U.S. Veterans Wambach, Rampone Go Out As Champions

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Amid the bedlam going on at BC Place, Christie Rampone was the last U.S. player to ascend the podium.

The U.S. women had just routed Japan 5-2 to claim its third Women's World Cup crown. Rampone's position as team captain meant she would be the first to hoist the trophy. As the last remaining link to the United States' Women's World Cup-winning team of 1999, it seemed fitting. Her teammates were even egging her on to be the one.

Rampone was having none of it. Earlier, Abby Wambach, in a moment of generosity, had taken the captain's armband she had worn for the last few minutes of the match, and handed it to Rampone for her to keep. Rampone felt it was time for some reciprocity.

"[Wambach] handed the armband to me, but I was like, 'I want you to hoist this trophy with me,'" said Rampone, the first 40-year-old to play in a Women's World Cup game. "We've been through a lot together."

So like much of what has transpired over the last month -- the highs, the lows, the elation -- this was a moment that had to be shared. Rampone and Wambach grabbed the trophy together and raised it as one, with teammates and fans roaring their approval.

"It was unbelievable," Rampone said. "We're opposites in a way where I'm the quiet, lead-by-example, behind-the-scenes [type]. She's outspoken. It was unbelievable that we could do it together."

And so with Rampone's help, Wambach finally had her World Cup moment, and the shadow of 1999 that has hung over the U.S. women's national team for the past 16 years is gone. The trophy was in hand, the winner's medal was around her neck. But without question it came about in a manner that was unexpected. You don't become the all-time goal scorer of the women's game without a few visualizations of lashing home the game winner in a World Cup final. Instead, Carli Lloyd played the role of the hero, notching a scintillating hat track to power the U.S. women to victory. Perhaps that's why the usually loquacious Wambach had difficulty describing precisely how she was feeling.

"I'm actually at a loss for words with how this whole thing went down," the 35-year-old said. "I felt like I was in a dream sitting there on the bench watching Carli Lloyd go off. I'm just so proud to be on this team, and proud to be a part of something that in my opinion is really special."

It isn't the first time that Wambach has offered up such platitudes during the tournament, even as her role diminished with each passing game. But Wambach's pedigree and personality are such powerful forces that there was skepticism as to how much of it was sincere and how much of it was public relations. It's also easy to dismiss some unquantifiable trait like leadership. The players on the field did the job. What happened behind the scenes often goes unnoticed.

But the gestures Wambach has given to teammates, both verbal and symbolic, have clearly resonated. Morgan Brian spoke of the encouragement Wambach had given in her difficult moments, and the impact it had on the younger midfielder's confidence.

Wambach's presence is clearly valued by Lloyd, who started the game as captain and then insisted that Wambach take the captain's armband when she entered the game in the 79th minute.

"I just thought it was the right thing to do, and something she deserves," Lloyd said of giving Wambach the armband. "She is the captain of this team, along with Christie Rampone, and I didn't feel good about myself not giving it up to her. I'm thinking this is her last World Cup, and for me to put the armband back on her arm was something she deserves.

"She's been a legend to this sport, such an inspirational leader on and off the field. I'm proud to call her my teammate and my friend, and so glad that she got a World Cup win."

In the post-match mixed zone, Wambach again deflected the credit and said her role was secondary to the team's achievement.

"In all seriousness, I don't care who has the captain's armband, I don't care who lifts the trophy, as long as we won," Wambach said. "I meant it all along. I'll give up all my individual awards for what we just did tonight, and it's the truth, the whole-hearted truth. I was sitting on the bench, watching my team win a World Cup. I'd choose that over World Player of the Year, scoring more goals than anybody in the world. I'd choose winning a World Cup as a team. Any. Day. Of. The. Week."

As is her habit, Rampone's words were measured. When asked to compare what she was feeling now, it seemed like she remembered the moments of heartbreak just as much as her two World Cup titles. But soon she was pulled back into the present.

"So many years," she said. "To finish it off like this with a statement, with the score being 5-2 and just an incredible performance. ... It's pretty amazing to end off a night like this."

And now, the current generation of players can look back on the 1999 Women's World Cup champion team with fondness instead of tension for what they hadn't done.

"They were the pioneers," Lloyd, 32, said about the 1999 side. "Now it's up to us to keep the tradition going, and in four years' time we want to be world champions again."

Wambach and Rampone, and even the likes of Heather O'Reilly and Shannon Boxx, will likely not get that chance. But at least now, when the time comes for them to leave the game, they can do so with a contentment and satisfaction that comes with a World Cup title.