The 20 greatest female football players of all time (2024)

1) Marta (Forward, Brazil)

It should be no surprise that Brazil gave the world two of the greatest players, male and female. Pele established his legacy years ago. Marta Vieira da Silva is still in the process of forging hers as the planet’s most talented player. Marta, nicknamed “Pele in skirts” by the Brazilian master, can do it all. The world has lost track of how many times she has turned a defender around and left her in the dust. That includes dribbling confounding foes with her superb skill, creating goals thanks to her vision, and scoring them thanks to a tenacious desire to succeed.

Her personal accolades are remarkable, earning the Fifa female world player of the year five consecutive times (2006 to 2010). Marta also won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the 2007 Women’s World Cup and is the competition’s all-time scoring leader with 15 goals. The only thing missing from her trophy cabinet is a major championship, although Brazil have come close several times. The Brazilians took second to Germany at the 2007 World Cup and mined silver medals at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics, losing to the United States both times. Having turned 30 in February, Marta is expected to be at full throttle at the Rio Olympics.

2) Mia Hamm (Forward, USA)

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Hamm, who finished with a world-record 158 international goals when she retired in 2004, was a double threat. Pacey and skillful, she was nominally a forward but often played like a midfielder. If defenders allowed her to run inside, she would go to goal. If they managed to force her outside, she would deliver a lethal, spot-on cross to a teammate on the far side. It certainly didn’t hurt that Hamm was bolstered by a talented supporting cast, some of whom have made this top 20 list. Regardless, her skill, vision and innate scoring ability made her the most dangerous and the best-known women’s player of her generation. Hamm, who made her international debut at 15 in 1987, earned 275 caps while starring for the USA.

She won the Fifa women’s world player of the year the first two years of the award in 2001 and 2002. A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Hamm also played a vital role for two Women’s World Cup winning teams in 1991 and 1999, converting a penalty in a shootout in the latter final. She was also part of two Olympic gold-medal winning sides (1996, 2004) and earned a silver medal in 2000. Hamm is part of the ownership group of the Los Angeles Football Club, which is scheduled to start playing in Major League Soccer in 2017.

3) Michelle Akers (Forward/defensive midfielder, USA)

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Talk about leaving a huge legacy. Akers defined not one, but two, positions in women’s soccer. In her younger days, Akers was a lethal striker. At 5ft 10in, her speed was deceptive because she could outrun defenders with her long stride. She struck twice in the first Women’s World Cup final in 1991, including the game-winner in the final minutes of a 2-1 triumph over Norway. After she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome in 1994, Akers began a second life as a defensive midfielder, preventing goal opportunities instead of finishing them.

She helped the red, white and blue to the 1996 Olympic gold medal and to the 1999 World Cup crown as well. Little surprise that Akers was named Fifa’s female player of the 20th century along with China’s Sun Wen. In the USA’s second international match ever in 1987, Akers scored the team’s first goal and went on from there. She retired just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

We can only wonder what more magic Akers could have produced had she not been struck down by illness (until then she was scoring at almost a goal a game). A member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Akers retired at the age of 34, having scored 105 times in 153 international games.

4) Birgit Prinz (Forward/attacking midfielder, Germany)

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As stoppage time was running down in Germany’s 2-1 win over Brazil in the group stage of the 2000 Sydney Games, Prinz almost became the first women to register an Olympic hat-trick. Maren Meinert and Prinz found themselves on a break towards the Brazilian goal. But instead of passing to her teammate, Meinert took the shot, and put it wide. Prinz gave her team-mate a look of disbelief. That was classic Prinz, who had a killer instinct. Every shot she took she expected to score, and heaven forbid if a team-mate failed to release the ball at the right time.

Prinz was a difficult player to mark because she knew when to shoot, and she combined a physical presence with impressive pace. She demonstrated that in her international debut at 16, striking the game-winner in the 89th minute, 17 minutes after coming on as a substitute. It should come as no surprise that Germany won the 2003 and 2007 Women’s World Cup, with Prinz earning the Golden Ball in the former and the Silver Ball in the latter. In 214 international appearances, she found the net 128 times.

At club level, Prinz scored 282 goals in as many matches for FSV Frankfurt, FFC Frankfurt and the Carolina Courage. Her trophy case is ridiculously overloaded with three Fifa world player of the year honors (2002, 2003 and 2004). She was also named German player of the year eight years running. Prinz retired in 2011 at the age of 34.

5) Sun Wen (forward, China)

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During China’s golden age of soccer, Sun Wen became her team’s go-to player when they needed a goal. She certainly didn’t disappoint, connecting 106 times in 152 international matches. Sun, who had the ability to conjure up assists for her team-mates, was so good that she pulled off the rarest of doubles at a major tournament. At the 1999 Women’s World Cup, she earning the Golden Ball and Golden Boot (sharing the prize with Marta).

