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Best women’s soccer players of all time: Ranking the Top 10 footballers in the history of the game

Best women’s soccer players of all time: Ranking the Top 10 footballers in the history of the game

As the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand arrives, the global football world readies for another month of great goals, iconic moments and superstar players.

In what is expected to be the most visible Women’s World Cup of all-time, the sport is ready to take another step toward becoming a popular space in the global sports landscape.

While the current talent pool has ballooned, with great players scattered over more of the world than ever before, those currently playing have a long way to go to reach the heights of those who came before.

The Sporting News looks at the greatest players in the history of women’s soccer, with individual awards, team titles, great moments and career longevity all factors in determining who makes the list. In addition, further below, The Sporting News details those who were close to making the list, but just barely missed out.

MORE: Complete 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup schedule

Top 10 women’s soccer players of all time

The Sporting News ranks the Top 10 women’s soccer players of all time in reverse order, and the list begins with a modern-day superstar, who is already among the best ever.

10. Alexia Putellas (Spain)

As the queen of this current generation, Putellas is well on her way to a place even higher up this list when it’s all said and done, but even now at 29 years old, Putellas is unquestionably one of the greatest ever.

The Spanish midfielder has been a giant for both club and country for years. Putellas has led a star-studded Barcelona team to consistent European success, winning the Champions League crown twice and earning three more runners-up medals.

Putellas has yet to lead Spain to international glory, battling internal turmoil on a number of occasions to lead their growth on the international stage. As a nod to her status as an all-time great, the rise of Spain on the international level has perfectly coincided with her rise on the global stage — she helped Spain to its first Women’s World Cup appearance in 2015, where they crashed out in the group stage, before reaching the quarterfinals in 2019, only eliminated by a narrow 2-1 defeat to eventual champions United States. Now, ahead of the 2023 tournament, Spain are considered one of the top favorites to win the title.

Despite the lack of international silverware, Putellas has proved herself a worthy star and capable leader despite the lack of collective success. She won MVP of the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, and that would be a precursor to her two Ballon d’Or awards in 2021 and 2022 as best player in the world, the second coming despite a torn ACL that sidelined her for half the season, including for the 2022 European championship.

In a modern women’s soccer landscape where club football becomes more and more competitive, and thus meaningful, the combination of Putellas’s silverware with Barcelona and growth with Spain is more than enough to place her on this list, with plenty more sure to come.

MORE: How to watch the Women’s World Cup around the world

9. Sun Wen (China)

Across a 16-year career for the Chinese national team, Sun was the first true global icon of Asian women’s football. Her accomplishments elevated her to icon status as a member of the early days of women’s football globally.

Debuting internationally in 1990 as a 17-year-old, Sun was one of just three players to appear in all of China’s first 15 Women’s World Cup matches, reaching the final in 1999 where they would fall to hosts United States on a penalty shootout. Despite the heartbreaking defeat, Sun would be awarded the tournament’s Golden Ball for best player, as joint-top scorer with seven goals.

Toward the end of her career, Sun was nominated for the first two FIFA Women’s Player of the Year awards in 2001 and 2002, finishing second and third respectively. As a nod to her career achievements, she was nominated for FIFA’s Player of the Century award in 2002, when she finished second to Michelle Akers.

8. Carli Lloyd (USA)

A good chunk of Carli Lloyd’s career flew under the radar while playing on a team full of exceptional players, but with it all said and done, Lloyd stood tall as one of the most consistent big-game performers in the history of the most successful national team in the world. The New Jersey-born star scored 134 international goals in 316 appearances, and while those alone are enough to leave her near the all-time lists, she was always on hand to provide a critical moment when her team needed it the most.

Lloyd has been front and center in some of the most iconic triumphs in U.S. women’s soccer, including scoring the game-winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal matches as well as her sensational hat-trick in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, the last of which came from midfield and was nominated for that year’s Puskas Award. That 2015 performance secured her the Golden Ball as best player in the tournament, 

She was nominated for the FIFA Player of the Year in 2012 before winning the award in 2015 and 2016 and being nominated again in 2017. Her club career was less successful, named a finalist for the MAC Hermann Award trophy while with Rutgers and winning the the FA Women’s Cup in 2016/17 with Man City, but that doesn’t remotely take away from her giant status within the U.S. international landscape.

MORE: All the stadiums at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup

7. Homare Sawa (Japan)

Japanese legend Sawa is largely considered the greatest Asian women’s player of all-time, and she has the career accolades to back it up on both an individual and team level. While the most notable accomplishments of her career are goals, she was also a spectacular midfielder.

Making her international debut at just 15 years old in 1993, she would go on to become one of the most consistent presences at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, appearing in six FIFA tournaments across her career, second-most of all time.

