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Soccer Star Abby Wambach To Play Final Game Tonight


It's retirement day for the top goal scorer in international soccer. Abby Wambach plays her last game in New Orleans tonight. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji has this appreciation of the star forward of the U.S. women's soccer team.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: If you've never seen Abby Wambach's awesomeness, go to YouTube and type in Wambach Brazil 2011. It's the World Cup, the U.S. is down a goal against Brazil, down a player and has seconds to tie things up or get knocked out of the competition. High pressure is an understatement.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now U.S. - they have it.

MERAJI: The U.S. takes possession of the ball. Megan Rapinoe gets the pass and races down the field. Wambach's on the other side barreling toward the goal. She waves to Rapinoe who boots the ball across almost the entire width of the field. Wambach leaps head first and rockets it into the goal to tie up the game.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Abby Wambach has saved the USA's life in this World Cup.

MERAJI: It was voted the greatest goal in FIFA Women's World Cup history. A goal many of her teammates call their favorite Wambach moment. Wambach's coach at the University of Florida, Becky Burleigh - her favorite story?

BECKY BURLEIGH: Am I allowed to cuss on NPR?

MERAJI: Yes, yes, we can beep it out.

BURLEIGH: (Laughter) OK.

MERAJI: It's the national championship game against UF's fiercest rival at the time, the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Gators are up 1-0. During a commercial break, the team huddles up before heading back on the field.

BURLEIGH: One of the players like, come one, we got this, you know? And other players are like, let's go. And Abby says, we're not [expletive] losing to these [expletive]. And I was like, OK. Well, there you go. Let's go.

MERAJI: The Gators went on to win the team's first and only national championship. It was 1998 and Wambach was a freshman. Burleigh says her outspoken and outrageous personality even at that age helped motivate her teammates. The youngest of seven, Wambach says when she was a little girl, she knew she had to be loud and tough to stand out. Her mom, Judy, put her on a boys' soccer team at 9 to challenge her.

JUDY WAMBACH: And come to find out, many of the young women that were on the U.S. national team played boys during their early years. I did something right and didn't know I did it (laughter).

MERAJI: You could say that again. Her daughter went on to win two Olympic gold medals, a World Cup title and has inspired the next generation.

TATIANA SMALL: I'm Tatiana Small (ph), I'm 13 and I want to be a professional soccer player.

MERAJI: I met up with Tatiana near Los Angeles practicing soccer after school with a private coach. She says Wambach is her idol...

TATIANA: She's my favorite player.

MERAJI: ...And points to her scoring record as one of the reasons - 184 goals in international play - more than any other woman or man, for that matter.

TATIANA: That is just amazing and FIFA needs to realize that women can do more than men and can do the same as men. So, like, we should get the same equal value as men do.

MERAJI: Gender equity is something Wambach has been using her star power and her loud, extroverted personality to fight for on a global stage. Most recently, she and others sued FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association for gender discrimination. The 2015 Women's World Cup was played on artificial turf rather than grass. Turf is much harder on the body and the men never play the World Cup on it.

ABBY WAMBACH: There is still a lot of room to grow.

MERAJI: In a press conference before her final game, Wambach said she'll keep fighting for fairness.

A. WAMBACH: We have been so imprinted on the fact that women make less money, get fewer opportunities, that people that have different skin color get less money and fewer opportunities. I want to make it not just, like, a talked about something.

MERAJI: She says she wants to make it equality - something real in her next chapter. But before that, she's going to celebrate the end of an amazing career with her parents, six siblings and closest friends after her final game tonight in New Orleans.

A. WAMBACH: Watch out Bourbon Street, it's going to be a fun night.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.