The 2023 Women’s World Cup will showcase the best of female talent that the game has to offer, with players from all over the planet vying to write their name into the history books.
But whoever rises to the top in Australia & New Zealand this summer to cement their legacy will join an existing group of global legends who have been flying the flag for women’s football.
Whether they are pioneers, trailblazers, players who have enjoyed incredible longevity, put up ridiculous numbers, thrived when it mattered most, all of the 10 players on this list have served as an inspiration to the next generation in one way or another – and all have done their part to further women’s football as a whole.
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Longevity has seen Christine Sinclair continue beyond her 40th birthday as she prepares for a sixth World Cup tournament, having scored at each of the previous five in which she has played – only Marta had ever done that before, while only Cristiano Ronaldo has managed it since.
The Canadian has been nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year on eight occasions and has helped various teams dominate at club level in the United States, winning five league championships in total.
But it is at international level where Sinclair’s record is truly impressive. Her 190 goals is a world record for either gender, surpassing the previous mark held by Abby Wambach in 2020. International silverware has also not eluded her, captaining Canada to Olympic gold in 2021.
Kristine Lilly broke the record for all-time international appearances from a male or female player in 1999 and continued playing for another 11 years. By the time she retired in 2010, the United States legend had racked up 354 appearances for her country over a period of 23 years.
It highlighted incredible dedication and longevity to remain an important player from 1987, debuting while still in high school, through five World Cup cycles and outlasting every other member of that great American generation.
A goalscoring midfielder, Lilly played 30 World Cup matches during her career, starting each and every one of them. She won the competition twice, in 1991 and 1999, as well as picking up Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2004. Her goal-line clearance in golden goal extra-time of the 1999 World Cup final also changed the course of women’s football history.
The best players turn up in the biggest moments, which is precisely what Carli Lloyd did at the 2015 World Cup to deliver the United States’ first trophy in the competition for 16 long years.
The forward was already a 10-year veteran of the team by that stage and one of the best in the world, but it was her impact in that tournament that cemented her legacy. Lloyd scored in every knockout game, including a hat-trick in the first 16 minutes of the final itself – the third strike from the halfway line also earned a Puskas Award nomination.
Picking up the baton from the iconic 99ers generation, Lloyd had earlier steered the United States to back-to-back Olympic golds in 2008 and 2012, won the World Cup in 2019, and finished her international career with more than 130 goals in more than 300 appearances. Lloyd’s success also saw her break into the mainstream, while she was the top-rated woman on FIFA 16, the first year that female players were included in the game.
Until Christine Sinclair broke her record, Abby Wambach was the all-time leading international goalscorer – 184 goals spread over a 14-year career with the United States that delivered one World Cup and two Olympic golds.
She became the face of the American team in the late 2000s and early 2010s and was on the 2015 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. Her impact on subsequent generations of Americans was also seen during a 2019 game when each player wore on their shirt the name of a woman they were inspired by and she was chosen by Alex Morgan.
In retirement, Wambach has seen two books become New York Times bestsellers – an autobiography in 2016 and Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power and Change the Game in 2019, the latter inspired by a rallying commencement address she gave at the famous all-female Barnard College in New York the previous year.
A century ago, Lily Parr was football’s first female superstar and true pioneer and trailblazer at a time when the women’s game was inexplicably banned from FA affiliated grounds in a deliberate attempt to suppress it.
Contemporary sources claimed Parr had a harder shot than any male player of the period and she was famously the star name of the Dick, Kerr Ladies team that drew a 53,000 crowd at Goodison Park in 1920, an English record for a domestic club game that stood for 103 years until 2023.
Parr scored nearly 1,000 goals during a 31-year career with Dick, Kerr, including a 43-goal season at the age of just 14. In 2002, she was an inaugural inductee into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, while she was also the first female player commemorated with a statue.
China haven’t been a dominant force in women’s football since Sun Wen hung up her boots in 2006 and that pretty much tells its own story, having been among the best in the world during the legendary forward’s peak.
Although the 1999 World Cup is famous for United States victory, Sun’s China reached the final and it was her rather than any American player who walked away with the Golden Ball as best player and Golden Boot as top scorer. She had also scored in China’s narrow defeat to the US in the 1996 Olympic gold medal match.
In 2000, Sun was named joint FIFA Female Player of the Century alongside Michelle Akers, with both also named on Pele’s iconic list of the 125 greatest living football players – the only two women included.
Michelle Akers overcame significant adversity to master two positions during her stellar career, first making her name as a prolific striker and then becoming a world class midfielder in a bid to adapt around coping with the debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome she was diagnosed with in 1993.
More than any other player, Akers is synonymous with the 1991 World Cup as the United States lifted the inaugural trophy. She scored 10 goals in total, eventually racking up over 100 for the national team, including four in the quarter-final against Chinese Taipei and both in the final against Norway.
But for injury limiting her, the Americans could well have won in 1995 as well, while Akers had reimagined herself as a deep-lying midfielder by 1999, providing the platform for others ahead of her to perform. She was tremendously resilient, often playing through pain, while a post-playing career has seen her become an advocate for the women’s game.
From 2001 until 2009, Germany won five consecutive European Championships and World Cups during an incredible period of dominance. Until 2019, they were the only country to retain the World Cup, and star striker Birgit Prinz was the X-factor in that decade of concentrated success.
Even in a German team full of world class talent, Prinz stood out and was named German Women’s Footballer of the Year eight years in a row from 2001 until 2008, during which time she also won three UEFA Women’s Cup (now the Champions League) titles with club side Frankfurt.
Prinz was a three-time FIFA World Player of the Year, winning in 2003, 2004, 2005, but was also voted in the top two in eight out of nine years between 2002 and 2010, showcasing her incredible consistency and longevity.
Ahead of the 2023 tournament, Marta is the all-time leading goalscorer in World Cup history. This summer will be the sixth World Cup of her career, netting 17 times in the previous five and inspiring Brazil to the 2007 final.
Marta was only 18 when she joined ambitious Swedish club Umea and quickly won the UEFA Women’s Cup, scoring three times in the two-legged final. She has won seven Damallsvenskan titles in total, including later spells with Tyreso and Rosengard, as well as additionally picking up club trophies in Brazil and the United States.
Individually, the Brazilian living legend has won six FIFA world player of the year awards, including five in a row from 2006 to 2010, while her emotional plea directly into a television camera telling girls in Brazil to value football and get involved in the sport is ingrained in World Cup history.
Mia Hamm was a 17-year veteran of the United States national team, during which time she won two World Cups, two Olympic gold medals and was the all-time leading international goalscorer at the time of her 2004 retirement.
Only 15 when she made her USWNT debut, the striker later starred for the iconic University of North Carolina Tar Heels and was later a founding player of the WUSA, the world’s first women’s professional football league, in 2001.
Hamm was at the height of her fame when the United States won the World Cup on home soil in 1999, having the honour of featuring on a Wheaties box after the tournament, advertising Gatorade with Michael Jordan, having her own N64 soccer game and even being referenced in an episode of Friends.
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