Sawa was at the heart of Japan’s greatest performance on the women’s football stage, when they won the 2011 Women’s World Cup title in one of the greatest games in the history of the sport, beating the United States on penalties after Sawa’s 117th minute equalizer earned a chance in the shootout. She was the tournament’s top scorer with five goals and would win the 2011 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award as a result.

The next year, she would help Japan back up that result with a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, and after she briefly retired, she would return for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, where she again led her team to the final, falling to the U.S., who secured revenge. At the club level, Sawa won 11 Japanese league titles with her two club teams Yomiuri/Nippon TV Beleza and INAC Kobe Leonessa, cementing her place among not just Asian women’s football, but the global greats as well.

MORE: All about the 2023 Women’s World Cup opening ceremony

6. Michelle Akers (USA)

The career of U.S. legend Michelle Akers came just a hair too early in the growth of women’s football to see her enjoy the popularity and accolades that she deserved, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t earned her place among the all-time greats in the history of the sport.

Her most notable accomplishment was her insane 10-goal haul in the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, a total that earned her the Golden Boot and still stands as the highest total ever scored in a single FIFA tournament. Half that total was collected in one match, scoring five goals in the 7-0 quarterfinal victory over Chinese Taipei, a Women’s World Cup single-game mark that has been matched only once, by Alex Morgan in 2019.

That wasn’t the only first of Akers’ career, however. She is known for winning the first women’s MAC Hermann Trophy as the best collegiate player in the nation, earning the prestigious award in 1988 while at UCF. She became known for her recognizable poofy hair, and would go on to win an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and a second Women’s World Cup in 1999. Had it not been for knee injuries suffered in that last World Cup journey, she likely would have had an even longer career, but was instead forced to retire.

Named Player of the Century by FIFA in 2002, Akers’ position as one of the all-time greats was cemented.

5. Christine Sinclair (Canada)

While Sinclair’s career has largely been spent trying to lift Canada into the top echelon of women’s football, her status as the most prolific goal scorer in the history of international football is undeniable. Now at 40 years old, Sinclair will enter the 2023 Women’s World Cup looking to add one more chapter to a glittering career.

Yes, Sinclair’s 184 international goals are her most notable career highlight, but she’s so much more than just her play in front of net. Sinclair has been a versatile player throughout her career, also capable in midfield and also as a No. 10.

Sinclair’s career exploded at the start, as she scored 23 goals as a freshman at the University of Portland to lead all first-year students across the nation. She would lead Portland to two NCAA titles during her collegiate career, and it would kickstart her international exploits that would culminate with the 2021 Olympic gold medal, easily Canada’s greatest women’s soccer triumph. She was also at the heart of Canada’s fourth-place finish at the 2003 Women’s World Cup, still the nation’s best result at the competition to date. A legendary career that included titles, goals, records and longevity.

4. Abby Wambach (USA)

As the most prolific goal scorer in U.S. history and second-most in international football all-time, Wambach earned her place near the top of this list on the field. Among her 184 international strikes are some of the most famous and iconic goals in U.S. history, including a 122nd-minute equalizer against Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinals that remains one of the most famous goals in the tournament’s history.

Through the prime of her career, she was nominated for four straight FIFA Women’s Player of the Year awards, winning once in 2012. That year she topped the list, she didn’t even play for a club team, winning it solely on her international accomplishments.

Wambach’s bulldozer style made her a force in the penalty area, able to score with any method, but she was a monster in the air and an expert of off-ball movement. It benefited her — and her teams — at every stage, helping the Florida Gators to their first NCAA championship in 1998 and going on to win one Women’s World Cup title and two Olympic gold medals. On a personal level, she won the Silver Ball for second-best player at the 2011 World Cup and was the first soccer player awarded AP Athlete of the Year, alongside her World Player of the Year accomplishments. A true legend of the game in front of goal.

3. Birgit Prinz (Germany)

German striker Prinz is possibly the most gifted goal scorer the game has ever seen, and while her best career form didn’t have the longevity of Abby Wambach’s or Christine Sinclair’s, her prime was unlike any striker in the history of the game. Prinz utterly dominated everywhere she went until retirement at 34 years old.

Prinz finished her club career with an outlandish 282 goals in 282 matches, but it’s her international accomplishments with Germany for which she’s best known. She won two Women’s World Cup titles in 2003 and 2007, the first of which saw Germany defeat hosts USA, 3-0, in the semifinals in one of the nation’s greatest results. She won three consecutive FIFA Player of the Year awards from 2003-2005, and finished second to Marta in four straight years from 2007-2010.

At the club level, wherever Prinz went, titles followed. She won two Bundesliga crowns and two German Cup titles with Frankfurt in the mid-’90’s, before moving to Frankfurt in 1998, where she would go on to win seven Bundesliga titles and eight German Cup titles through a period of utter domestic dominance. Prinz would finish as the league’s top scorer four times, three of which came in a title-winning effort. If that wasn’t enough, she took a two-year hiatus from German football to play for the NC Courage in the United States, winning a WUSA title in 2002. Few players in the history of the game have a more stuffed trophy case than the German legend.

