Few footballers of either gender have made the impact on the game that Mia Hamm did in her 17-year career.
Scoring 158 times in 275 appearances for the United States – a world record goal tally beaten only this year by Abby Wambach – Hamm won two FIFA Women's World Cups and two Olympic gold medals, retiring after the Athens Games in 2004.
The first FIFA Women's World Player of the Year in 2001 and 2002, the 41-year-old remains a celebrated figure at home and abroad and spoke to UEFA.com about how the American system promotes female talent and dovetails with the European game.
UEFA.com: When women's football first became big, the United States were ahead of the other teams. How was US women's football able to develop faster than Europe?
Mia Hamm: One of the things was that we weren't fighting hundreds of years of history. Soccer was new in our country, whether men or women played it, so it was more like: "What the heck are you playing?" That and our school and university system really helped. Young women were able to get a scholarship and continue their education but play this great game.
Anson Dorrance, the first national women's team coach, really helped that and set a high standard. He coached the national team at the beginning of its life and really helped develop that mentality of how the US women were going to play.
UEFA.com: Could you talk through the process of how a player would come through from girls' football to the top level?
Hamm: Youth club soccer has a different definition in the US, where clubs are community or regional teams; they're not associated with a professional club. Kids pay fees to the director of coaching and have a certain number of training sessions and games. Even now we have the elite club girls' league, so these girls play only the best clubs all over the country. As they get older they have an opportunity to get college scholarships and play at universities, so that's been really important in terms of our youth development.
UEFA.com. How would you describe the girls' grassroots game in the US? In Europe we have the impression that it's a huge sport, maybe more so than boys?
Hamm: It's got the largest participation for a lot of reasons. Why I played was that I was one of six kids and it was fairly inexpensive. You don't need a lot, just to wear the same colour shirts really, but you have an opportunity and one of the things that I love about soccer is that it doesn't discriminate. You can be any race, height, skill level and go out there and make a difference for your team.
UEFA.com: With your profile, do you enjoy having the opportunity to inspire people just by pointing to what you've done?
Hamm: I feel so lucky and blessed to be able to do and experience what I have. It's important for these young girls, whether it's the path of soccer [or not] to know that, whatever they choose to do and be, they can. For young boys it's a given, and for young girls [the aim is] to empower them to reach higher, invest in themselves and really see the value in what they do.
UEFA.com: Who are your favourite all-time European women's players?
Hamm: Maren Meinert and Hege Riise. Just their ability to slow down a game and to see when there's absolute chaos going on in front them, to make it look so simple. I've felt honoured; both of them played in the WUSA [former American professional league] and Hege was the assistant coach for the US team. They've done wonderful things for our game.
UEFA.com: Hege was assistant to Pia Sundhage; what did having a foreign coach give the US team in that period?
Hamm: Pia just brought the sense of fun back to the game. The expectation and the pressure that that team was under, especially when my group stepped aside, was tremendous and what she did was basically say: "Hey, it's just a game, enjoy yourselves, be creative, have fun and enjoy your time together." It was the right person at the right time and you could see how those young women responded. Personalities – like a Tobin Heath, like a Megan Rapinoe, these really crafty and technical players – thrived in that environment.
UEFA.com: Is there a player coming through the US women's soccer scene who might not be known in Europe but will soon come to the fore?
Hamm: I look at one player who's played at university level and was in the [FIFA U-20 Women's] World Cup team that won, and that's Crystal Dunn. This is a player who has won everywhere she's gone; that's just who she is. She's probably all of about 5ft 3in [160cm] but her mentality and will to put a team on her back and make a difference is unbelievable. Regardless of stature you can't hold those type of people back.
UEFA.com: Last year there were a few American players coming to play in Europe; Christen Press has broken into the team after spending time in Sweden. Do you expect to see that more?
Hamm: Absolutely, and that's a credit to them. We just had the start of the new league in the US and there's a period where players are looking to extend their careers once they get out of college. A lot have come over to Europe and assimilated well into the style of play and really have used it, not only to further their careers but to gain more confidence. It's made a huge impact and Christen Press is a prime example. It's hard to keep her off the field now with the work she's done, both in Sweden and with the opportunities that she's had with the national team.
UEFA.com: Even now with a slightly downsized US league you still have European players and a European coach in Laura Harvey at Seattle. Does it help the US women's game to have European players?
Hamm: It's helped us tremendously and in turn we've helped them. We're all about the growth of the game and anything we can learn from each other to further that, I'm all for. So it started off with the WUSA having a Steffi Jones and a Maren Meinert, and now you're seeing it with the coach at Seattle being English, sharing her knowledge and experience with those young players.
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