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Date TimeJuly 06, 2019
VoiceEverything is magnified on the biggest day possible for a footballer: the pressure, the nerves, the excitement. You don’t want to waste the opportunity
Players tell themselves the World Cup final is just another game. Theyre wrong
The World Cup final is not just another game. You sometimes hear players say polite things like “I’m just going to take one game at a time” but I don’t think that’s true. In my experience, before a final, you know that you’re only one game away from reaching the absolute pinnacle of your sport. Everything that you have left inside you and everything you haven’t even yet used is about to be put on display in that final match. You don’t want to let this opportunity slip away. You get more excited; you have more nerves; you feel more pressure; you’re finally in the place that you have wanted to be since forever.
I won three Olympic gold medals but, for me, the World Cup is the peak of football. We lost the final on penalties in 2011, and in 2015 there was a good chance that it wasn’t going to happen for us again. That would have been harsh on players like Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone who were close to retiring and I knew, too, that I would not be satisfied with my career if I didn’t hold the World Cup in my hands.
Looking back, I’m so glad to have had the experience of losing the 2011 final even though it was heartbreaking. Japan were playing for something bigger than the game itself that year – for the morale of the country after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Many of Japan’s players had been affected personally by the events. That context was something I’d never experienced before. It was tragically beautiful to see their players come together and lift up their country. I’m proud that I was part of a game that transcended the sport. It’s still very emotional to think about it. That said, in the same breath, my competitive nature will tell you that we made some defensive errors in that game that I will never forget. You may think you are the better team but it just takes one second for things to turn against you. It was a game where I grew both as a person and a player.
In a final it might be great to say that you are playing for the Stars and Stripes on your chest but you’re also playing for family members, coaches, and everyone who made sacrifices to help get you to that point. It can get very personal and everyone has a story. I played in the 2007 World Cup after the loss of my best friend and my father. That was a way of mourning both of them – I wanted to make them proud. So many players have challenges they are going through and a game like this can have added significance and meaning.
Some coaches are great at big speeches before the game or at half-time. Jill Ellis will do the Xs and Os and tactics but she’s not the type of coach who is a big motivator. Motivation doesn’t always come from a coach anyway. During the 2012 Olympics, I texted with Carli Lloyd and Heather Mitts on the bus on the way to the final. That was Heather’s last tournament and we had a moment of reflection that brought some tears. It was a look back at our journey and everything we’d gone through together and individually to get to that point.
The lead up to the game can be very reflective and emotional. You have to embrace that and recognize the magnitude of the game. Motivation is mostly already inside an athlete at this level but others do help, often in timely and unforgettable ways. It can come from anyone: a personal trainer, a friend, or even a stranger. For for me in 2015 it came from my husband, a former NFL player, who understood the pressure of being a professional athlete and knew me better than anybody. He understood what I was going through and he was the only person who knew what to say or how to speak to me. He reminded me of my own strength and I felt untouchable. He was my ultimate teammate, and as with my US teammates, I didn’t want to let him or myself down.
You can feel the extra intensity on game day. People might be a little more quiet at breakfast or listen to music all day in the hotel while waiting for the bus to the stadium. That might seem relaxed but the atmosphere intensifies. Abby Wambach was always the funniest on game day. She’d never know what to do with her bottled up energy and would start nervously talking to everyone. It was so endearing that it became a huge in-joke among the team. She just wouldn’t shut up.
At game day mealtime she’d come into the room and announce “It’s a bad day to be Japanese!” or “It’s a bad day to be Dutch!”. She’d get so amped up all day and then during the huddle on the pitch, right before kick off, she would be set to give one last motivational speech but would be so excited she would usually trip over her own words. It would end up being the worst speech ever and one that would make us all start laughing.
That moment, right there, released all our tension and nerves and made us relax. It was important to have someone on the team who can remind us who we really were and that we were ready to play a World Cup final. Sunday’s game will see the technically best USA team we’ve ever had take the field. I want this team to show how good they are and not play defensively when they get the lead. This team has the ability to go out and entertain and win with style like the great teams. They need to remember that this isn’t just another game.

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