This summer’s Women’s World Cup is going to be one for the books. Not only is it the first to be jointly hosted by multiple nations (matches will take place in both Australia and New Zealand), but it could be the first to see a team three-peat as champions. If that weren’t enough reason to heighten your anticipation, it will also likely be the final World Cup appearance for some of the game’s greatest players.
Since the turn of the century, women’s soccer has seen tremendous global growth. Many of the legends who aided in that expansion are likely heading into the sunset. Here’s a starting XI — playing a lopsided, far from practically functional 3-4-3 — of athletes who could be playing on the World Cup stage for the last time.
Keeping a write-up of Marta’s accolades to a reasonable length proved to be the greatest challenge of this article. Marta’s 115 goals for Brazil are the most in the country’s history. Her 172 caps are the second most in Brazilian history. She was the first player to ever score in five consecutive Olympics. She’s one of just three players to have scored at five different World Cups, with a chance to make it six in 2023. Her 17 World Cup goals are the most of any player ever.
Choosing one defining moment from Marta’s career is no easier. The 2007 World Cup comes to mind as the peak of her dominance for the Seleção. However, Marta won the Golden Ball as well as the Golden Boot and led Brazil to the final. She accounted for just under half of all Brazilian goals scored in the knockout rounds, and her stunning clinching goal against the United States in the semifinal earned Goal of the Tournament honors.
Christine Sinclair, Canada
Sinclair has second-most caps, and the most goals, of any player in international soccer history. Alongside Marta, she’s one of just three players to have scored in five World Cups, and much like Marta, has a chance to make it six in 2023. It’s been 23 years since Sinclair made her senior debut for Canada at age 16 and the accolades have rolled in ever since.
Sinclair helped Canada earn best-ever finishes on both the World Cup and Olympic stages throughout her career. With Sinclair as captain, Canada earned their first-ever gold medal in women’s soccer in the 2020 Olympics, with Sinclair drawing the penalty that would lead to Jessie Fleming’s equalizer in the final against Sweden.
Megan Rapinoe, United States
Whether it be for her ever-changing hair color or her ability to deliver a devastating final ball into the box, Rapinoe has stood out on the pitch for the USWNT for years. Though she’ll likely be in more of a substitute role this summer, odds look strong that Rapinoe notches her 200th cap in Oceania. She has “only” scored 63 national team goals (good for 10th on the all-time American leaderboard), but she has a knack for delivering her best in the biggest moments.
The crowning moment of Rapinoe’s career with the Stars and Stripes came during the 2019 World Cup in France. She scored in three of the United States’ four knockout games, including the opening goal in the final against the Netherlands. With six goals in just five matches — she missed the semifinal against England due to injury — Rapinoe earned Golden Ball and Golden Boot honors as the USWNT lifted a second consecutive Cup.
Eugénie Le Sommer, France
Le Sommer has played a number of roles in forward lines and attacking midfield, but for the purposes of maintaining somewhat of a reasonable balance in this hypothetical XI, she slots in as a midfielder. First capped in 2009, Le Sommer is France’s all-time leading goalscorer on the international stage.
Le Sommer will be rejoining Les Bleues for the 2023 World Cup under dramatic circumstances. The 33-year-old hadn’t been called up in nearly two years when a coaching change put her back into favor. She made her return with a bang, scoring both the equalizing and go-ahead goals in a 5-2 comeback win over Colombia in April.
Sherida Spitse, Netherlands
The youngest player on this list at a spry 33 years old, Spitse has been a staple of the Dutch national team setup for nearly two decades. A tireless worker in the midifield, Spitse is the Netherlands’ all-time leader in national team caps. She’s started every match for the Netherlands in three consecutive European championships and two consecutive World Cups.
The peak of her streak perhaps came during Euro 2017, in which the Dutch captured their first ever women’s European title. Spitse scored three goals — including one in the final — in addition to an assist, as she was named to the Team of the Tournament.
