CHENGDU, China -- Mia Hamm wasn't the first great women's soccer player, but no individual did more to broker a deal between a sport and a mass audience than she did as the face of the team that captivated a country and filled stadiums en route to winning the 1999 World Cup.
Eight years and half a world removed from that summer of adoration, American soccer has a new face as it prepares to once again play on the game's biggest stage. And whether or not people back home are paying attention, Abby Wambach is ready. The world's best goal scorer has the talent and personality to be that rarest of commodities: a substantive superstar.
All that's missing is the attention.
Still a frequent star of television and print commercials for everything from sports drinks to sneakers three years after her retirement, Hamm almost certainly has more name recognition with casual sports fans back home than anyone on the current roste, including Wambach, who leads the team with 11 goals in 12 appearances this year.
It's fitting that as part of one advertising campaign portraying an idyllic suburban community populated by sports stars, Hamm plays the role of soccer mom, sending Wambach and Kristine Lilly, despite the latter being Hamm's elder by a year in real life, off to school. Hamm remains the safest brand name in women's team sports, just as Michael Jordan did in the years after his final retirement.
Opinionated, imposing and unabashed, Wambach is less safe. But in a sports world too often split between safe and disgraced, she resides in the middle. She is real.
Often sporting Sunday-morning style in sweatpants and flip-flops as she casually saunters through a hotel lobby for interviews, the 27-year-old Wambach will flop down in a chair and launch into variations on the same answers she has given dozens of times before. Every city, from Richmond to Chengdu, brings the same batch of questions, wondering how this team compares to the 1999 team, whether they can generate the same kind of interest in America and how comfortable she is filling Mia Hamm's shoes.
She doesn't seem to mind the routine, accepting that along with captain Kristine Lilly, she's the public voice of the national program.
In many ways, she and Lilly essentially become team press secretaries minus the podiums, disseminating talking points and spinning positive answers to questions that usually end up being as much about that team eight years ago as the current one.
Wambach is good at it, but it's tough to imagine anyone less naturally suited to spin. A budding social activist more likely to actually make a trip to Africa to work with "Right To Play", a nonprofit group teaching conflict resolution through sport, than pontificate from afar, she is unafraid to share her opinions when it comes to how sports can play a role in the world that extends far beyond the field.
"I want to travel to different countries and expand what the United States has already started," Wambach said of her future plans. "What we as women fight for every single day here, for equality and for opportunity, and to continue that growth around the world. It's not fair -- and we still have a long way to go here -- but it's not fair that there are some counties that don't allow women to play in the Olympics. ... Or that women don't even have an opportunity to play because they have to stay home and take care of the children. Those are things that are so foreign to me, so old and far in the past but that are practiced in so many counties."
Where Hamm seemed at times uncomfortable in the spotlight once the games ended -- to this day it's hard to think of a celebrity couple that does a better job of staying out of the public eye and avoiding the pitfalls of celebrity than she and husband Nomar Garciaparra -- Wambach is as comfortable speaking her mind as she is scoring goals. Nor does she feel pressure, either from teammates or from U.S. Soccer and it sponsors, to conform to the profitable mold cast by Hamm, her former teammate on both the national team and the WUSA's Washington Freedom and someone she greatly respects.
"We are a group of individuals who play for one specific organization and for one specific goal, but we all have our own personalities and our own beliefs," Wambach said. "And I think that's a beautiful thing, because it goes to show you that even at the highest level of things, you have to have diversity, you have to have appreciation for somebody else's beliefs. And you have to respect each other, because above and beyond everything else -- violence, war, religion, politics -- you have to have the respect for another human being, so much so that they could disagree with everything you just said but you have to agree to disagree. You can debate them all you want about it and try to change their mind, but at the end of the day, you have to respect human choice."
At one time a longshot for national team success, let alone to set a pace with 77 goals in 96 games that gives her a shot a catching Hamm's world record of 158 goals, Wambach is equally willing to talk about her own evolution from an enigmatic college star at Florida, who lacked the fitness and focus that now sets her apart from her peers at the international level.
"Sports has been my life," Wambach said. "I mean, from the time we were five or 10 years old, learning how to play sports, how it shaped us as people, how to deal with conflict, how to deal with issues. Most women who are involved in sports are more likely to be successful, more likely to stand up for themselves. ... There are always the exceptions, and I don't pretend to think that sports are the way to go and every front. There are people who are terrible and can't be athletic, but they're brain surgeons and they're smart and gifted. But we feel like sport is a platform; sport has the power."
By becoming a star through her efforts on the field, Hamm showed a generation of girls that the world had changed. By following in those footsteps on the field but blazing her own trail off the field, Wambach may be able to show them how to keep changing it. If only people get a chance to hear the message over the next three weeks.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
|U.S. women's schedule
|U.S. vs. North Korea,
Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, Chengdu, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN2
U.S. vs. Sweden,
Chengdu Sports Center Stadium, Chengdu, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN
U.S. vs. Nigeria,
Shanghai Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai, China
5 a.m. ET, ESPN