Only a few special athletes become so proficient at a scoring move that it becomes not just their calling card but something close to their property as well. Just as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar owned the skyhook, it's fair to say that Abby Wambach has taken possession of the thundering header. So it seemed only right last week in Harrison, N.J., when Wambach headed in a corner kick to break Mia Hamm's alltime international record for goals—by a man or woman—with the 159th of her career.
"I'm really happy it was a header, truth be told," said Wambach, 33, about the record breaker. "Set pieces are my favorite things, and heading the ball is something I've been proven to do pretty well." She does many other things pretty well too. The header was the third of an astonishing four goals she scored in the first half of the U.S.'s 5--0 victory over South Korea, and her total now stands at 160, which she accomplished in 207 games (68 fewer than Hamm).
It's easy to take Wambach's aerial prowess for granted. She's 5'11", but there are tall soccer players around the world who fail to own the skies in the penalty box like Wambach. Spanish speakers have a term for great headed goals—cabezazos—and Wambach's cabezazos are born of several skills: outstanding leaping ability, an instinctive sense of space, a fearless disregard for anything in her path and, not least, her teammates' aptitude for putting the ball on her forehead. Last week's record setter came on a pass from Megan Rapinoe, who also famously found Wambach's noggin for the U.S.'s last-minute, game-tying goal in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals against Brazil.
From her home near Los Angeles, Hamm congratulated her former U.S. teammate. "I'm just so proud of her," she said. "She fights for the ball, she's courageous and she never gives up."
July 1, 2013
Wambach has endured a broken leg, chronic ankle injuries and a recent concussion. She still walks on the field with a slight limp, like a Wild West gunslinger who has fallen off her horse a few too many times. But Wambach plans to play, at least, through the 2015 World Cup, in Canada, when she will be 35. "My legacy is something I do care about," Wambach says, "and something that has eluded me is that World Cup championship."
And so we will be blessed with two more years of the greatest goal scorer in soccer history. Two more years of pursuing that trophy. Two more years of cabezazos.