Megan Rapinoe, an icon bigger than soccer, takes a bow for the U.S. national team
In her last game for the national team on Sunday, Megan Rapinoe took a final bow for her career as an international soccer player, basking in the applause and the hugs of her teammates.
While it's the finish to her remarkable national career, it doesn't quite feel like an ending, because so much of who Rapinoe is and what she stands for extends beyond the pitch.
Sometimes it seemed unbelievable that someone with such moral courage and aplomb could also score the most goals at the 2019 Women's World Cup, a winger with a foot like a laser. How could all of this talent and nerve be in one person?
The last match
In Sunday's friendly match in Chicago, the U.S. beat South Africa 2-0. Rapinoe didn't notch a goal or an assist, but came very close.
There was her curving corner kick early in the second half, punched away by the South Africa goalkeeper, then headed in by USWNT's Emily Sonnett.
And there was the moment, so perfectly teed up for the finale: Rapinoe's free kick in the 52nd minute, the chance to go out with a goal in one of her countless surgically executed set pieces. She blasted it toward the goal and the keeper leapt to stop it – but the ball narrowly sailed over the crossbar.
So there was not a perfect goal to end her national career, just as there was not a perfect performance at the Women's World Cup last month, where the U.S. was knocked out earlier than ever before.
But that didn't dampen the fans' admiration when Rapinoe was subbed out for the last time, in the game's 53rd minute, giving the 25,000 spectators at Soldier Field a chance to pay their respects.
Rapinoe transferred the captain's arm band to Lindsay Horan, received the embraces of her teammates, and hugged her replacement, Midge Purce.
"I'm out!" Rapinoe exclaimed.
A star on the field and in social justice activism
At 38 years old, Rapinoe's final match came 17 years and 63 days after her first appearance on the USWNT — making hers the fourth-longest career in team history. She played in four Women's World Cups (winning two), and was part of the 2012 Olympic gold-winning squad. She scored 63 international goals, putting her at 10th place in USWNT history, and tied with Abby Wambach for assists at 73.
She found her place in soccer fans' hearts at the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil, when a long pass to Abby Wambach resulted in a header that sent the U.S. to penalty kicks — Rapinoe made hers — and victory in the match.
In 2016, she was the first white athlete to kneel during the national anthem in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's protest of police violence against Black people. U.S. Soccer then enacted a ban against kneeling for more than three years, before repealing the rule in 2020 and saying its policy had been wrong.
"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 after the first game at which she kneeled. "It's important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don't need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that's really powerful."
At the 2019 Women's World Cup in France, Rapinoe became a hero to many and a villain to others. During the tournament, Rapinoe ended up in a war of words with then-President Donald Trump. The U.S. went on to raise the Cup, with Rapinoe winning the Golden Boot for most goals – and her arms-outstretched celebratory pose became her signature.
She was also among the outspoken leaders of the USWNT players who battled U.S. Soccer to change its pay structure so the men's and women's teams were given equal pay for equal work — a fight they won in 2022 witha new contract and settlement that included $22 million in back pay.
She did all of this while becoming a gay icon and LGBTQ advocate, alongside her partner Sue Bird, the WNBA star who retired from basketball last year.
In 2022, President Joe Biden awarded Rapinoe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. Rapinoe was the first soccer player to receive the award, and just one of six female athletes.
"Beyond the World Cup titles to Olympic medals, Megan is a champion for an essential American truth: that everyone, everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect," Biden said.
Her soccer career isn't over just yet, though. Rapinoe will finish out the season with her club team, OL Reign.
While she'll be hanging up her cleats, don't expect Rapinoe to fade away. She and Bird launched a production company late last year that aims to highlight underrepresented voices. She hopes to someday own a pro women's soccer team, remodel her house, and travel not for matches, but for fun. "I want to go to Italy for a month," she told The Ringer. "It'd be so nice."
What about getting into politics? She admitted she's thought about it, because she's been asked many times. But she said her retirement plan is to be an activist, not a politician.
"I do want to live my life," she told The Ringer. "Probably selfishly I just am like, 'That seems like a lot.'"
A legacy beyond sport
In an on-field speech after the game, Rapinoe thanked fans from around the country and around the world.
"I feel like I've grown up in front of all of you," she said. "When I think about what it means to me to represent not only this team, but our country...we're just a little snapshot of all of you," she said, gesturing to those in the stands.
"It has been such an honor to be able to wear this shirt, and to play with all these amazing players, and just to live out my childhood dream, casually just like in front of the world," she said, inserting a joke in classic Rapinoe fashion. "I'm one of you guys now, be the biggest fan of this team."
After the match, Rapinoe reflected on how the game had changed since she started playing — and how she and her teammates had driven that change.
"As we've worked to create more space for ourselves and fight for equality for ourselves, I think that we've done that for other people as well," she told reporters.
"The players want to see themselves reflected back in the fans also," she said. "It's a really beautiful thing to look out and see little Black girls, and little trans kids and boys with our jerseys on, families of all kinds. I think that's something all of us are really proud of. And all of us know, especially in our generation, know the impact that we've made and know that it's a lot different than when we started."
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