How do you measure a player’s impact on the international level? Of course, there is quality of performance. But what about longevity and players who seemingly defied time? What about those whose versatility enabled them to perform different key functions at different tournaments? How about the players who showed up with defining moments, changing the course of women’s soccer history in the process? Or those whose impact was so unique, they altered perceptions of what was thought possible?
These are the questions we at The Equalizer have asked ourselves in preparation for this series, which ranks the top 50 legendary players in World Cup history. We hope this series will offer unique insight into World Cup history and the players who shaped it.
There have been eight World Cups over the last 32 years. Great eras have come and gone. Some national teams could easily populate a legends series of their own. So narrowing this down to a top 50 was extremely difficult. An honorable mentions list of those that didn’t make it would probably be its own article. And ranking the players who did make the cut wasn’t much easier.
Part 1 of this series, featuring the players ranked Nos. 50-41, is free to read. To enjoy the rest of the series, subscribe to The Equalizer now!
No. 50 – Alex Morgan, United States
At 21 years old, Morgan was the youngest member of the United States squad in the 2011 World Cup. Breaking into the team the year before, she earned the nickname “Baby Horse” from teammates because of her lively running style. She went on to provide a crucial injection of pace off the bench, attacking tired defenses and turning several games in the USA’s favor. In the semifinal win over France, she ran behind and beautifully chipped the goalkeeper. Then, in the final against Japan, she raced onto a ball over the top and finished decisively to make it 1-0, then set up Abby Wambach for the second goal.
Incredibly, that wasn’t enough to seal victory, but Morgan had made her mark. And, over the years, she would develop her game, going from a speedy super-sub to a two-way striker who could also link up. She was a regular in the 2015 and 2019 World Cup-winning teams and was a co-top scorer at the latter tournament with six goals. Now set to play in her fourth World Cup, Morgan is arguably in the best form of her career at 33 years old, which is in itself a testament to her dedication.
In a nutshell: The ultimate pro.
49 – Christine Sinclair, Canada
Sinclair has been Canada’s leading light for so long, it’s easy to forget that her best World Cup was also her first. In 2003, at the age of 20, she scored three goals and helped her national team make the semifinals for the first and only time in its history. At the time, Canada’s coach was Even Pellerud, who built the team on the same principles as his 1995 World Cup-winning Norway team — direct attacking and intense pressing. Sinclair’s height, strength and non-stop running made her invaluable in that style of play.
Pellerud was highly tactical in the 2003 tournament, shifting between 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 4-3-1-2 formations. Sometimes Sinclair played up front through the center, sometimes she played off the left, and she was even trusted to perform important marking jobs as an attacking midfielder, particularly in the quarterfinal, where she helped disrupt China’s preferred short passing game. Twenty years on from that tournament, Sinclair has played at five World Cups, has scored in every single one (for a total of 10 goals) and is about to head to her sixth tournament.
In a nutshell: Shouldering Canada’s hopes and dreams.
48 – Renate Lingor, Germany
Part of the German squad in the late 1990s, Lingor broke into the lineup in the 2000s, playing a starring role in two consecutive World Cup wins. In 2003, she took on a more conservative position, allowing veterans Bettina Wiegmann and Maren Meinert greater freedom to get forward and create. By 2007, though, she was venturing further forward in a midfield partnership with the younger, more physical Simone Laudehr.
Lingor was a playmaker with wonderful control, a precise shot and penetrative passing. Her ball-striking was particularly valuable on set plays. She recorded two assists in 2003 — one an in-swinging corner for Kerstin Garefekes to head home in the semifinal win over the United States, the other a flighted free kick for Nia Kunzer to score the golden goal in an extra-time victory over Sweden in the final. Four years later, Lingor nabbed three assists, and her corner kick delivery set up the second goal in the final win over Brazil.
In a nutshell: She made things happen.
47 – Heidi Store, Norway
Store was an immense physical presence in the great Norwegian side of the 1990s. A tall and intelligent defender, she also captained the team as it reached the 1991 World Cup final and won the tournament in 1995. She played as a sweeper in 1991 and narrowly missed the target in the final loss to the United States with a typically forceful header from a corner just five minutes from the final whistle.
By 1995, Norway’s tactics had changed, moving to a zonal, flat back four. Instead of sweeping behind two marking center backs, Store now protected them in front. She covered the width of the field, breaking up play with her tackling and positional sense. While she missed that year’s final because of suspension, her presence was integral to Norway’s run. “[Heidi] was a natural leader,” Hege Riise said in Sam Kucey’s biography of Even Pellerud. “I felt safe with her. I could be creative … because I knew Heidi was there if I missed.”
In a nutshell: Great teams need great leaders.
46 – Malin Mostrom, Sweden
Before Kosovare Asllani, there was Malin Mostrom. A cultured attacking midfielder, Mostrom played at the tip of a midfield diamond during a golden generation for the Swedish national team. With a creative license granted by the astute defensive coverage of Fridolina Ostberg behind her, she schemed underneath the deadly duet of Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson, connecting attacks, making clever support runs and scoring goals.
Sweden was the runner-up at the 2003 World Cup, losing to Germany in the final. It wouldn’t have made it that far if not for Mostrom. Trailing 1-0 in a semifinal against Canada, she channeled all the frustrations of attempting to break down an obstinate Canadian defense, powering home the equalizing goal in the 79th minute after a quickly taken free kick. Hard-working, technically strong and intelligent, Mostrom exemplified that great Swedish side, and her performances were rewarded with a place in the 2003 World Cup All-Star Squad.
In a nutshell: Brilliance, under the radar.
45 – Saki Kumagai, Japan
Kumagai’s biggest World Cup moment came from the penalty spot. In the 2011 final, Japan had tied the United States 2-2. A back-and-forth contest had gone through extra time into a shoot-out. The U.S. missed their first three kicks, leaving Kumagai with an opportunity to seal victory. Hope Solo, one of the game’s greatest-ever goalkeepers, was playing for time. Kumagai avoided eye contact and looked up to the sky, then strolled up and dispatched one of the coolest penalty kicks you’ll likely ever see into the top left corner.
That match was played in Frankfurt, which is where Kumagai moved after the tournament. From there, she went to Lyon, then Bayern Munich, and enjoyed a stellar club career, mostly as a defensive midfielder. At international level, though, she played center back, where her composure and passing range was prized by a team whose success was built on ball possession. In the 2011, 2015 and 2019 World Cups, Kumagai played every minute in all but one game. After scoring that winning penalty in 2011, she helped Japan to the final in 2015 and captained the team in 2019.
In a nutshell: Cool, even under the most intense pressure.
44 – Kate Markgraf, United States
Markgraf had to work hard to break into the United States national team. First invited to try out in 1994, she didn’t make her debut until an April 1998 friendly win over Argentina. However, just one year later, she was an indispensable member of the U.S. defense that kept four clean sheets on its way to a World Cup win on home soil. A change of position at college level, from the right to the left side of defense, gave her a level of versatility others didn’t have, and she went on to start for the national team at three World Cups.
The U.S. was looking to develop its build-up play after failing to win the competition in 1995, and Markgraf’s quality with either foot gave her an edge. It was her raking diagonal ball (see below) that started the attack for the team’s opening goal in the quarterfinal against Germany. On top of her passing skill, she was fast, secure one-on-one and a dedicated marker. “My biggest thrill is taking the ball away from somebody else,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1999. “Or slide tackling … It’s just more my mentality.”
In a nutshell: Tough to beat.
43 – Tiffeny Milbrett, United States
When Michelle Akers got injured early in the United States’ 1995 World Cup opener against China, Milbrett was called upon to replace her. At 22 years old, she was one of the least experienced players in the squad, but she didn’t appear fazed, opening her account within 16 minutes of entering the game. When a Kristine Lilly free kick hit the crossbar, Milbrett pounced on the rebound to score. After she went on to be the team’s co-top scorer with three goals, there was no uncertainty over who would take the striker role in future.
By 1999, Akers had moved into defensive midfield and Milbrett was the first-choice No. 9. She was again the top scorer for the U.S. with three goals, helping the team to World Cup victory. She was a swift, cunning mover and an opportunistic finisher, not to mention an incisive dribbler. “Her technical speed is probably still the best that I’ve ever seen,” U.S. star Mia Hamm said prior to Milbrett’s National Soccer Hall of Fame induction in 2018. “She was just as fast, if not faster, with the ball at her feet. She was unpredictable.”
In a nutshell: The complete package.
42 – Silke Rottenberg, Germany
Widely regarded as one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world in the late 1990s and 2000s, Rottenberg was the German No. 1 when the team won its first World Cup in 2003. She made some big saves along the way, particularly in the semifinal win over the United States. Her agility and decisiveness coming off her line changed that game. With the score at 1-0, she raced out to thwart Hamm, diving at the American superstar’s feet and winning the ball cleanly.
Rottenberg played outfield for much of her youth, only moving between the posts at age 16. As well as her speed covering behind the defense, she wasn’t afraid to get involved in her team’s build-up and distributed well, with accurate throws and goal kicks. In many respects, she was ahead of her time, and her performances at the 2003 World Cup earned her a spot in that tournament’s All-Star Squad. She also won the Golden Glove award for most clean sheets kept, and she was the main reason Nadine Angerer only became Germany’s first-choice keeper at age 29.
In a nutshell: Match-winner.
41 – Tania, Brazil
After making her first appearance at a World Cup in 1995, Tania developed into an instrumental figure in Brazil’s rise in the 2000s. Between the 1999 tournament and the team’s run to the final in 2007, she started 15 consecutive World Cup games. In the process, she went from skilful fullback to rock-solid central defender. Committed and courageous, she was a master of well-timed tackles and quick enough to keep up with the likes of Hamm in a foot race. And, having started out in futsal, she had the control and composure to play out under pressure.
As the rest of the world shifted away from close marking to zonal defense, Brazil went in the exact opposite direction. Tania became the most experienced member of a formidable back three, acting as a stopper alongside the powerful Aline, both of them getting tight to forwards while Renata Costa swept up behind. Alongside her defensive partners, Tania was pivotal as a more organized Brazil team conceded just twice en route to the 2007 final.
In a nutshell: Strength and sophistication.
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