Athletically inclined women have long enjoyed the soccer field as a place to engage in 90 minutes of kicking, passing, heading, blocking, and more. But the path to the pomp and pageantry of the Women's World Cup hasn't been an easy one. Here are the 10 leading women who hoisted the sport on their shoulders and set an example for generations to follow.
Nadine Angerer (Germany)
A backup for the national team that won a slew of titles in the early 2000s, goalkeeper Nadine Angerer proved her starting worth by shutting out the opposition over a record 540 minutes during Germany's World Cup-winning run in 2007. Six years later, she nearly matched that feat by allowing just one goal at the 2013 European championships, saving two penalty kicks in the final to seal Germany's win over Norway. The first goalkeeper to win the FIFA Player of the Year Award, Angerer remained an elite player to the very end, earning a place on the World Cup all-star team following her final tournament appearance in 2015.
Kristine Lilly (U.S.)
Kristine Lilly occasionally gets overlooked on the list of all-time great American players, but there's no denying her place as the sport's Iron Lady: Over a career that stretched from 1987 to 2010, she racked up a staggering 352 caps (awarded for appearances on a national team in an international match), dwarfing the total of almost everyone else. While often ceding the attack to strikers like Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm, the midfielder was involved in the offense enough record 130 goals and 105 assists in international competition, numbers which still rank among the all-time leaders. No matter what role she filled, Lilly's track record of two World Cup wins and two Olympic gold medals underscores her importance to American success during her years in the red, white and blue.
Christine Sinclair (Canada)
There's no displacing hockey as her country's national sport, but Sinclair has at least put soccer on the map in the Great White North. Over nearly two decades with the national team and various professional clubs, Sinclair has carved out a reputation as a player with a knack for positioning herself in the right place at the right time. Which isn't to say her accomplishments have all flown under the radar: Sinclair nearly toppled the mighty Americans single-handedly with her hat trick in 2012 Olympic semifinals, and she scored the game-winner in the Bronze medal match vs. Brazil in the 2016 Olympics. Canada's exit from the 2019 World Cup left Sinclair just shy of the all-time mark for international goals, but it's only a matter of time before she claims that record and the recognition to go with it.
Abby Wambach (U.S.)
An overpowering force at nearly 6 feet tall, Abby Wambach used her size, strength and aggression to become the all-time leader – male or female – with 184 career international goals. Many of those were as clutch as it gets – witness the game-winner against Brazil that gave the Americans gold in the 2004 Olympics, or the last-gasp "header heard 'round the world" that again shocked the Brazilians in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals. A second Olympic gold and designation as the 2012 FIFA Player of the Year cemented her standing in soccer history, and while she was more of a vocal than a physical presence at the 2015 World Cup, the U.S. victory that year was the icing on the cake for one of the sport's all-time great winners.
Homare Sawa (Japan)
Like Lilly, Homare Sawa was a titan of longevity for her country's team, recording a Japanese-record 205 caps over an international career that commenced with a four-goal performance in 1993. The smooth midfielder earned local fame after winning several club titles in the Nadeshiko League, but her popularity jumped to another level during the 2011 World Cup, beginning with a hat trick in the group stage and culminating with a late goal that propelled Japan to a surprise win over the U.S. in the final. The first Asian to win FIFA Player of the Year honors, Sawa was unable to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle success of 2011, though she still closed her international career in impressive fashion with runner-up finishes at the 2012 Olympics and 2015 World Cup.
Sun Wen (China)
While the American women stood tall as the powerhouse team of the 1990s, China emerged as a formidable opponent thanks to the singular talents of its country's greatest player. It was Sun Wen who nearly fueled upsets of the U.S. at the 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Cup with her seven goals during the latter tournament resulting in Golden Ball and shared Golden Shoe honors. Moving between forward and attacking midfielder positions, Sun was renowned for the quickness and creativity that set up chances for teammates and led to an impressive 106 goals scored in 152 international matches. While her career was nearly finished by the time she showcased her skills professionally in the U.S. in the early 2000s, her impact on the game was such that she was named FIFA co-player of the 20th century.
Michelle Akers (U.S.)
The Paul Bunyan of her sport, Michelle Akers arrived during the wilderness years of the mid-1980s and left a lasting mark with her superhuman feats on the pitch. She scored a record 10 goals to power the U.S. to victory in the first women's World Cup in 1991 and was the backbone for an American side that won it all at the 1996 Olympics and '99 World Cup. Akers finished with 105 goals in 153 international games, a remarkable output considering she spent the late years of her career battling chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome. She was honored as co-player of the century with Sun, but the greatest accolades may have come from the teammates and coaches who suited up with her for years. "She was a warrior," said fellow all-timer Hamm. "She was our everything."
Birgit Prinz (Germany)
A tower of power in the mold of Wambach and Akers, Birgit Prinz was the unstoppable force who carried teams at the national and club levels to unprecedented success from the 1990s onward. The hard-charging forward won the first of five European championships with Germany in 1995 and was the centerpiece of the team that claimed back-to-back World Cups in 2003 and '07. As for individual accolades, she was the first woman to win FIFA Player of the Year three times and finished runner-up on another five occasions. Tied for second all-time with 14 World Cup goals, Prinz unquestionably belongs in her country's sporting pantheon alongside men's greats like Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Müller.
Mia Hamm (U.S.)
The first global superstar of her sport, Mia Hamm was the face of the 1999 World Cup-winning squad that transformed women's soccer from niche activity to a sport with staying power in the U.S. But for all her Nike commercials and magazine spreads, it's easy to forget the dominance she once displayed on the pitch, her speed, ball control and vision producing 158 career international goals (third all-time) and 144 assists (still a record as of June 2019). Past her prime as a scorer by the time she became a household name, Hamm still impacted games enough to win the first two FIFA Player of the Year Awards, and in 2004 she joined Akers as the only women to earn entry on Pelé's list of the sport's greatest living players.
If Hamm was soccer's first female superstar, then Marta was the one who raised the bar to show that women were capable of the magnificence and flair once considered exclusive to the men's game. After rising to prominence in Sweden, where she commenced a run of five straight FIFA Player of the Year Awards, the explosive striker captured the international stage with a whopping seven goals during the 2007 World Cup. While drawing criticism for an inability to win the ultimate prize in the World Cup or Olympics, Marta proved her enduring brilliance by winning a sixth FIFA Best Player Award in 2018 and in 2019, upped her record World Cup tally to 17 goals. And if there's any doubt about her devotion to greatness, the sporting icon delivered an inspirational message for the ages after the loss that knocked Brazil from the '19 World Cup.