“I don’t get my motivation from proving Trump wrong. I don’t care what he thinks” – How Megan Rapinoe conquered the world
As United States Women take on England for the first time since knocking the Lionesses out of the World Cup last summer, we talk to the Ballon d’Or winner about an incredible 2019 – and what comes next
This interview first appeared in the January 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe to the magazine now for less than £3.80 an issue and get £29.97 worth of bookazines absolutely free
Five minutes. That’s all Megan Rapinoe needed to make her statement. She did it without saying a single word. On a summer’s evening in Paris, the USA were playing France in a World Cup quarter-final. All eyes were on Rapinoe. In the previous round, she had scored both goals against Spain. Then, a video interview was released, filmed before the tournament. Asked if she’d accept an invite to the White House if the USA won the World Cup, Rapinoe’s reply was instant: “I’m not going to the f**king White House.” She’d been part of the squad that met Barack Obama after World Cup glory four years ago, but Donald Trump is not Barack Obama.
Within hours, Trump had hit back. “Megan should WIN first before she TALKS!” he said, in a rambling three-tweet rant.
....in our Country’s history, and the poverty index is also best number EVER), leagues and teams love coming to the White House. I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer, but Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job! We haven’t yet....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2019
How would Rapinoe respond against France? By scoring a free-kick within five minutes of kick-off, that’s how. Then by raising her arms aloft in an epic pose – reminiscent of Russell Crowe in Gladiator as he bellowed the words: ‘Are you not entertained?’
Rapinoe wasn’t going to be intimidated by anyone, not even the president of the United States. It was arguably one of the most iconic moments in the history of women’s football. In an instant, she had transcended the sport.
Described as “her generation’s Muhammad Ali”, she has spent years fighting for equality – kneeling for the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, as she spoke out about racism and LGBTQ rights. Currently, she’s one of 28 players in a legal battle with US Soccer over equal pay for women – one that looks set for court in 2020.
She is also involved with the Common Goal movement, together with Juan Mata, Giorgio Chiellini, Jurgen Klopp, Eric Cantona, Eni Aluko and a growing list of figures in football that numbers 140 two years after its launch. Each person donates a minimum of one per cent of their salary to support charities around the world, using football to drive social change.
On top of all that, Rapinoe is the best female footballer on the planet. Four years ago, Carli Lloyd was both the USA’s triumphant skipper and star player at the World Cup – this time, it was Rapinoe. She won the Golden Boot, too.
At the age of 34, she was then named The Best FIFA Women’s Player, before winning the Ballon d’Or – and being named FourFourTwo's Female Player of the Year. It’s been quite the whirlwind year…
How special was 2019?
I’m not even sure I would say special – I think absolutely insane would be a more appropriate way to name whatever’s happening right now!
Going into the World Cup, did you feel ready to deliver the best displays of your life?
I definitely knew that my game was in a better place than it had ever been, but I’m not sure I thought I’d have the performance that I did. I don’t really think about individual statistics – if the team’s winning, everyone’s doing better. There are bigger players at certain times – I’d gone through my whole career not really being that player, but also having a lot of success.
You’ve suffered three ACL injuries during your career, the third after the 2015 World Cup. Did that make you mentally strong?
I learned about mental strength very early in my career. After the first ACL injury, I thought, ‘I’m going to come back quickly, because I’m awesome’. You’re 21 years old. Then I tore my ACL again and I was like, ‘OK, well that’s an extreme reality check’. It gave me a sense of humility. Injuries will happen – you can’t let it be this career-defining, devastating moment.
You dyed your hair lilac before the start of the World Cup. We read that your girlfriend wasn’t entirely sure about the idea...
With what I wear and how I express myself, I’m not sure anyone’s really sure about it, to be honest! She said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this, before the biggest thing in your life?’ That was precisely why I wanted to do it! I’m into expressing myself, plus I was starting to get bored of the blonde...
What was it like thrashing Thailand 13-0 in your opening World Cup match?
To score 13 goals is kind of crazy, especially at a World Cup. You respect the game by playing hard the whole time. We’d been cooped up watching all the games for five days straight, so we were ready to go out there and have fun.
You scored two emphatic penalties against Spain in the last 16, and another one in the final. Does pressure not bother you?
It’s not like I don’t feel the pressure in those moments – my heart rate is a little higher, I’m a little bit nervous, but I put a lot of preparation into it. Really, it’s just the final obstacle in the way of getting to celebrate, so I was focusing on that. It’s a good motivator. I always feel like goalkeepers are more nervous than we are.
Before the quarter-final against France, how did you hear about Trump’s tweets?
