VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Abby Wambach lifted American coach Jill Ellis after the final whistle. She ran to the stands for a hug from her wife. And then along with Christie Rampone, she became the first American to lift the Women’s World Cup championship trophy in 16 years.
It all equated to a World Cup farewell for Wambach that was confusing and surreal, joyous and ultimately satisfying for arguably the greatest American female player.
“I literally don’t know how I feel,” Wambach said. “It’s a bizarre thing that is going on right now because of the way it kind of happened.”
Wambach played what’s expected to be her final World Cup match on Sunday night when the United States beat Japan 5-2 to claim its first title since 1999. Wambach came on as a sub in the 79th minute after the partisan sold out crowd at BC Place had started to chant her name.
By then, this championship was already decided. After being the catalyst, the one scoring the goals for so many years for the United States in the biggest matches, Wambach was “sitting my rear-end on the bench,” during an electric first half where the Americans built a 4-1 lead on the strength of a hat trick from captain Carli Lloyd.
“To be quite honest, I felt like I was in a dream sitting there on the bench watching Carli Lloyd go off and I’m so proud to be on this team and proud to be a part of something that in my opinion is really special,” Wambach said.
“It wasn’t just Carli Lloyd that won us this World Cup — although tonight showed us, our semifinal showed us that she’s a huge reason why we have this World Cup title — it’s the depth of this team and the ability of making those subs in the pivotal moments of certain games. I’m just proud of us and proud of our coaching staff of making the hard decisions.”
Those hard decisions included the one Ellis made to bring Wambach off the bench for three of the final four games of the tournament. In the knockout round, the only time Wambach started was the quarterfinal victory over China.
It was a decision that meant the world’s all-time leading goal-scorer, men’s or women’s, was now a role player. But it was a decision that made the Americans better.
“It’s not easy to not start one of the most decorated goal-scorers in the world, but Jill and our coaching staff was confident and as was I, that person, in the players that were starting ahead of me,” Wambach said.
This World Cup will be remembered as an eventful one for Wambach, the former FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year. It started long before the tournament when she led the way last year as a group of players filed a legal claim in Canada, saying that the artificial turf amounted to gender discrimination because the men’s event would never be staged on fake grass.
Wambach also caused a stir following the U.S. team’s 2-0 victory over Colombia to open the knockout stage, suggesting the official of the match had targeted U.S. midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, giving them yellow cards that forced them to miss the quarterfinal match with China.
“I don’t know if they were yellows,” she said after beating Colombia. “It seemed like she (the referee) was purposefully giving those yellows to maybe players that she knew were sitting on yellows. I don’t know if that was just a psychological thing, who knows?”
Wambach — who missed a penalty kick against Colombia she inexplicably took with her left foot — apologized the next day, calling it wrong to suggest what the official was thinking. FIFA responded by issuing a warning, citing the organization’s disciplinary code that concerns unsportsmanlike conduct.
Those issues were secondary on Sunday night when she entered and was immediately handed the captain’s armband by Lloyd, before later handing it on to Rampone.
And when the final whistle echoed, it was elation.
“I would give up all my individual awards for what we just did tonight and it’s the truth. It’s the wholehearted truth,” Wambach said.