Sun’s goals were not only came in quantity, but quality too. After the striker scored a spectacular, 32-yard free kick in China’s 1-1 draw with the USA at the Sydney Olympics, April Heinrichs, then the American head coach, gave Sun high praise. “I’d pay for her to come to play in the United States in the WUSA [Women’s United Soccer Association],” she said. “She’s so well-rounded. She’s composed and a great leader who leads by example for 90 minutes.”

Sun’s mobility that game was hampered by a brace and bandage wrapped over her left knee. Yet, she found ways to make life difficult for the US. Sun never won a major tournament as China finished second to the USA in the 1996 Olympics and was runner-up to her rivals, losing in a shootout at the 1999 Women’s World Cup final.

6) Abby Wambach (forward, USA)

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Abby Wambach could be likened to a human battering ram, playing as though her body was invulnerable, although it wasn’t. Wambach never saw a heading opportunity she didn’t like, and she scored more than a third of her goals in the air en route a world-record 184 international strikes in 255 matches (and, by the way, she had 75 assists).

Perhaps her most dramatic header was that spectacular goal she scored in stoppage time after 120 minutes against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals. It leveled the game and forced a shootout, which the Americans won. Fifa later declared it the greatest Women’s World Cup goal.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Wambach made sure part of the Americans’ quest was about winning gold for their retiring players. She came through in dramatic fashion, striking for the game-winner in extra-time against Brazil in the final.

In her later years, Wambach became the spokesperson for the team, putting situations, controversies and challenges into proper context with her team-mates and the media. Her unofficial philosophy was that it wasn’t about her, even though it often was, especially in 2012 when she was voted Fifa world player of the year. After earning two Olympic gold medals, Wambach finally completed her elusive quest of winning the World Cup with the USA at the 2015 competition in Canada before retiring late last year.

7) Homare Sawa (Forward, Japan)

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Overshadowed by flashier players, Sawa let her game do the talking. She was smooth as silk on the ball while starring for Japan during an illustrious 23-year international career, from 1993 to 2015. Sawa gave notice to the rest of the world in her international debut against the Philippines, scoring four times in a win. She retired at the age of 37, collecting 83 goals in 204 appearances, both Japanese records.

Sawa, who was equally effective creating or scoring goals due to her superior skills and vision, finally earned her just desserts as one of the world’s greats when Japan captured their first Women’s World Cup crown in 2011. She scored in the 117th minute of the final, before Japan beat the US on penalties. As for individual honors, Sawa took home the Golden Ball and Golden Boot. Not surprisingly, she was named 2011 Fifa world player of the year. Sawa also earned a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, losing out to the USA.

8) Kelly Smith (Forward, England)

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Little wonder that Kelly Smith was chosen as a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2008. She was a special player, the first English female player to make an international impact in modern times. She was lethal with both feet, scoring 46 goals in 117 appearances over a remarkable two-decade international career (1995-2015).

A striker who wasn’t afraid to set up her team-mates, Smith made headlines with Seton Hall University in New Jersey, which wasn’t known for its women’s soccer until the 1990s. Smith became the first athlete in any sport to be named Big East offensive player of the year and newcomer of the year in the same season. With her college team-mates providing limited attacking talent to complement her awesome ability, Smith still finished with a school-record 76 goals in 51 matches.

Smith wound up playing in several soccer leagues – pro, semi-pro and amateur – in the United States before returning home for Arsenal Ladies (where she scored an astounding 73 goals in 66 games from 2005-2009). She helped England qualify for their first Women’s World Cup in 2007 and also played in the tournament in 2011. She also was a member of a combined Great Britain side that reached the quarter-finals of the 2012 London Olympics. Smith retired from internationals at the age of 36 in 2015.

9) Christine Sinclair (Forward, Canada)

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So, just how fabulous is Christine Sinclair? Perhaps Abby Wambach said it best several years ago: “I think she’s the best all-around player in the world … I think she is probably is the most underrated player in the whole world.” In fact, if there is one player who has a shot at Wambach’s international goal scoring record (184 goals), it’s the 33-year-old Sinclair, who enters the Rio Olympics with 162 goals in 230 matches.

When she is at the top of her game, Sinclair can be devastating, playing like a midfielder, bringing the ball forward towards the opposition goal. Like many of her contemporaries, Sinclair made her international debut as a teenager, as a 16-year-old at the Algarve Cup.

Her most memorable performance might have been her hat-trick in that unforgettable 4-3 semi-final loss to the USA at the 2012 Olympics, when Canada won the bronze medal. Sinclair endured a disappointing Women’s World Cup in her native country in 2015, scoring twice as Canada were eliminated in the quarter-finals. She and her team-mates certainly can make up for it with another medal in Rio.

10) Nadine Angerer (Goalkeeper, Germany)

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When starting goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg suffered a knee injury that kept her out of the 2007 Women’s World Cup, Nadine Angerer took her place and Germany didn’t miss a beat. Moreover, Germany and Angerer didn’t concede in six games – a record – en route to the team’s second successive world title. Angerer also saved Marta’s penalty to preserve a clean sheet in a 2-0 triumph in the final.