I think our media officer told me at our hotel. The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh God, what did I say?!’ – it could have been anything! It’s still a bit ridiculous to think about it – I know it was a big deal, but it’s also just ridiculous that someone would tweet a member of their own national team, for the nation they’re supposed to be leading, during what we were trying to do. It felt ridiculous, so I don’t know if I took it as seriously as it probably was, because I don’t think he’s as serious as he really should be. It was actually a bit funny within the team, like, ‘I can’t believe this has just happened’. Also, the actual content of the tweets was insane, just a total glitch and none of it grammatically correct at all…
Were your USA team-mates checking to see if you were OK?
A lot of people checked in on me, yeah. I think it looked like I was all right, because I was, but people were making sure I wasn’t just putting on a face for everyone else. I was conscious of how it was affecting the whole team. I’d never want it to be a distraction, and I don’t think it was. People read it and were like, ‘Wow, that’s ridiculous’, then we moved on to preparing for our biggest game of the tournament.
What was the thinking behind your iconic goal celebration against France?
I’d actually done it before in a pre-tournament friendly, so it was something I had in my back pocket – an ‘Are you not entertained?’ sort of vibe. I consider myself an athlete, but also an entertainer. It was a joyful, defiant, ‘This is us, this is me, not hiding anything and not hiding behind anything – this is exactly who I am and exactly who I want to be’. But it was also, ‘This is what everyone wants, right?’ You reach all of these big moments and you want the biggest personalities to show up. You either want them to crash and burn, or do incredibly well – either seems fine for public consumption.
Happy Birthday Megan Rapinoe! #USA#FIFAWWCpic.twitter.com/xLvxRewgMw— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 5, 2019
Was it partly aimed at Trump?
Of course, yeah. But it was less, ‘I’m doing this to show Trump’ and more a moment for us. He likes to think the world revolves around him but it really doesn’t. In a way it was a little bit of a clapback, but I don’t get my motivation from proving Trump wrong. I don’t care what Trump thinks about me or the team, or really about much else.
How did it feel to win the World Cup final against the Netherlands?
If you get the chance to be in one World Cup final, it’s an incredible feeling. To be back in the final and score, back in Lyon where I’d played club football for a year, it was just an incredibly special moment that had a lot of emotions tied to it. Then to actually win and complete our goal, it was exceptional.
In September, you were crowned the best women’s player of 2019 at the FIFA awards. What was that experience like?
A little bizarre, to be honest! It’s kind of crazy – it’s all very new for me. But it was a massive honour. I understand that I’m getting all this personal attention and these accolades, and they can’t give personal awards to the whole team, but I see a lot of these things as team awards. It’s a big win for people close to me and my team. A big win for the good guys.
In your acceptance speech, you mentioned some people who’d inspired you, including England’s Raheem Sterling...
First of all, he’s fantastic on the field. To be as exceptional and composed, and as strong and brave as he is, in the climate he’s in... it’s very impressive. He’s had to deal with so much stick throughout his entire career, and that started at a really young age. His bravery in speaking up about the racism that he’s faced is inspiring to me. Personally, I don’t feel like anyone who’s been subjected to racism should have to be the one to stand up and discuss it. Every other player should almost be shouting over the top of them to condemn what’s been happening. It’s such a brave and difficult thing for him to do and show that resolve. He’s someone who will have an impact far beyond just what he’s doing on the field.
You also mentioned the girl who died after setting herself on fire in Iran. She had been arrested for attempting to enter a football stadium, with women banned from games. What did you think about her tragic story?
Heartbreaking and infuriating, all at the same time. To not be allowed into a stadium; to not be allowed to watch or play; for girls all over the world to not be allowed to be educated, or go to school or work... it’s so sad. Juxtaposed with the upbringing I had in America and the opportunities we’ve had, all she wanted was to watch the game she loved. It’s for everyone. For her to be excluded was simply a tragedy.
Is it important to use your platform to talk about social issues?
Yeah, really important. I get plenty of personal attention and financial reward – so to take all of that and not use it to give back just doesn’t seem right to me. They are things that affect me personally – our wage fight, being a gay player – but honestly it’s all kind of the same. It almost gets split up, like, ‘Oh you talk about racism, LGBTQ rights and wage discrimination’. But it’s basic human rights, respecting people and living in a world where we have equality; where people are free to be themselves. If the only thing I ever do in my life is be a successful soccer player, that sucks – sorry, that’s just not good enough for me. That’s not the kind of life I want to live. We have enormous problems all around the world. There’s so much to be done, but also so much we can do. To not use that for leveraging good is selfish, for me.
You were one of the first players to join up with Common Goal. Why did you decide to become a part of it?
For the same reason, right? To harness all the power, popularity and celebrity of soccer for good around the world. A lot of us come from poor communities or nations where equality might not be at the top of the agenda, and as a footballing community we are an amazing slice of what the world is. We’ve got a chance to change things. Working with Common Goal, who share the same goals and have a team doing incredible work, is a great opportunity.
