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Soccer

Megan Rapinoe took center stage and owned it at Women’s World Cup

Megan Rapinoe
Megan Rapinoe poses with the Golden Boot after scoring the most goals in the Women’s World Cup. She also won the Golden Ball as the best player.
(Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP / Getty Images)

Megan Rapinoe came to France a month ago as a pretty good soccer player. She’s leaving Monday as the closest thing the sport has to a rock star.

She took this Women’s World Cup by the scruff of the neck and made it her own, scoring five times in her last three games to lead the tournament in goals, winning the Golden Ball as the best player and scoring the goal Sunday that started the U.S. to a 2-0 win over the Netherlands, giving the Americans their second straight title and fourth overall.

And those weren’t all the highlights.

Along the way Rapinoe ignited a Twitter feud with President Trump, used the spotlight of soccer’s biggest tournament to speak about inclusion and gay rights, and continued to agitate for pay equality in the sport.

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On Sunday the world — or at least that part represented at the World Cup — stood to join her. As Rapinoe celebrated with her teammates on the field, many in the crowd of 57,900 at Stade Lyon stood and chanted “Equal Pay!”

“A full stadium in a foreign country,” Rapinoe marveled. “The movement is just swelling before our very eyes. This is what the people want. Give the people what they want.”

If Rapinoe didn’t start the movement, she’s certainly leading it. She was part of a federal lawsuit charging the U.S. Soccer Federation with gender-based discrimination. Not only has the rest of the world been watching, but now it’s participating. More than a quarter of the teams in this Women’s World Cup took action at home before the tournament, demanding attention, support and funding from their own federations.

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who has been slow to embrace the call for gender equality that became the clarion call of this World Cup, is now the villain of the drama and was booed when he stepped on the podium for Sunday’s trophy ceremony. Three times he and Rapinoe met and shook hands as the American captain went through a receiving line of various government and FIFA officials to receive her awards.

Each time there was an awkward handshake.

“There was a wry smile in there for sure,” Rapinoe said. “He knows that I know that he knows that I know.”

If Rapinoe has become a lightning rod for controversy and criticism, it’s a role she embraces. She’s dyed her hair purple — although the color seems to change like the lights on a Christmas tree — and she’s been open about her sexual orientation since 2012.

Her goal celebration, which she modified during the tournament, has her racing to the sidelines, standing erect and holding her arms spread above her head, as if to welcome both the cheers and the catcalls.

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“I’m made for this,” she said Sunday. “I love it. Obviously getting to play at the highest level in a World Cup with a team like we have is just ridiculous. But to be able to couple that with everything off the field and to back up all of those words with performances and then to back up all of those performances with words, it’s just incredible.

“This team just is in the midst of changing the world around us. It’s just an incredible feeling really.”

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Along the way, Rapinoe arguably has become the most impassioned and forceful advocate for female athletes since Billie Jean King more than a generation ago.

“Maybe you don’t agree with every single way that I do it or [what] gets discussed,” she said the day before the final.

But you listen. And, Rapinoe hopes, you think about what she said.

Far from distracting from her responsibilities on the field, Rapinoe’s outspokenness has made her better.

“It speaks volumes about her as a person,” coach Jill Ellis said. “Megan was built for these moments. Built to be a spokesperson for others. She’s just incredibly eloquent. Speaks from her heart. We need people like that in the game, to call things what they are.

“In terms of her dealing with this, no, I never had any issue with that because the past 4-1/2, five years I’ve seen what she’s capable of. The bigger the spotlight, the more she shines. Sometimes spotlights can burn people, but for Megan, it just highlights who she is.”

She was late to her own postgame press conference Sunday, delayed by drug testing. But when she showed up, she burst into the room like a guest on a late-night talk show, redirecting the attention from Ellis to herself.

Ellis may be the coach but Rapinoe is the star and this World Cup was hers. And before she stepped off the stage, she let everyone know the tournament might be over but the crusade goes on.

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Rapinoe, as all six U.S. opponents in this tournament now know, does not give up easily.

“Everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step,” she said. “We’re done with are we worth it, should we have equal pay, [are] the markets the same. Everyone’s done with that. Let’s get to the point of what’s next.

“Every player at this World Cup put on the most incredible show that you could ever ask for. We can’t do anything more to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better, to do anything. It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.”

Gianni Infantino and U.S. Soccer, consider yourself warned.


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