Megan Rapinoe took center stage and owned it at Women’s World Cup
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.
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.
U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, left, joins teammates in celebration after defeating the Netherlands in the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday in Lyon, France.(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)
American forward Megan Rapinoe poses with the Golden Boot after scoring the most goals in the Women’s World Cup.(Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP / Getty Images)
Members of the U.S. team celebrate after defeating Netherlands 2-0 in the Women’s World Cup final.(David Vincent / Associated Press)
USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe, right, waves before the France 2019 Women’s World Cup final match between the U.S. and Netherlands on July 7 at Lyon Stadium in Lyon, France.(Jean Philippe Ksiazek / Getty Images)
American midfielder Rose Lavelle leaps into the arms of Alex Morgan as they, along with Megan Rapinoe, celebrate a goal by Lavelle during the second half Sunday.(Francisco Seco / Associated Press)
U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe scores her side’s opening goal on a penalty shot during the second half to open the scoring against Netherlands.(David Vincent / Associated Press)
U.S. forward Alex Morgan, center, battles for possession with Stefanie Van der Gragt, left, and Amouk Dekker of Netherlands during the FIFA Women’s World Cup final in Lyon, France, on July 7.(Alex Grimm / Getty Images)
Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal makes a save during the FIFA Women’s World Cup final against the United States in Lyon, France, on July 7.(Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP/Getty Images)
Netherlands goalkeeper Sari Van Veenendaal, right, leaps to make a save during the FIFA Women’s World Cup final against the United States in Lyon, France, on July 7.(Francisco Seco / Associated Press)
U.S. defender Crystal Dunn drives past Netherlands’ Danielle Van de Donk during the FIFA Women’s World Cup final against the United States in Lyon, France, on July 7.(Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)
U.S. defender Abby Dahlkemper and Netherlands forward Lineth Beerensteyn compete for the ball during the FIFA Women’s World Cup final.(Philippe Desmazes / AFP/Getty Images)
Midfielders Samantha Mewis of the U.S. and Anouk Dekker of the Netherlands battle for control of the ball.(Srdjan Suki / EPA-EFE / REX)
Netherlands forward Lineth Beerensteyn and U.S. defender Abby Dahlkemper vie for the ball.(Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP/ Getty Images)
American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher clears the ball on a centering pass before Netherlands forward Lineth Beerensteyn can attempt a shot.(Francois Mori / Associated Press)
U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe is knocked to the pitch by Netherlands midfielder Anouk Dekker.(Srdjan Suki / EPA-EFE / REX)
American midfielder Julie Ertz heads the ball toward a teammate.(Franck Fife / AFP / Getty Images)
Netherlands midfielder Lieke Martens is challenged by American midfielder Julie Ertz.(Richard Heathcote / Getty Images)
U.S. forward Alex Morgan brings down a pass while marked by Netherlands defender Anouk Dekker.(Jean-Philippe Ksiazek / AFP / Getty Images)
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.”
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.
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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