2. Mia Hamm (USA)

Hamm is the greatest player in the history of the greatest nation in women’s soccer, a do-it-all player who could score goals and create goals for teammates. Yet her abilities on the field are only part of her story, as she became a leader not only in the locker room, but also in the public eye, inspiring generations of American women to help build the sport in the United States for years to come.

Hamm is first in U.S. soccer history with 305 goal contributions — made up of 158 goals, which puts her second on the all-time U.S. goal-scoring list, and 147 assists, which is miles clear of anyone else.

Her legendary career started at just 15, debuting for the U.S. national team in 1987, and she would be an early riser on the global stage, scoring the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over Sweden in the first U.S. Women’s World Cup match in 1991, just 19 years old at the time.

Hamm would be front and center of many iconic moments throughout her career, vaulting her into the public eye as a face of not just women’s soccer, but all of women’s athletics in the country, winning everything along the way. She is one of the greatest college soccer players ever, winning four NCAA championships in five years at North Carolina and being named alongside Michael Jordan as the greatest UNC athletes of the last 50 years. At the international level, she would win two World Cup titles and two Olympic gold medals, becoming one of the most decorated players in the game.

On an individual level, her accolades matched that of her team silverware, highlighted by her two FIFA Women’s Player of the Year awards in 2001 and 2002, the first two years the award was active — had it been created earlier, she likely would have won many more. Hamm would be selected by FIFA as one of three greatest players ever before her career was even over, placing third in the voting for Player of the Century in 2000, behind just Michelle Akers and Sun Wen.

1. Marta (Brazil)

The greatest player in the history of women’s football is the Brazilian legend Marta. While she never won a Women’s World Cup, finishing runner-up in 2007, she still shined on the biggest FIFA stage, becoming the all-time leading goal scorer at the Women’s World Cup with 17 career strikes, and possibly more to come.

She won FIFA Player of the Year six times in her career, including an incredible five straight from 2006-2010, establishing her dominance through the prime of her career. She nearly single-handedly dragged her global glory but just could not get over the hump, settling for two Olympic silver medals in addition to the Women’s World Cup near-miss.

Yet those failures on the team front do nothing to diminish her claim to this throne. She showed her ability from a young age, winning the Golden Ball for best player at the 2004 U-19 Women’s World Cup despite Brazil’s finishing fourth, and she would go on to fulfill the immense potential she displayed. She won the Golden Ball in the 2007 tournament, finishing as the competition’s top scorer.

At the club level, Marta, now 37, has played largely in the United States, dominating for a three-year stretch in the now-defunct WPS with the Western New York Flash, winning the championship in 2011. She spent a few years playing in Sweden before returning to the U.S. and playing for the Orlando Pride since 2015, currently sitting as the career appearances and goals leader for the club.

Honorable mentions

With so many legends out there, it was simply impossible to include them all in a Top 10 list, and many incredible players deserve mention.

The two individuals first off the list were cap heroes Formiga and Kristine Lilly, who are known as global women’s soccer icons for their career longevity.

Lilly has the most caps of any player in the history of international football, playing for the United States 354 times across her incredibly lengthy career spanning 25 years. While Formiga managed “only” 234 caps for Brazil, she is the only player in football history to appear at seven World Cup tournaments, and she also managed to compete in all seven Olympic tournaments as well.

No goalkeepers made the list, but Hope Solo of the United States and Nadine Angerer of Germany have claims as the best at that position, with careers full of global accolades and accomplishments.

While Carli Lloyd managed to do enough on her own to reach the Top 10 list, her international teammates Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan aren’t quite at that level, but remain icons of the sport that deserve mention in the conversation. Unfortunately, during an era of U.S. dominance on the global stage, there just aren’t enough iconic moments to go around to see either of them stand high enough. They are part of the U.S. squad in the 2023 Women’s World Cup and could potentially add to their already glittering resumés to possibly crack the list.

Two other current players, Brazilian forward Cristiane and Norwegian icon Ada Hegerberg, also could have more memorable moments. Hegerberg especially, at just 29 years old, could have much more to come, having already won two Ballon d’Or awards, but her long absence from the national team hurts her resumé.

Finally, while goals are often the most direct route to legendary status, the current game has seen defenders also rise on the list of top stars. As far as central defenders go, French legend Wendie Renard is ready to captain her side at another FIFA tournament this month, already as one of the greatest at her position. Meanwhile, England boasts Lucy Bronze, who is quickly establishing herself as the greatest full-back to ever play the game, and at 31 could have much more to come.

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