The casting of footballers as role models is one that sits uncomfortably with many. A person’s ability to kick a ball with accuracy and grace doesn’t make them a guide for our children any more than being able to sing, dance or cook. It is an unfair expectation forced upon the industry.
In fact, the argument is virtually futile. Like it or not, there is now an inevitability to children looking up to sporting stars. Footballers are not merely sports professionals but celebrities, and the influence of celebrity culture has never been stronger. Surveys across the last decade have shown that children don’t want to be astronauts, vets or doctors; they want to be famous.
The most palatable situation is this: Footballers do not have to be positive role models, but they can choose to be. As well as entertaining the current generation, they can use their positions to influence, inspire and assist the next. No player in football’s history has been a greater influence and role model than Mia Hamm.
Hamm is the biggest US-born soccer star of all time, widely regarded as the greatest ever female footballer. She has been labelled as the first female team-sport superstar, a claim that seems bold until you examine the potential competition. Hamm herself lists Billie-Jean King, Chris Evert and Jackie Joyner-Kersee as her own icons, but all thrived in the realm of individual sport.
Washington Post columnist Michael Wibon calls Hamm ‘perhaps the most important athlete of the last 15 years’, while ESPN named her as the greatest female athlete of the last 40 years. Both were at least nodding in the direction of American patriotism, but neither claim is fanciful. Only a few select sportspeople take their sport forward, but fewer still single-handedly broaden its reach and popularity. Hamm is one.
In 1996, Nike founder and chairman Phil Knight cited Hamm as one of three athletes who “played at a level that added a new dimension” to their sports. The other two were Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Even considering his staunch pro-Nike bias, it’s very difficult to argue with that sentiment. Nike named the largest building on its campus after Hamm in 1999.
Hamm was a fantastic player, the youngest ever to play for the US national team aged only 15. She went to university in North Carolina, winning four straight NCAA women’s championships. She also played almost all of her career at amateur level due to the lack of available professional leagues.
When Hamm retired in 2004, she had played for 17 years for her country, scoring 158 goals. She was the top international scorer in football’s history (now surpassed by Abby Wambach), and had won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals.
More importantly, Hamm was a difference-maker on the field. Her achievements inspired a generation of American girls (and indeed boys) to try soccer. Before her, Michelle Akers made it cool to be a female soccer player, but it was Hamm who brought soccer to the masses. She did not just improve the notoriety of the professional game and US women’s team, but directly caused a growth in the grassroots game. She represents, if not solely explains, the explosion of women’s soccer in the US.
It was the 1999 World Cup, held in the US, that really catapulted women’s soccer into focus there. Two days before the final, played out in front of a US television audience of 40 million, an announcement was made regarding the formation of an organised women’s league. Hamm became its poster girl, the star of the inaugural match where the attendance was higher than any MLS game that weekend. The Women’s United Soccer Association eventually disbanded in 2003, but was the forerunner for the National Women’s Soccer League. Soccer is now the third most played sport in the US, ahead of american football and ice hockey.
Hamm’s biggest influence came far away from the field of play. She was a pioneer for gender equality in sport, understanding her importance not only to her teams but the next generation. Hamm’s book Go For the Goal: A Champion’s Guide to Winning in Soccer and Life, aimed to inspire young girls. It became a national bestseller.
“Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back… play for her,” Hamm says.
In 1999 she formed the Mia Hamm Foundation, providing support to bone marrow disease patients and their families as well as providing opportunities for young women in sport. “I see the confidence built in my daughters when they work really hard at something, let’s say it’s soccer,” Hamm says. “They’re working really hard on passing or shooting or a certain move, and then all of the sudden it just clicks, and you just see this big smile come on their face. And to see that confidence grow in a young girl is so important because I think boys are naturally encouraged to do those things.”
The secret to Hamm’s influence is a total lack of superstardom, a humility often lacking in the bravado and glitz of American sport. Her sincerity in understanding the importance of her ambassadorial role within women’s football forged her iconic status.
“Her selflessness is why she transcended sports,” US team-mate Julie Foudy says. “It is why she is so beloved. It is why I constantly thank her for providing the foundation for our national team and guiding our growth, and for giving girls around the globe hope that they, too, can wear a sports jersey, tear apart defences and dominate with grace and a smile.”
One example given by Foudy of Hamm’s impact comes from before the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when Hamm was asked to do a magazine cover shoot. She accepted the invitation, but only on the proviso that she could be joined by four of her team-mates on the cover. Foudy’s final description of Hamm is a powerful one: “She embarked on an insatiable quest for the greater good of the game.”
Hamm never wanted attention. Fame sat as uncomfortably as the responsibility of leading her sport into a new era. But the power to improve can be powerful. Hamm realised her place in time. “I am a member of a team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion,” is her most famous quote. The ‘team’ refers not just to the University of North Carolina, Washington Freedom or the US team, but to the sport itself.
“I’m just a former player that every day has to wake up, get her kids to school and figure out what I’m making them for lunch and dinner,” Hamm said last year.
The humility is admirable, but that assessment is wildly inaccurate. Hamm has done more for soccer in US (not just women’s) than any other player. No sentence about her should include the word ‘just’.