Abby Wambach is okay if Canadians still despise her.
It’s been nearly 10 months since her U.S. soccer team beat Canada in the semi-finals at the London Olympics and went on to win gold. In a match that captivated the country and sparked debate for days, it was the veteran Wambach who counted out seconds within earshot of the referee, and prompted the game-changing moment. The ref whistled the Canadian goalkeeper for time-wasting, a rare, nearly unprecedented call that led to an equalizing goal by the Americans and their eventual victory.
The U.S. soccer star kicks up her long legs at a suburban soccer centre just outside Buffalo, after a practice with her pro team, the Western New York Flash of the start-up National Women’s Soccer League. She is not disrespectful, but matter-of-fact and genuine. If Canadians remain angry for her role in the theatre that unfolded on the Olympic pitch at Old Trafford last August, which put women’s soccer on front pages around the world, Wambach considers that a positive outcome beyond the game itself. And if it means sports fans buy into the smouldering rivalry between the two soccer foes, she’ll wear the enemy label with pride.
The two teams meet on Sunday in a soldout friendly at Toronto’s BMO Field for the first time since that remarkable Olympic match. Canada’s Olympic bronze medalists are still emotional about being denied a place in the gold-medal match. Christine Sinclair’s effort was super-human. She gave Canada the lead three times.
But the United States won 4-3 in extra time, in a contest better known for two controversial whistles by Norwegian official Christina Pedersen.
They were moves the Canadians called shocking and one-sided in tear-filled post-match interviews.
Many on the losing side couldn’t bring themselves to watch the video until recently. This ‘friendly’ will be anything but.
“Some people called me whiny for counting out loud, some fans said they thought it was brilliant,” said Wambach, the 2012 FIFA female player of the year and two-time Olympic gold medalist. “I sat next to a Canadian on the plane and he said to me ‘you didn’t win that game, the referee gave it to you.’ I laughed, but I understand how he felt. The Twitter universe blew up with Canadian fans saying what they thought of me. But I think it’s great. That controversy got Canadians behind their team, and that’s only good for women’s sports. Sometimes there has to be a goat on some level, and I’m totally fine with that being me.”
South of the border Wambach is a bona fide star. An enormous Nike ad depicting her triumphant celebration of a big international goal hangs prominently inside the practice facility. Since her famous goal over Brazil in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final put women’s soccer back into the spotlight across the United States, Wambach has travelled the world for speaking appearances and interviews. She has countless endorsements, including significant contracts with Gatorade, Nike and Panasonic.
She doesn’t have the pony-tailed All-American look of many other female soccer stars. She scores crucial goals time and again on the big stage. When it comes to winning leaping headers through the air, she is one of the most dominant female players in history – some 40 per cent of her goals have been scored that way. Wambach is 5-foot-11, lean, broad-shouldered and formidably muscular with a short haircut. She’s the subject of a recent ESPN documentary and one of the naked athlete models in its magazine’s popular Body Issue.
The 12-year veteran of the U.S. senior national team is the most talkative player on the field at any time, conversing, urging, motioning, leading, cheering, hollering, celebrating, and controlling the tempo. Her teammates once gave her a T-shirt that read ‘I’m talking and I can’t shut up.’ She has spoken out repeatedly against FIFA’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup games on artificial turf, saying the men would refuse to play their biggest international tournament on anything but grass and the world’s female players deserve better.