By Dushyant Shekhawat
On 29 June, sports photographer Franck Fife captured an image that will be remembered for years to come. At the semi-finals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, USA’s Megan Rapinoe overcame a hostile crowd and a turbulent week in the public eye to score a goal against the home team, France, within five minutes of kick-off. Fife’s photograph captured her celebration. The wild, purple hair contrasted sharply with the serene, composed expression on her face as she stood with arms outstretched, as if telling the booing crowd, “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere; get used to it.”
The image of a defiant Rapinoe becomes even more admirable when you realise its context. Since their very first match at the World Cup, the US Women’s National Team has been subjected to the kind of scrutiny their male counterparts escape (mostly because they rarely qualify). They beat Thailand 13-0 (!), and still came in for criticism from people who felt their post-goal celebrations were in bad taste. Some would say that winning a World Cup match by the highest margin in the tournament’s history is a cause for celebration, but critics of the USWNT are obviously not among them.
It wasn’t just mansplaining over how to properly celebrate a goal that Rapinoe had to overcome, but an entire week of social media bashing from supporters of Cheeto-in-Chief Donald Trump. In an interview, Rapinoe declared that even if USWNT won the cup, she wouldn’t be going “to the f*cking White House.” Trump in turn accused her of disrespecting the United States, and pro-Trump trolls began a campaign of abuse against the national team’s co-captain. Despite the media frenzy and the online harassment, Rapinoe delivered the goods, scoring both goals in the team’s 2-1 quarter-final victory over France.
She was benched in the ensuing semi-final against England with a minor injury, but her absence was still the biggest talking point of the match. She came back to make her presence felt in the final against Netherlands, scoring yet another goal from the penalty spot in a 2-0 victory and taking her tally for this tournament to six. Right now, Megan Rapinoe is the woman to watch, even when she’s not on the field. Her magnetism comes not only from her amazing displays as an elite athlete, but also from her activism, both in and out of team colours. She is not just a Great Player, she’s a symbol of our changing times, which is why her legend will spread beyond the football field.
She’s an out-and-proud homosexual, a bold feminist, as well as being a world champion. Women’s rights, gay rights, racial equality, equal pay – Rapinoe has used her position as an international sports star to draw attention to each of these issues. Her decision to forgo a champion’s visit to the White House was spurred by Trump’s pathetic record on most of those. She was also the first high-profile white athlete to kneel during the playing of the US national anthem, lending her support to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Given how polarising these topics can be, it’s no surprise that she has found a legion of detractors.
Still, Rapinoe doesn’t back down from a challenge, whether it is online trolls, a stadium full of booing French fans, or the freaking President of the United States. Though US Soccer has a rule that forbids players from kneeling during the anthem, this World Cup has seen Rapinoe resolutely clasp her hands behind her back instead of holding them over her heart, and refusing to sing along. Even after facing the ire of Trump and his fans online, she doubled down on her White House statements, though she said she regrets using the F-word, not for any other reason but that her mum wouldn’t approve. “I don’t think that I would want to go and I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and fight for the same things we fight for,” she said in a press conference.
Fighting is what Rapinoe does best, on the pitch and off it. By championing intersectional equality, she’s become an idol even for those who may not care about sports. Best of all, she does it with the unassuming air of someone just going about their day. But then, for people like Rapinoe, changing the world is exactly that – another ordinary day. She’s been called a “REVOLUTIONARY BLONDE SOCCER LESBIAN GODDESS” on Twitter, and there might be no other title that suits her better. On the back of her and her peers’ achievements, the USWNT have lifted the World Cup trophy, again. In 2015, they won it, and Rapinoe was there to share the glory. This time, she achieved victory even before the starting whistle blew.
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