After the United States had narrowly survived being dumped out of the tournament in the group stage, the titleholders fell lost their Round of 16 penalty shootout against Sweden as Lina Hurtig’s strike was edged over the line by the mere width of a blade of grass.
For Rapinoe, the football God’s produced a cruel twist in the tale, as her missed penalty proved pivotal at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium. But despite the anguish and disbelief felt by the 38-year-old at seeing her storied international career end in such a way, Rapinoe knew the legacy she was leaving.
“I’ve always tried to play the game the right way,” she explained. “To go about things the right way, to use whatever platform we have — a platform that was built long before I got here — and just continue to add to it.
“To grow the game and make the world a better place, to use our voices and to advocate for more. Being a professional female athlete, we know what the injustices are that we have felt, so it makes it easy for us to then be an ally in other ways.
“That’s the real legacy for me and it mean I walk away from the game having gotten everything out of it that I possible could, enjoyed every moment, fought, laid it all out there and celebrated it.”
Recognition across the globe
It was a measure of how big an impact Rapinoe has had across the world and across many generations that in early July, when the United States held an opening training session for the fans, more than 300 fans turned up despite the pouring rain in Auckland.
As the hour drew to a close, three dismayed local Kiwi teenagers trooped away grumbling: “I thought open training meant we would be able to play with the team. I wanted to play football with Megan!”
Part of what propelled the winger into the global consciousness, was her willingness to stand up and speak out when injustices arose, no matter the personal backlash.
As one of several gay players on the national team, Rapinoe often spoke out against Donald Trump, courting controversy ahead of the 2019 World Cup in France when she claimed the team would not welcome an invitation to the White House.
Her beliefs that the former president’s policies sought to exclude and minimize those in the LGBTQ community and other minorities proving a particular point of principle.
“We have no interest in lending the platform that we’ve worked so hard to build and the things that we fight for and the way that we live our life, for that to be co-opted or corrupted by the administration,” she told CNN at the time.
When asked what her message to Trump would be, she responded: “I would say that your message is excluding people. You’re excluding me. You’re excluding people that look like me. You’re excluding people of color.”
Rapinoe too became the face and the voice of the USWNT’s fight for equal pay against their own federation, all while the team attempted to win their second consecutive World Cup title.
As the shouts of “stick to football” flooded social media, the OL Reign player responded in a typically emphatic measure on the pitch, winning the Golden Boot as her six goals helped the US lift the trophy in Lyon.
“Megan will take on the hard questions and the difficult things that then allow other players not to have that be a factor for them,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher explained when describing the impact her teammate had made.
“It will be felt far deeper than just on this team. The thing that’s special about her is she takes on such a role. Because she is such a big presence, she’s willing to do a lot of the extra. She has attacked everything unapologetically herself and allows others to do the same and to be who they are as well.”
A different on-field role but the same Rapinoe
Four years ago, Rapinoe conquered all on the pitch, to add further weight and further trophies to her cabinet, also winning the World Cup player of the tournament.
As a two-time World Cup champion and an Olympic gold and bronze medalist, she has not lacked the silverware to add further proof of her prowess.
But Rapinoe entered the World Cup in New Zealand and Australia accepting that her role on the pitch was no longer to be the go-to player to win matches from the off. And, while like any footballer being an impact substitute was not her preference, she acknowledged her responsibility to offer all of her experience to help her teammates offer their best.
“Of course everyone thinks they should be on the pitch for 90 minutes but I understood my job,” Rapinoe said. “It was to use everything I’ve seen over many years and going into the locker room at half time and saying to the team this is what I saw, try and make these adjustments.
“To try to give that energy from the bench and bring that experience. Ultimately, I got to play in another World Cup, and I got to be in another situation to compete for a championship.”
“These moments are the ones you chase whether you on the field or behind the goal banging the drum cheering for everyone.”
The chase for international glory may finally have come to an end for Rapinoe, but her endeavors off-the-pitch are far from over.
Edited by: James Thorogood