Ria Percival, New Zealand
Percival’s road to her country’s 2023 World Cup has come with plenty of twists and turns. For a decade and a half, Percival was one of the most reliable players in international soccer — debuting at 16 and subsequently racking up over 150 caps to become New Zealand’s all-time leader in international appearances.
But a brutal injury last April against Australia threw a wrench into Percival’s consistency. She missed the team’s first seven matches of their 2023 World Cup build-up, a rarity for a player who had established a reputation for being a name written in Sharpie in any and all Football Fern lineups (New Zealand went 0-1-6 in that span). Upon completing her rehab, she helped the Ferns to a 2-0 win over Vietnam in her first match back. A veteran of four World Cups and four Olympics, few players this summer will have as much experience on the biggest stage as Percival.
Caroline Seger, Sweden
No European player has accumulated more international caps than Seger, who has 232 to her name. She’s served as Sweden’s captain since 2009, and since then the metronomic midfielder’s career has only become more illustrious.
In her first World Cup as captain, she led the Swedes to a third-place finish, a marked improvement from the surprising group stage exit Sweden had experienced four years prior. Seger also led Sweden to back-to-back silver medals at the Olympics. In the 2020 edition of the Olympics, she helped Sweden pull off a stunning 3-0 upset of the reigning world champion USWNT, ending the United States’ 44 game unbeaten streak.
Noko Matlou, South Africa
Matlou will head to Oceania as one of the most capped African players ever. The Eibar veteran has well over 150 international caps to her name. The absence of all-time South African caps leader Janine van Wyk, who would be on this list had injury not forced her to miss the tournament, means Matlou’s experience will be invaluable on a South African squad that looks to be relatively young.
Just one Banyana Banyana player sans Matlou is over the age of 30. The rest of the defenders on South Africa’s roster combine to have just half of Matlou’s cap total. The 2008 Confederation of African Football Player of the Year has enjoyed a long career arc — evolving from a highly touted striker (including dozens of goals for South Africa) to a reliable defender — and will look to continue that arc in her second World Cup appearance.
Clare Polkinghorne, Australia
Australia’s all-time leader in caps, Polkinghorne has been a rock along the backline for the Matildas since she made her World Cup debut as an 18-year-old in 2007. Polkinghorne, assuming she’s recovered from a foot injury that has kept her out of competitive play since April, will enter her fifth World Cup in 2023.
Perhaps no player will appreciate the fanfare that will come with Australia playing their games in front of a home crowd more than Polkinghorne, who has spoken at length about the growth of the game in her home nation throughout her career. The 34-year-old has been synonymous with success for the Australians: She started in the nation’s first-ever World Cup victory as a teenager, then helped the Matildas advance to the knockout stage in four consecutive tournaments.
Kelley O’Hara, United States
Possessing the shortest international career on this list, O’Hara made her national team debut a mere 13 years ago. She’s made the most of her time with the USWNT, however, collecting hardware left and right. She’s got both an Olympic gold medal and two World Cup titles on her international résumé, and will be aiming to add a third this summer.
The hard-charging defender has never been much for stat padding — notching just 3 goals in 157 total caps — but she’s consistently added a bite to the USWNT defense matched by few others. Like Rapinoe, she’ll likely be a substitute this summer, but she’ll be relied on to provide valuable experience off the field to a young American defense — the average age of the USWNT’s projected backline is just over 26.
Kim Jung-mi, South Korea
Getting the nod in net for this hypothetical squad is the long-time No. 1 for South Korea: Kim Jung-mi. Prior to 2003, South Korea had never qualified for a Women’s World Cup. Jung-mi started all three matches as an 18-year-old in that historic appearance, and her steady hand in net has played a large role in what will soon be three consecutive appearances on the game’s biggest stage for the squad.
Jung-mi’s performance in net in the 2015 World Cup played a major role in South Korea advancing past the group stage for the first time in the squad’s history, with their lowest ever goal difference at a World Cup. She missed the 2019 World Cup due to injury as South Korea was once again eliminated in the group stages, but will be looking to recreate her 2015 performance this summer.