Wambach finally world’s best player

The camera panned three greats of today’s women’s game as the 2012 Women’s World Player of the Year award was announced. One woman looked down in disappointment, another smiled tamely, and a third looked relieved.

She had just been named the recipient of the last piece of personal silverware still eluding her. She strode to the podium and accepted the award from long-time U.S. teammate Hope Solo and FIFA President Sepp Blatter.

And then, the iconic American national team star Abby Wambach announced that she had no speech prepared.

If you know Wambach’s long history with the award – a history littered with disappointments – this is hardly a surprise. In fact, when the award was brought up in an interview in Hartford, Conn. last October, Wambach redirected the conversation to that other thing missing in her trophy cabinet: a Women’s World Cup.

Wambach has had many great seasons – but until last year, she had never even been nominated. Marta, one of the unquestioned greats, had won it five times in a row from 2006 through 2010. Homare Sawa, who had captained Japan in its Cinderella run to the 2011 World Cup, was a deserved winner then as well. So why would Wambach expect it now?

Nevertheless, Wambach has never had as strong a claim to the award as she did this year. She led the USA to glory in London, collecting her gold medal. While Alex Morgan, who was also on the three-woman shortlist along with Marta, scored one more goal than Wambach this year – 28 to 27, neither total shabby – Wambach who was clearly the leader of the bunch. On her shoulders, the USA racked up a 28-1-3 record in 2012. As Morgan is quick to point out, it was Wambach’s selfless off-the-ball work, aerial battling and off-field mentorship that enabled Morgan’s success.

This is also the kind of recognition one gets at the end of a long career: Wambach is 32 and suffers from chronic injuries. The 23-year-old Morgan is likely to overtake her as the team leader soon, much in the same way that Wambach overtook Mia Hamm, and how Hamm overtook Michelle Akers. If ever Wambach was going to win after a decade of service to the international women’s game and an all-time second-best 152 goals in international play (Hamm, the winner of the first two women’s world player of the year awards in 2001 and 2002, has 158) this was the year.

Wambach will probably get one last crack at a Women’s World Cup title in 2015, when the tournament is played in Canada, so very close to her hometown of Rochester, N.Y.. Wambach has hinted that 2015 or the 2016 Olympics, when she’ll be 36, might be her curtain call, showing that she has no interest in playing through her late 30s. Hamm and Akers didn’t either, quitting at 32 and 34, respectively. You just don’t last that long when you’ve been the battering ram of the U.S. women’s national team.

But whether she finally wins a World Cup or not, Wambach today at last received validation for her astounding career. She’s been the most dominant player in the women’s game for several years now and on Monday, her achievements were recognized at long last.