Women's World Cup 2015: Alex Morgan has the world at her feet

The United States take on China buoyed by the return from injury of the biggest superstar in the women’s game. Glenn Moore profiles the $3m-a-year golden girl who carries American hopes

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A few days after her 20th birthday an American political economy student sat in the Bernabeu Stadium and watched Cristiano Ronaldo being unveiled as Real Madrid’s new galactico. With 80,000 fans sitting alongside her to welcome the Portuguese, there could not be a better illustration of the potency of talent and marketing in modern football.

Six years later that young woman is on the brink of achieving commensurate status within the female game. When the United States take on China in the World Cup quarter-final, most eyes will be on Alex Morgan. Now 25, Morgan is America’s golden girl, the successor to Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain, the stars of the last US World Cup winning team in 1999.

Morgan is by some distance the world’s highest-earning woman’s footballer. She was paid $280,000 (£180,000) by US Soccer in 2013, more than any other player, male or female. That included bonuses for winning Olympic gold and will have been eclipsed by some of the men last year after their Word Cup, but a basic salary of $180,000 (£115,000) is still almost double what any of the England team can earn from playing.

That though, is just the start. Morgan also has endorsement contracts with a range of stellar companies including Nike, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, US telecommunications giant AT&T, Nationwide Mutual Insurance, Tampax, Beats by Dre and ChapStick. Other deals have involved Bridgestone Tyres, GNC health products, Ubisoft video games and Bank of America. Her commercial earnings are estimated to push her total income close to $3m (£1.9m) this year.

 That figure can be expected to rise substantially if Morgan can deliver the World Cup, and there are finally signs that she might. Having suffered a bone bruise in her left knee in early April, Morgan was not fit to play as United States opened their campaign and only made her first start on Monday.

It proved worth the wait. With Colombia frustrating the US, it was Morgan whose 47th-minute break led to the dismissal of Colombian goalkeeper Stefany Castano. Although Abby Wambach missed the subsequent penalty, Morgan then made the breakthrough with her 52rd goal in 87 internationals.

That is an impressive ratio, but her record pales in comparison with Wambach, who has scored 183 goals in 245 matches, was Fifa Women’s World Player of the Year in 2012 and is a record six-time US Soccer Female Athlete of the Year.

So why doesn’t Wambach’s image dominate the decor at Nike stores? Because, as in women’s tennis and women’s athletics, looks matter. Morgan, who has twice featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, is very attractive. Wambach, while a striking athlete who has posed nude (for ESPN The Magazine, “the Body Issue”), is less conventionally pretty. Wambach is also gay and married to her partner, former player Sarah Huffman, which presents a marketing problem in large parts of the US (same-sex marriage is illegal in 13 states).

This may not be fair, but it is reality and it also affects male sportsmen, albeit less so. Ronaldo and David Beckham have traded, lucratively, on their good looks as well as their ability.

Like those two, Morgan has embraced the opportunities. Posing for SI’s swimsuit edition in bodypaint is a case in point, though she has said she also did it to promote the sport and empower girls to be “body confident”. Easy to say when you look like Morgan, critics might suggest, but even she was trolled so badly she considered breast enhancement, according to an interview with her sister, Jeri.

This did not put her off social media (1.77m followers on Twitter, 1.2m on Instagram, and her own website), but she is also involved in old-fashioned print, writing a series of books aimed at teenage girls from which a pilot TV series has been commissioned.

Further evidence of her celebrity is an appearance of her character in an episode of  The Simpsons, an invitation to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and to take a stroll on the runway at New York’s Fashion Week.

Morgan is married to Servando Carrasco, a footballer whom she met at University of California, Berkeley – where she trained with the men’s team. A two-footballer marriage has its complications. In 2012 they both played in Seattle, but Morgan was previously in Rochester and now plays for Portland Thorns alongside England’s Jodie Taylor. Carrasco has gone, via Houston, to MLS side Sporting Kansas City. Kansas to Portland is 1600 miles. There are no direct flights.

An indication that, in America at least, women footballers can out-earn the men. Carrasco, who has started six of City’s 15 MLS fixtures this season, has a base salary half Morgan’s.

The MLS minimum is $60,000 (£38,500). In the National Women’s Soccer League, in which Morgan plays, there are players on $10,000. Jazmine Reeves, Boston Breakers’ Rookie of the Year last season, quit at 22 to join Amazon, unable to live on her $11,000 (£7,000) salary.

So Morgan is very much the exception. “You can have beauty and brains and athletic ability,” she once said. This sounds like bragging, but Morgan, who is not regarded as boastful, said it in the context of seeking to refute the stereotype that a woman can only have one of those qualities. If you have them all, like Morgan, the world is yours, and while that world may still be much smaller than Beckham or Ronaldo’s, at least she can grab a coffee without being besieged by paparazzi.

Money game: England players left trailing

England’s World Cup players can earn up to £65,000 a year. A third of that is from their Football Association central contract, the rest from their clubs. However, there are Women’s Super League players on £50 a week, many only surviving because their club pays their student fees or provides non-playing employment, and offers accommodation.

As for endorsements, the market is growing, and the World Cup will help, but  at present even the best-known England players would struggle to make £10,000 a year from them.