the big stage. Wambach is an Olympic champion twice over, not three times only because of an injury days before the 2008 tournament that was part of the Beijing Games.
But as Wambach is among the first to point out, the World Cup is different. Her pursuit of that prize is a personal narrative but also a history of the time in which she played.
Just four years after the magic of 1999, Wambach's World Cup debut came when the tournament returned to the United States at the logistical equivalent of the last minute in 2003 because of concerns about the SARS virus in China. Played in the fall, thereby forced to compete head-to-head against college and professional football, the World Cup suffered the unenthusiastic reception afforded to many sequels. While the U.S. drew nearly 90,000 fans to three group games it won by a combined 11-1 margin in 2003, almost identical to its margin of dominance in the halcyon days just four years prior, the attendance mark was less than half that for the same games four years earlier.
A semifinal loss to Germany, combined with the demise days before the tournament of a professional league born out of the optimism during an afternoon in the Rose Bowl, only underscored an uncertain future for those asked to replace the stars who preceded them.
Against a two-fold blow of football season and a time difference unfavorable to television viewers at home, the 2007 World Cup in China might have passed with little comment, good or bad, if not for the scale of the 4-0 loss to Brazil in the semifinals and the heat of the comments from Hope Solo after a game in which she watched from the bench.
If the time before the 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Cup was the prehistory of the women's game, the years between that pair of semifinal losses -- first to Germany and then Brazil -- were the dark ages. Not a single one of even the 30 largest home crowds in national team history was recorded between the 2003 and 2011 World Cups. In 14 games on domestic soil in 2005 and 2006, the national team averaged 5,070 fans (the comparable period in 2013 and 2014 drew an average of more than 12,000 fans in 24 games).
The renaissance, of course, arrived courtesy of Wambach's head in the 2011 tournament in Germany. In addition to the core fan base that remained in place and the familiar audience of soccer-playing girls and their families, a country that was generally awakening to the sport anyway and always eager for a good story went along for the ride. Megan Rapinoe's cross and Wambach's header in the dying embers of extra time against Brazil sparked a fire that burned beyond the penalty shootout loss against Japan in the final, further stoked by Olympic gold against Japan a year later after a classic semifinal against Canada on the (natural) turf of one of soccer's hallowed grounds.
On Saturday in Vancouver, Japanese captain Aya Miyama spoke of concerns about dwindling momentum for the game in her own country four years after World Cup glory and of her desire to ensure the sport became a fixture and not, as she put it, a fad for girls in that country.
As Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and others stepped away from the United States' team, professional leagues came and went and World Cups slipped away.
And always the comparison lingered for Wambach and those around her.
"The game's evolved; it's come so far," Carli Lloyd said. "It's just really different. But I don't want to win a World Cup just because people will stop talking about the '99 team. I want to win a World Cup because I've dedicated my entire life to this. And my dream is to be a world champion."
The same is true for Wambach, which is why she will do anything asked of her Sunday, even if it's nothing. It's because of everything that came before it.
"I can't be happier for this team to be in another final," Wambach said. "It's an achievement of itself. But we still have to win. We haven't won anything yet. And we know what that feels like from four years ago, and it's not a good feeling."
It is all the worse because it is a long wait until the next chance comes around. For Wambach, the wait would be forever.