Women have been playing the sport of soccer in its modern form since the 1890s, yet it has faced a long road to grow to the point it is at today. With many men gone to fight during the First World War, women’s soccer teams in England became massively popular, drawing huge crowds. In 1921, however, England’s Football Association banned women’s teams from playing on the fields of FA member teams, forcing them to play on rugby fields until the ban was lifted in the 1971. Over the 1970s and 1980s, women began to create increasing opportunities to play professionally on a part-time or full-time basis, developing a fan base and a demand for competition. The first formal UEFA Women’s Championship was held in 1982, and in the 1990s the first Women’s World Cup (1991) and the first Olympic Women’s Soccer tournament (1996) soon followed. Team USA’s 1999 World Cup Final victory over China in a penalty shootout before 90,000 fans in the Rose Bowl cemented women’s soccer’s place within the public consciousness and the sport has continued to grow in the early 21st century.
With much of the growth in women’s soccer coming throughout the last twenty to twenty-five years, this list therefore focuses on women’s players from the modern era. With six different nations represented on the list, the diverse backgrounds of players demonstrate the extent to which the sport has grown on an international basis. Some of the women on this list are also still currently playing, and have the opportunity to further rise up this list. Irrespective of nationality or current playing status, these ten women represent the pinnacle of athletic ability in their chosen sport and deserve the celebration and recognition befitting of their talents.
10 Nadine Angerer
Angerer is the most recent FIFA Women’s Player of the Year winner, and the first goalkeeper, male or female, to win the award. As a starter, she set the record for most consecutive minutes without allowing a goal at 540, going the entire 2007 World Cup without conceding a single goal. She was also the starter for Germany’s two UEFA Women’s Championship victories in 2009 and 2013 and their bronze medal performance at the 2008 Olympics. She spent the bulk of her professional career in Germany, spread across five different teams, but also played in Sweden and Australia briefly, before going to the Portland Thorns in the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States for the 2014 season.
9 Kristine Lilly
After playing 352 games for the United States from 1987-2010, Lilly has played more international games than any other player in the history of soccer. Even before playing for UNC from 1989-1992 and winning the national championship in all four years, as well as the Hermann Award for best female collegiate player in 1991, Lilly won her first cap for the United States in 1987 while still in high school. In 2007, she became the first woman to play in five World Cups, winning it in 1991 and 1999 and finishing third in the other three tournaments. She also won gold in the 1996 and 2004 Olympics and silver in 2000. Lilly sits fourth all time in goals amongst female players with 128. She played professionally for two Swedish teams, Tyreso FF in 1994 and KIF Orebro DFF in 2005, but spent the bulk of her professional career with the Boston Breakers, from 2001-2003 and again from 2009-2011. After retiring, she became an assistant coach for the Breakers in 2012.
8 Sun Wen
One of the two recipients of the FIFA Player of the Century Award in 2002, Wen’s greatest accomplishment came in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when she led China to a second place finish and won both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot for MVP and leading scorer of the tournament. She also won a silver medal during the 1996 Olympics, and scored over 100 goals playing for China from 1990 until her retirement in 2006. Along with playing in four World Cups and two Olympics, she led China to win the AFC Women’s Asian Cup six times as a player. While she played for the Atlanta Beat from 2001-2002, she spent the rest of her professional career playing for Shanghai.
7 Abby Wambach
Wambach has scored more international goals, with 167, than any other soccer player, male or female, in the history of the sport. Opting to play for the University of Florida, who only had a women’s soccer program for three years when she started, she won a national championship over 15-time champions UNC in 1998 and was named a first team All-American from 1999-2001. Wambach has played in three World Cups, finishing third in 2003 and 2007 and second in 2011, as well as in three Olympics, winning the gold medal all three times.
Professionally, Wambach played alongside Mia Hamm on the Washington Freedom from 2002-2003, winning the league the latter year before the league folded, only to return to the team in 2009 when they became part of Women’s Professional Soccer. When the team moved to Florida in 2011 and became known as the magicJack, she served as a player-coach for the team before it folded early in 2012. She currently plays for the Western New York Flash in the National Women’s Soccer League. Wambach has won US Soccer Athlete of the year six times, most recently in 2013, was the first soccer player to win the AP Female Athlete of the Year Award and was selected as the 2012 FIFA World Player of the Year.
6 Birgit Prinz
A three-time FIFA World Player of the year from 2003-2005 and four-time runner-up for the award from 2007-2010, Prinz enjoyed a sustained run as one of the very best in the sport. Prinz played more games for Germany than any non-American female soccer player has for their international team, finishing with 214. Along with winning the UEFA European Championship five times in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003 and 2007, Prinz won the Women’s World Cup twice in 2003 and 2007, finished runner-up in 1995 and won three Olympic bronze medals in 2000, 2004 and 2008. She is also currently tied for the all-time World Cup goal-scoring lead with 14.