As it turned out, stopping penalties became one of Angerer’s specialties. Named Germany captain after Prinz retired in 2011, Angerer made two vital peanlty saves against Sweden to help Germany to the 2013 European crown. “Nadine is such a leader on her team, a role model,” said former USA coach Tony DiCicco, who was a goalkeeper himself, adding that Angerer did not have “any glaring weaknesses”.

11) Kristine Lilly (Midfielder/forward, USA)

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Lilly just went on running and running. She played in a world record 352 internationals, a mark that may never be broken (scoring 130 goals as well). Lilly probably will be best remembered for her headed clearance off the line in extra time of the 1999 Women’s World Cup final. She played on two world champion sides (1991, 1999) and has two Olympic gold medals and a silver in her collection.

12) Hege Riise (Midfielder, Norway)

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Norway’s best ever player, Riise was the centerpiece of the country’s wins at the 1995 Women’s World Cup and the 2000 Olympics. The attacking midfielder started playing soccer with boys’ teams at the age of six before joining a girls’ side at 14. When she retired from international soccer in 2004, Riise had scored 58 goals in a Norwegian-record 188 matches.

13) Sissi (Midfielder, Brazil)

Few players were as deadly at set pieces as Sisleide Lima do Amor. Better known as Sissi, the Brazilian midfielder came to prominence as her national side was gaining recognition and beginning to turn heads around the world. Joining the Brazilian national team at 16, Sissi’s most memorable moments came at the 1999 Women’s World Cup when she shared the Golden Boot with China’s Sun Wen, while helping Brazil to a third-place finish. She also was a member of Brazil’s fourth-place side at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

14) Briana Scurry (Goalkeeper, USA)

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One of only three goalkeepers who have won the Women’s World Cup (1999) and an Olympic gold medal (1996 and 2004) – the USA’s Hope Solo and Norway’s Bente Nordby are the others – Scurry proved to be a steadying presence while helping the Americans to victory after victory during a memorable 15-year career. Scurry finished with 173 caps, and secured 71 clean sheets.

15) Carin Jennings-Gabarra (Midfielder, USA)

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Before there was a Fifa women’s world player of the year award, you could have made a great case for Carin Jennings-Gabarra as being the planet’s best player. She was outstanding in the very first Women’s World Cup in 1991, earning Golden Ball honors via a virtuoso performance in the midfield. She was a double threat, recording five goals and five assists. Jennings-Gabarra, who collected 53 goals in 117 international appearances, was forced to retire due to injuries after the USA won the 1996 Olympic gold medal. She is currently the women’s soccer coach at the US Naval Academy.

16) Joy Fawcett (Defender, USA)

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Fawcett will be remembered as a fierce central defender. For many years, Fawcett partnered with Carla Overbeck to form one of the finest defensive tandems in women’s soccer. She did a lot of the little things that got lost in the limelight of her attack minded team-mates. The first US international to become a mother, Fawcett never lost a beat after she returned from giving birth. A member of two Women’s World Cup championship teams (1991 and 1999) and two Olympic gold medalists (1996 and 2004), Fawcett scored 27 times in 239 international matches.

17) Pia Sundhage (Forward/midfielder)

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Before she directed the USA to the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medals and to a second-place finish at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, Sundhage was a world-class forward who also performed in midfield and even on defense. She scored 71 times in 146 international matches, helping the Swedes to a third-place finish at the 1991 World Cup. Sundhage was so good that her image appeared on a Swedish stamp in 1988. A year later she put her stamp on an international friendly win over England, becoming the first woman to score in an international game at Wembley.

18) Hope Solo (Goalkeeper, USA)

During a Concacaf women’s soccer symposium in 2012, a five-minute video was shown to attendees, highlighting Solo’s stunning saves. It was well deserved. Solo has combined excellent positioning and quick reflexes to become the first woman to recorded 100 international shutouts. She has helped the USA to the 2008 and 2012 Olympic titles and hopes to add a third gold medal in Rio.

19) Lily Parr (Forward, England)

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Before women’s international soccer took a foothold, Lily Parr was a true pioneer. She was a regular scorer for the Preston Ladies and Dick, Kerr’s Ladies in England. Women were banned from playing soccer on affiliated grounds in 1921, but that didn’t stop her teams from raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity. Despite being a chain smoker, Parr played at an extremely high level, helping her teams dominate games. A Preston newspaper reported that Parr had tallied 967 goals out of the team’s total of 3,022 goals, a devastating ratio.

20) Silke Rottenberg (Goalkeeper, Germany)

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While Birgit Prinz and Maren Meinert were giving opposing defenders and goalkeepers headaches during Germany’s 2003 Women’s World Cup championship run, Rottenberg was a stabilizing force at the back with her steady play. She conceded four goals in six matches while registering two shutouts as the Germans became the first side to win back-to-back titles. A knee injury kept Rottenberg out of the 2007 World Cup. She made 125 appearances for Germany before retiring in 2008.

The 20 greatest female football players of all time (2024)


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