World Cup 2019: Megan Rapinoe Commands the Stage
In the fifth minute of the United States’ World Cup quarter-final game against France, the French defender Griedge Mbock Bathy pulled down the American striker Alex Morgan outside the penalty area and was shown a yellow card. Megan Rapinoe took the free kick and sent a low, hard cross that bent around a small wall of French defenders, dipped through a sea of legs, and slipped past the goalkeeper, who appears not even to have seen the ball. When it hit the net, Rapinoe turned, trotted toward the left corner of the field, and presented herself to the crowd. As her teammates leapt on her back, she held the pose: arms outstretched, chest out, chin up. She looked like an opera diva, about to drop into a curtsy during a curtain call. It would be an understatement to say that Rapinoe has a flair for the dramatic. No athlete I can think of right now has such a perfect sense of herself on a stage—nor such a command of it.
Rapinoe, the captain of the U.S. women’s national team, is accustomed to the spotlight, on and off the field. At the 2011 quarter-finals, Rapinoe sent up a perfect high cross that Abby Wambach headed home during stoppage time, one of the most memorable goals in World Cup history. Rapinoe became the first white professional athlete to take a knee during the national anthem in support of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of systemic racism and police brutality, risking her spot on the national team. (U.S. Soccer later instituted a rule requiring all players to stand.) Rapinoe has posed with her wife, the W.N.B.A. player Sue Bird, nude in ESPN magazine’s The Body Issue. Her freewheeling play, precise footwork, and uncanny vision facilitate the flow of the United States’ offense. Rapinoe has become the most consistent and articulate spokesperson for the women’s national team in the players’ battle for equal pay. And Rapinoe has scored every goal for the United States during the knockout rounds: two on Tuesday, against Spain, and two on Friday, against France.
That, of course, is not all that Rapinoe has gotten attention for lately. Earlier this week, the soccer magazine Eight by Eight released a video in which Rapinoe was asked whether she was excited about visiting the White House after the World Cup. “I’m not going to the fucking White House,” she said. She’d said this before. “I am not going to fake it, hobnob with the President, who is clearly against so many of the things that I am [for] and so many of the things that I actually am,” Rapinoe told Sports Illustrated. “I have no interest in extending our platform to him.” But this time, the world was paying attention (11.5 million views as of Saturday morning)—and Donald Trump eventually weighed in on Twitter, criticizing her lack of patriotism, throwing in dog whistles about black unemployment and the N.B.A. “owner” controversy, and inviting the U.S. women’s national team to the White House, win or lose.
This did not go over well; first, Trump tweeted at the wrong handle, and then some of Rapinoe’s teammates backed her up. “In regards to the ‘President’s’ tweet today, I know women who you cannot control or grope anger you, but I stand by [Rapinoe],” Ali Krieger wrote in one response. (Bonus points for her ironic quote marks around the word “President.”) “I think we all support Megan,” Jill Ellis, the team’s coach, said more diplomatically. “She knows that.”
By now, the U.S. players and coaches are used to speaking frankly about issues that other teams, in other sports, played by another gender, would consider a “distraction” before a big game—and the quarter-final against France was the biggest game of all. It is not an exaggeration to say that the match between the host nation and the United States was the most anticipated contest in the history of women’s soccer, a showcase of how far the game has come. Record-setting television audiences were expected; tickets were reselling for thousands of dollars. France, like several other countries, had banned women’s soccer in the middle of the twentieth century, but, in recent years, participation has exploded on every level, and its club teams have become models of professionalism and excellence. The United States had not beaten France in the teams’ last three meetings. But France has never won a major international title, and, as the host nation, it was under enormous pressure to match the success of the men’s team, winner of the 2018 World Cup—but with the added need to validate France’s investment in the women’s game. Like most women’s teams, it was tasked not only with winning but justifying its own existence.
For the United States, the stakes were just as high. Anything less than a title for the defending champions in France this year would be considered a failure—at least in one sense. But Rapinoe, who turns thirty-four next week, has proved is that the game isn’t limited to what happens on the field, and what happens on the field isn’t merely a game. No matter the outcome for the U.S. team, her virtuoso performance will reverberate.