Megan Rapinoe walked into the conference room at the Parc des Princes on Friday night holding the trophy for the player of the match.
She is the kind of woman who can command any stage with her charisma and who lives for evenings in the spotlight. As she gazed around at the crowd of faces staring at her, she grinned. ‘C’est magnifique, ce soir,’ she said. ‘It is everything you want.’
Even if forward Alex Morgan hit the headlines for her five-goal haul against Thailand in the group stages, Rapinoe has become both the heartbeat and the moral compass of this US team at the Women’s World Cup and it was her two goals that knocked hosts France out and propelled the US into a semi-final showdown with England in Lyon on Tuesday.
Megan Rapinoe has been the star of the US team at the Women’s World Cup this summer
It was the end of a busy week for the US star, who has a streak of lavender running through her pale hair and spent much of last week embroiled in a public argument with President Trump after she said in forthright terms that she would shun a visit to the White House if the US retain their title by winning the trophy next weekend.
Over the years, Rapinoe, 33, who describes herself as ‘a walking protest’ and does not sing the US anthem before games, has called Trump ‘sexist’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘racist’, ‘small-minded’ and a ‘jerk but entertaining’. She supported Black Lives Matter campaigner Colin Kaepernick by kneeling when the national anthem played before a club game in the US. ‘Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,’ she said.
Trump told her in response to her White House jibe that ‘Megan should win first before she talks’. In another Twitter outburst, Trump upbraided her again. ‘Megan should never disrespect our country, the White House or our flag,’ he wrote, ‘particularly as so much has been done for her and the team. Be proud of the flag that you wear. The USA is doing great.’
People worried that the furore would be a distraction for Rapinoe. It wasn’t. She could barely have proved that more emphatically. In a game where the US again seemed to be clinging on a little towards the end, as they had against Spain, Rapinoe decided the match with a goal in both halves against the French and a performance that oozed ruthless class.
‘She is so good at coming up in the big moments,’ US midfielder Sam Mewis said. ‘Pinoe is the bravest person I know. She’s fighting so hard for everything she believes in and then backing that up on the field as well. It’s an honour to be her team-mate. I back her 100 per cent. A World Cup is about coming up in the big moments and that’s what she’s doing.’
Rapinoe scored a brace in the win over hosts France on Friday night to reach the semi-finals
Rapinoe has recently been involved in an angry exchange with President Trump on Twitter
Rapinoe gave every impression of relishing the showdown with England, who are full of momentum of their own after their crushing quarter-final win over Norway on Thursday in Le Havre. When it was pointed out to Rapinoe that Phil Neville had asked his team if they were ready to win the World Cup after their last eight win, her eyes danced.
‘If you’re at this stage of the tournament and you’re not trying to win the World Cup, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘Every team should feel like that, every team that qualified should feel like that. Especially one of the biggest teams in the game. England are playing well and had a totally dominating performance against Norway, so they should absolutely be confident.’ She paused for a second then for dramatic effect. ‘We like confidence in America, don’t we,’ she added with a smile.
Rapinoe’s defiance and indomitability runs through this US squad. Despite the fact that they have dominated the women’s game for the last 20 years and regularly attract larger crowds than the US men’s team, they are still paid considerably less. Earlier this year, they launched a lawsuit for purposeful gender discrimination against the US Soccer Federation, which is ongoing. It makes for an interesting backdrop to a World Cup campaign.
Even Neville is a fan of their attitude. ‘Some people can talk the talk and not deliver,’ he said, ‘but their whole team is not like that. They are not scared of putting their heads above the parapet to say: “this is what I believe in.” They are fighting for equality within their own organisation. And the way Rapinoe campaigns for equal rights and speaks out against homophobia and racial discrimination says a lot about her. I was always taught to stand up for what I believed in and I admire her for what she does.’
Rapinoe is part of a powerful front three that poses the most dangerous threat to the Lionesses’ dream of making it to the final next Sunday.
With centre forward Morgan, who is leading the race for the Golden Boot with England’s Ellen White, and Tobin Heath, they represent a formidable attacking unit that is ruthless at punishing mistakes and is capable of breaking at lightning speed.
Rapinoe raced onto a cross at the back post to score one of her goals in the win over France
The holders are about more than the front three, though. The in-form Mewis, who was preferred to Lindsey Horan against France, was a crucial influence in the game, a hard-running, hard-tackling midfielder who covers a lot of ground and helps to provide the foundation for the team’s attacking talents.
England will, though, gain encouragement from vulnerabilities in the US defence. In particular, there are doubts about the ability of goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to stand up to the pressure of such a high-profile game after she replaced long-standing goalkeeping icon Hope Solo as the USA No 1.
England, though, will not be able to trade on any shortcomings in attitude. A few minutes in the company of Rapinoe after the match was proof enough of that. She was asked whether the fact that the tournament was taking place in Pride month made her goals more significant. Her response was more proof that Rapinoe says what she thinks and cherishes her principles and takes the rest of the team with her.
‘Go gays,’ she said. ‘You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there. I’m motivated by people who, like me, are fighting for the same things. I take more energy from that than 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.’
The US coach, Jill Ellis, smiled when she was asked if she had been concerned about Rapinoe’s involvement in the row with Trump. ‘It’s almost as if it feeds her,’ Ellis said. ‘She’s a big personality both on and off the pitch and I think she honestly thrives in these moments. There’s a never-say-die attitude. She loves and lives for those moments. She’s a big-time player and the bigger the stage the more she’s going to respond.’ England have been warned.
Rapinoe is part of a powerful American front three that includes Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath