By Peter Staunton
Rarely has a sportsman or woman gone from so little renown to so much and in such a short span of time.
Megan Rapinoe was no secret to followers of women’s football – or to avid USWNT soccer fans – with a World Cup and an Olympic Gold medal among her previous honours.
This year however she achieved something more than her second World Cup title.
She became the first women’s football player to become a true cultural superstar, a player in the consciousness of anyone even remotely interested in the game, and on the lips of the man in the White House.
Megan Rapinoe this year distinguished herself not only on the field but off it too.
The World Cup Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, FIFA’s The Best award and now the Goal 50 rightly commemorate the triumphs experienced by Rapinoe alongside her US team-mates in France over the summer.
But she also came to represent something far, far more.
She forced people to contemplate what it means to be a good American, to examine their conscience, to at least try to think about doing the right thing.
Through the growing awareness of her previous activism, Rapinoe made people sit up and take notice of an open and out LGBT athlete at the top of her game.
To question deference to a flag and an anthem, to talk about the gender pay gaps and the place of women’s sport in the hierarchy.
She used her position to spread a message and to take a stance totally at odds with attitudes displayed in the men’s game.
Rarely has a football player been as outspoken, but Rapinoe also backed up her talking on the pitch.
Long regarded as one of the most creative and devastating players of her generation, it nonetheless took Rapinoe until the age of 34 to break out into the mainstream and become the cultural touchstone she is today.
Her influence has been huge, her legacy massive and still growing.
Megan Rapinoe is America’s football superstar that it didn’t know it had.
Her emergence came at a time when it was required; as an antidote to Donald Trump, as a rallying cry for women and girls around the world, as the voice 2019 needed to hear.
Redding is a city in what’s known as “Calabama”.
While much of the rest of the state of California is liberal and votes Democrat, Redding is staunchly Republican.
Megan’s father, Jim, is a military veteran like his father before him. He operates his own construction firm and voted for President Trump in 2016.
When Megan supported NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest in September 2016, it caused a ripple back home in Redding.
The patriots in her hometown had long cheered her successes in the colours of the US team.
But the anthem protest made some decidedly uncomfortable.
In Redding there is a football facility named after her, located on 15 Rapinoe Way. But perceptions in her hometown in the years following the protests was sharply split.
On one hand came respect for her on-field achievements and on the other a wish that she would keep her opinions to herself.
But that’s not Megan Rapinoe. The on-field and the off-field are closely entwined, without one you cannot have the other.
She has never been the type of person to kowtow to the prevailing orthodoxy. She says what she thinks and thinks about what she says.
And if acceptance of her skills as a football player does not include acceptance of her stature as an activist and icon then she has never been interested in receiving it.
She used her opportunity when presented with FIFA’s The Best Award to highlight racism within football rather than trot out the same old platitudes about the importance of hard work and her team-mates.
Before the World Cup final, she accused the same organisation of a certain degree of disrespect, scheduling as it did the game on the same day as the Copa America and Concacaf Gold Cup finals played elsewhere in the world.
The conversation she and her team-mates started about equal pay is still going on, with the success of the women’s team painting the failures of the men’s team in ever increasing light.
Rapinoe’s is a story that begins at the Big Bang of women’s football in the US and endures to this day.
From the moment her father took her along with her twin sister Rachael to the 1999 Women’s World Cup semi-final between the USA and Brazil at the Stanford Stadium in California, her fate was decided.
She would go on to share a dressing room with some of the 99ers, as they came to be known, including her first heroine in Kristen Lilly.
And now she has become that senior figure herself.
The woman who has seen and done it all, from battling back from multiple major knee injuries, enduring the anguish of missing Olympic Games and World Cups, to overcoming those obstacles and taking her place at the zenith of the world’s most popular game.
Her success should guarantee her place in American sporting consciousness as a golden girl but it hasn’t been that way.
These are strange days where athletes are expected to shut up and comply but Megan Rapinoe is one of the few who steadfastly refuses to stick to sports.
Her opposition to the election of Trump culminated in the infamous video in which she declares: “We’re not going to the f*cking White House” if the US wins the World Cup.
This was America’s most popular football player coming in direct conflict with the Commander-in-Chief.
Trump’s election in 2016 laid the groundwork for expressions of hostility and intolerance across America, objectionable behaviours which Rapinoe could neither condone nor remain silent on.
She spoke for the trodden-down and for the marginalised.
She and her partner Sue Bird, the WNBA superstar, were the first same-sex couple to appear on the cover of ESPN’s Body Issue.
Ever since her public coming out in 2012, Rapinoe has been vocal on the issue of LGBT rights. Silence would be complicit. And so she spoke.
Trump shot back, stating that she should win the World Cup before thinking about a commemorative trip to the White House.
The next time she set foot on a football field, in the World Cup quarter-finals against France, she scored two goals.
Her celebration, a confident, arm-spreading, how-do-you-like-me-now kind of triumphalism became the iconic image of the sporting summer. And in the final she put it all on the line again.
Her penalty kick, which helped see off the challenge of the Netherlands, gave the U.S. its fourth gold medal and placed her in the record books as the oldest goalscorer in a World Cup final.
That was the culmination of a journey that began in Redding and ended with Megan Rapinoe, again, on top of the world.
During the 2011 World Cup, having scored against Colombia, Rapinoe picked up a pitch side microphone and bellowed the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA.
In many ways it is the perfect Rapinoe song. On first listen, you might mistake it for some kind of jingoistic ditty, which lends itself to flag-waving patriotism.
But deeper examination reveals it to be a song about how American society lost its way, alienated its sons and daughters and forced a tough examination of what it came to represent.
And when Rapinoe stands for the anthem – with kneeling now outlawed – she maintains a dignified silence and makes American do the same all over again.
She shows the world that there is no typical American, she has as much stake in the country as any Trump advocate.
She was Born in the USA and represents it with distinction.
Don’t be fooled into believing that Megan Rapinoe hates her country.
She loves it, wants to change it, and wants to make it better. If that’s not love I don’t know what is.