What does your role involve?
It’s one per cent of your salary, and you get to choose what route you want to go with that – they have a massive network of charities and organisations at grassroots level. That’s what’s so cool about it – it’s not like you sign up and they’re only doing one thing. They have many different targets in terms of inequality, equal access to sport and education, so you get to tailor-make it. You know where your money is going, and what work is being done with it.
Where have you asked your money to go?
Education of girls in football and equal access to sport is huge. We’re lucky in the US to have a lot of access, but in other places in the world it’s not like that. That’s my focus – certainly the inclusive part – then you get into LGBTQ rights and what that means for kids in certain places. That’s really important to me, so that’s what I signalled to the Common Goal folks.
How important is the equal pay issue to you? The winners of the men’s World Cup earned $38m, but the USA got only $4m for winning the Women’s World Cup last year...
ALSO READ Here are the highest paid women’s footballers in the world – and how they compare to the highest paid men
It sucks, right? It’s vital for that to change. If we’re talking about FIFA, historically women’s football has been at such a disadvantage when you talk about investment; even just caring in the same way you care about men’s football, and having female representatives involved in the decision-making processes. Until we have that, how can you expect women’s football to grow? It’s going to take a big investment by FIFA, but we’ve shown through this World Cup and other ones that the potential is there – the on-field product is incredible and people are really into it. I don’t know why it takes so long to get something done, but we’re pushing as hard and as aggressively as we can. Always.
After you knelt for the national anthem, US Soccer insisted all players must stand, then introduced a rule banning kneeling. Was it a difficult decision to stop?
It was, and I’m still a little conflicted about it. I didn’t agree with the rule and it was all done hush-hush – they never had one conversation with me about it. I didn’t think that was the right way to go about it. We could have had a conversation and reached a place where we were both agreeing to move forward. We could have signalled to the rest of the country that the federation will support them, not just in protesting but in their lives. It was frustrating, but the conversation hasn’t stopped, which is good. I still don’t sing the anthem or put my hand over my heart, and even though I’m not kneeling, I’ll still speak about it. I could have carried on kneeling – I’m not sure know what the punishment is, so we would have had to go through all of that. But I think the point is still being made, which is the important thing.
There’s been a worrying increase of racism in world football lately. Given how Donald Trump’s words travel across the globe, have the things he’s said had an impact on that?
I think there’s a direct impact in rise of hate crimes, rise of violence, rise in racist incidents – a rise in the world of nationalism generally. There’s a direct correlation and that’s why it’s wrong, the things he’s doing to incite violence. He’s not the President of the United States, he’s the President of Donald Trump. That’s who he serves, first and foremost. To use the office of the presidency to incite hatred in the country and in the world – it’s a disgrace, to be honest.
Might you go into politics when you retire?
I don’t know, it seems like a lot! Contrary to what Trump has taught us, you do need some qualifications to do a good job in office. I don’t plan on following in those footsteps, but I will always stay active politically. I plan on being involved in the 2020 election in whatever way anybody allows me.
Have you ever faced threats for your views?
I’m sure, but I don’t get into the comments and the negativity. I’d rather focus on inspiring people. I’m sure I have a lot of critics who call me a number of things – unpatriotic, a bitch, arrogant, but I don’t think I’m that. I feel like I’m using all of this for good. As long as I can sleep at night, then I’m comfortable with it.
Do you think some men feel threatened by a woman who’s outspoken?
Yeah, I don’t really have time for male fragility. Welcome to the world. Women are actually afraid of men killing them, sexually assaulting them or raping them, so we don’t have time for that. I’m not a man hater, I just think, ‘No, we have stuff to do and it’s important – we need your help, get on board, there’s a place for everyone’. If you feel threatened by me at 5ft 6in and 133lbs, someone who’s willing to use their voice, then I think there’s a little bit of inward-looking that needs to happen first.
You’re 34 now and preparing for the 2020 Olympics. Could you be involved in Vlatko Andonovski’s USA squad for the 2023 World Cup, and how long do you plan to play on?
I’m not too sure yet. I’ll go through this next Olympics and see after that. We go in these big four-year cycles – I’ll have to see if Vlatko’s fed up of my s**t or if he wants to put up with me for a little bit longer! I don’t really want to cut my career short. It’s such a small period in your life where you get to do this exceptional thing of playing sport for a living. While a rest seems nice right now, I can’t imagine that I’ll let myself go that easily.
More Common Goal details at common-goal.org
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Chris joined FourFourTwo in 2015 and has reported from 20 countries, in places as varied as Jerusalem and the Arctic Circle. He's interviewed Pele, Zlatan and Santa Claus (it's a long story), as well as covering Euro 2020 and the Clasico. He previously spent 10 years as a newspaper journalist, and completed the 92 in 2017.
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