Towering striker Abby Wambach's importance to USA was never more aptly on display than in Tuesday's surprise 2-2 draw with Korea DPR in Chengdu. Shortly after putting the Americans into the lead, she found herself on the losing end of one of many aerial battles, meeting Ri Kum-Suk's head instead of the ball.
Pumping blood on the pitch, she never entertained the thought of quitting the fray. Instead, she hauled herself up and began a 125-yard sprint to the locker room with the team doctor to receive stitches. Even before she reached the tunnel - located behind the goal and beyond the large running track at the Chengdu Sports Center Stadium - the Koreans had equalised through Kil Son-Hui. "I was bleeding like crazy and the ref wouldn't let me play on," Wambach told FIFA.com matter-of-factly. "Even before I got to the locker room door I could hear that they had scored."
At 1.80m, Wambach is well known for her ability in the air. Her determination and fighting spirit are also second to none, as the US team doctor found out the hard way. "I was really screaming at him to hurry it up, which probably wasn't helping things much," she said almost apologetically about the process of receiving five stitches without any local anaesthetic. "I heard the crowd roar for the second Korean goal as the doc was finishing up and I was desperate to get back out there."
Even though she was only out for ten minutes, the lead Wambach had forged had now become a 2-1 deficit. Her return helped revive the team, however, and she managed to play a part in Heather O'Reilly's opportunistic equaliser. It was only too evident why head coach Greg Ryan was never going to substitute Wambach, as he revealed after the match. "She's too important to take out," he said. "It's too bad that those two goals went in while she was off and we were down to ten, but I would make the same decision (to keep her in) again."
'Just part of the game'
Compared by some to former USA men's striker Brian McBride, Wambach is a battler to the core. On the field she strikes fear into opposition defences and has amassed a remarkable 76 goals in 95 games, including the States' winning goal when they beat Brazil for Olympic gold in 2004. Also, like McBride, currently injured at his English club Fulham, Abby has to contend with her fair share of knocks and bruises, though she is quick to play it down.
"For me, it's just part of the game," she said. "I'm a big girl and I like to throw my body around. When you do that, you always know you're going to get a bump here and there. It's no big deal." No big deal perhaps, but she was moved to add: "I am a lot bigger than most of the girls I play against, so I'm not sure it's a total coincidence when I do get head-butted. I think a lot of them are trying to compete with me in the air and not always within the rules."
Ever the perfectionist, Abby was not well pleased with the draw against the East Asians. "When we play any game anywhere we expect to come out with three points," she said. "But we showed a lot of heart to come back into the game. A lot of other teams would have lost that game." Despite her disappointment, the US will take heart from the fact that after the draw between Nigeria and Sweden, all four teams in the much-feared Group B are level on one point.
Wambach though, almost predictably, is not one to sit back and take things as they come. "The other teams should be careful," she warned, "We haven't showed anything near our best soccer yet and we can beat most teams in the world on an average day." And looking ahead to Friday's game with USA 2003 runners-up Sweden, the striker is confident the States will prevail. "Nothing is sorted out in this group," she concluded. "If we go out there and play our game against Sweden we'll be right on top where we should be."
With a free-scoring striker willing to bleed for the cause, who would doubt the States are set to get things straight and challenge for a third world crown?