Spending over a decade with FFC Frankfurt from 1998-2011, where she scored 259 goals in 227 matches and won German player of the year eight consecutive years from 2001-2008. She also led the team to six Bundesliga titles, eight German Cup victories and three UEFA Women’s Cup wins. Though she retired in 2011, her legacy as one of the greatest of all time is well established and gives her a clear place on this list.
5 Homare Sawa
After captaining Japan to a 2011 Women’s World Cup victory and a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics, Sawa proved herself to be one of the greatest midfielders of all-time, a legacy cemented by her 2011 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award. She also won both the Golden Ball for MVP and Golden Boot as leading scorer in the 2011 World Cup, and is the most capped Japanese player in the nation’s history. She spent the bulk of her professional career in the Japanese Nadeshiko League, winning the league eight times with NTV Beleza (previously Yomimuri Beleza) and another two with INAC Kobe Leonessa, but also played for three different teams in the United States.
4 Michelle Akers
The winner of the Golden Boot for most goals in the initial 1991 Women’s World Cup, Akers won the World Cup both that year and in 1999 with the United States national team. Akers played her first game for the US and started her collegiate career with Central Florida in 1985 where she won the Hermann Trophy as the best female collegiate athlete in 1988. During her 1991 World Cup and Golden Boot-winning year, Akers scored a mind-boggling 39 goals in 26 international games that year, placing her at an average of a goal and a half per game, which is even more impressive as a midfielder, rather than a forward. She also won the gold medal with the US team in Atlanta in the 1996 Olympics. She has received the FIFA Medal of Merit, the organization’s highest possible honor, in 1998, co-won the FIFA Female Player of the Century Award in 2002 and was one of just two women to be named to the FIFA 100 list in 2004. The bulk of her career was spent playing internationally, as she only played professionally for three years, with Tyreso FF in Sweden in 1990, 1992 and 1994. She retired in 2005.
3 Christine Sinclair
Though still only 30 years old, Sinclair sits third all-time with 148 international goals, and may have the opportunity to catch both Hamm and Wambach before retiring to finish with more goals than any other female soccer player in history. Appearing over 200 times for Canada, Sinclair has won Canada Soccer Player of the Year eleven times and the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canadian Athlete of the Year in 2012. She was the leading scorer and MVP of the 2002 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship, scored the winning goal to help Canada win the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup and led the 2012 Olympics with six goals, including a legendary hat-trick in a 4-3 extra-time semi-finals loss to the United States. Despite that loss, her efforts helped Canada to win bronze, their first Olympic medal in women’s soccer.
Sinclair dominated in her time at the University of Portland, winning the Hermann Trophy for best collegiate women’s soccer player in back-to-back years in 2004 and 2005, set a new Division 1 single-season scoring record with 39 in 2005, winning the national championship in 2002 and 2005. She even won the Honda-Broderick Cup in 2005 as the best NCAA female athlete, becoming only the third female soccer player to do so. Sinclair has won championships with FC Gold Pride and the Western New York Flash of Women’s Professional Soccer, as well as with Portland Thorns FC of the newly formed National Women’s Soccer League.
Marta has won the FIFA World Player of the Year award more times than any other female soccer player, receiving the honor five consecutive times from 2006-2010. Helping Brazil finish runner-up in the 2007 Women’s World Cup, she also won both the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament and the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer. She is currently tied for first with 14 career Women’s World Cup goals.
She has scored at close to a goal per game pace in her international career with Brazil, and scored over a goal per game (111 goals in 103 appearances) during her time with professional club Umea IK in Sweden from 2004-2008. Along with Umea, Marta has played professionally for several teams in Brazil and the United States, and is once again playing in Sweden, starring for Tyreso FF since 2012. Playing for the Los Angeles Sol, FC Gold Pride and Western New York Flash in consecutive years from 2009-2011, Marta won the league’s scoring title in all three seasons and led each team to the regular season championship, as well as winning the league championship with the Pride in 2011.
1 Mia Hamm
Though she has been retired since 2004, Hamm remains the face of the sport to many casual fans. Hamm sits third all-time with 275 international caps for the United States and second all-time with 158 international goals. She won the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002, the first two years of its existence, and finished second in both 2003 and 2004 in voting before her retirement. In 2004, she was also one of just two female players to be named to the FIFA 100, commemorating the 125 greatest living soccer players to celebrate FIFA’s 100th anniversary. Hamm won the Women’s World Cup twice, in 1991 and 1999 and the Olympic gold medal twice in 1996 and 2004, as well as a silver medal in 2000. She had also won the NCAA National Championship four times in five years from 1989-1993.
As there was not a professional women’s soccer league in the US until 2001, Hamm only played three seasons with the Washington Freedom from 2001-2003. The Women’s United Soccer Association disbanded in 2003, but Hamm scored the league’s first ever goal and led Washington to win the league championship in 2003. One of the most successful and decorated soccer players of all time and both an ambassador and an icon for the women’s game, Hamm is an obvious inclusion for any discussion for the greatest female soccer players of all time and deserving of the number one spot on this list.