World Cup wonder women
The 2003 Women's World Cup, which kicks off on Sept. 20, marks the fourth tournament of its kind. The U.S. has won two out of three crowns thus far, taking home the Cup in the inaugural competition in 1991 when it was hosted by China, and then once again in 1999 on its home soil. The only other country to hoist the Cup has been Norway, which beat Germany in the final game of the 1995 Women's World Cup when it was held in Sweden.
In the three previous tourneys, we've witnessed some of the greatest individual performances ever seen in women's soccer, several by players who've taken part in all three World Cups, as well as a few select women who'll be playing in their fourth World Cup this fall.
To pick out the best 10 players from all over the world who have stood out over time in such competitions is not an easy job, but someone had to have the chutzpah to do it.
Without a doubt, the most difficult part in creating this list was to differentiate the American performances from each other.
There are enough three-time World Cup vets who played a major part in each tournament that players like April Heinrichs (four goals in five games in '91) and Briana Scurry (9-1-1 in '95 and '99 combined) were left off the list. Though it was by the closest of margins, performances by longtime stalwarts such as Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain didn't make the cut, either.
Fodder for arguments over the next few days? Of course.
So, without further adieu, here are the top 10 players from the three Women's World Cups:
1. Michelle Akers, USA: The greatest player women's soccer has ever seen played different roles for her side in two World Cups. In 1991, she was a lethal scorer who won the Golden Boot for the tournament's top scorer after tallying 10 goals in six games for the champions. After missing the '95 World Cup after injuring herself in the team's opening game against China, Akers returned in '99 as a holding midfielder. Her tenacity as a defender and ball-winner, combined with her playmaking and leadership made her, once again, the most important player on the field for the U.S., which hoisted its second Cup after beating China in penalty kicks in the final match.
2. Hege Riise, Norway: Led the Norwegians to the World Cup title in '95, winning the Golden Ball as the tournament's top player and the Silver Boot as the second-leading goal scorer. She also scored three goals in '99, and two in '91 when she was part of the squad that finished second to the U.S. in China.
3. Carin Gabarra, USA: Her six goals and five assists spurred the U.S. to the first World Cup title, and won her Golden Ball honors along the way. Her partnership with Akers and April Heinrichs -- the "Triple-edged sword" -- marked the greatest offensive arsenal ever on display in a World Cup. The striker went on to start five of six games for the U.S. in '95, as well, when the team finished third.
4. Sun Wen, China: Has scored goals in all three World Cups, including the seven strikes she accounted for in '99 when she was awarded the Golden Ball.
5. Mia Hamm, USA: Has scored a goal in all three Cups, and has been a dominate presence on the field for the U.S. in each tournament.
6. Ann Kristin Aarones, Norway: Has totaled seven goals the past two World Cups, including the lone tally in Norway's 1-0 victory over the U.S. in '95, which ultimately helped lead the squad to a World Cup title.
7. Pia Sundhage, Sweden: Sweden's greatest player and current head coach of the Boston Breakers was the key figure in her country's third-place finish in the 1991 World Cup with four goals and two assists, including the goal-scorer in the 1-0 victory over host nation China in the quarterfinals. Sundhage also scored a goal in '95, and was a main catalyst behind Sweden's quarterfinal appearance.
8. Liu Ailing, China: Played in all three World Cups for China, and scored goals in each tournament for a total of eight tallies. The recently-retired midfielder was one of the greatest midfielders of all time.
9. Doris Fitschen, Germany: The backbone of the German defense for the over a decade, she helped lead her country to a fourth-place finish in '91 and a quarterfinal appearance in '99 (a knee injury forced her to miss the '95 World Cup). In both tournaments, she was named to the all-star team.
10. TIE Carla Overbeck and Kristine Lilly, USA: Overbeck played all but 33 minutes in three World Cups as the leader of the defense, while Lilly started 17 of 18 games in the midfield and has scored a combined five goals and three assists in the last two tournaments. Both players were absolutely essential in each Cup, and were vital to the U.S. in the final against China in '99 with major defensive plays and in knocking home two of the team's five penalty kicks in overtime.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.