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The importance of being Megan Rapinoe

  • The World Cup winning co-captain of the US football team has led calls for equal pay for women footballers
  • Rapinoe has become an icon for social justice, equality and queer rights

Megan Rapinoe (centre) in action against the Netherlands in the 2019 women’s World Cup final in Lyon.
Megan Rapinoe (centre) in action against the Netherlands in the 2019 women’s World Cup final in Lyon.

On the night of 7 July, as chants of “Equal Pay" rang out around the Stade de Lyon in France, after the US successfully retained the World Cup by defeating the Netherlands 2-0, the American co-captain Megan Rapinoe looked beatific. And why not? She will forever be associated with the 2019 women’s World Cup the way Diego Maradona was with the 1986 men’s World Cup or Johan Cruyff with the 1974 edition. She lit up the field with her play, emerging as the winner of the Golden Boot, as well as the Player of the Match in the final.

But the reason for her beatitude might well be something more than sporting excellence. Rapinoe has been a vocal critic of the way men ran her world throughout the World Cup. She was angry and articulate in her call for equal pay for women footballers right through the tournament. She has been outspoken in her criticism of US President Donald Trump and his vision of America, to the extent that Trump felt the need to rant against her on Twitter. In winning, and winning quite thoroughly and spectacularly, she could afford to bask in the glory of a job well done.

The US team were favourites when the tournament began on 7 June. The Americans had the best team, the best infrastructure and genuine grass-roots popularity. In tournaments past, European and Asian teams, with their much more humble national set-ups, had struggled to keep up. In the 2015 final, the US were up 4-0 against finalists Japan within the first 20 minutes. This time around, though, the competition was more fierce, as the teams the US faced in the run-in, including semi-finalists England and the Netherlands, were excellent, and pushed the eventual champions hard.

This made Rapinoe’s triumph even sweeter. The high quality of football served up by the national teams in France only underscored what she had been saying all along about equal recognition for the women’s game. In March, Rapinoe, Alexandra Morgan and 26 other footballers brought a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation (USSF), seeking pay equal to their male counterparts. In April, during a roundtable discussion hosted by employment site Glassdoor on the topic of equal pay, Rapinoe had said, “Equal pay is just the right thing to do." Speaking of the USSF, she said, “We have already proven we have been making money, even without the investment we need, so imagine with the investment." At the World Cup, she demanded the same of Fifa and Gianni Infantino, president of the world footballing body. When Infantino was booed by the crowd on the night of the final, a wry Rapinoe said, “A little public shame never hurt anyone, so I am down with it."

Rapinoe’s influence doesn’t just stop there. The 34-year-old midfielder has been a vocal supporter of National Football League (NFL) star Colin Kaepernick and his decision to kneel during the US national anthem in 2016 to protest against racism. That year, she had written in The Players’ Tribune: “I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street. But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache." She chose her own form of protest whenever The Star Spangled Banner, the US national anthem, played during the World Cup, refusing to put her hand on her chest, or sing.

The US team celebrating with the trophy after its 2-0 win.
The US team celebrating with the trophy after its 2-0 win.

As an openly queer player, Rapinoe has been the leading figure among 37 other LGBTQ+ players across World Cup teams who are out and proud. This is in stark contrast to the men’s game, where coming out is still taboo. During the tournament, Rapinoe was asked about the significance of playing in the World Cup during Pride Month. “I am motivated by people like me and people who are fighting for the same things. I take more energy from that than from trying to prove anyone wrong. That’s draining on yourself. But for me, to be gay and fabulous during Pride month at the World Cup is nice," she had said.

The women’s World Cup has been a great success. The games, barring a few mismatches, have been of consistently high quality, and there are many moments which will live on in memory: the talented England team’s march to the semi-final; the hard-fought final by the European champions, the Netherlands. Above all, there was Brazil striker Marta’s inspiring words for young footballers in her country, “Women’s football depends on you to survive," she said, “Cry at the beginning so you can smile at the end."

They needn’t look any further than Rapinoe for that perfect ending.

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