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MEGAN RAPINOE ANSWERS THE CRITICS

The retiring soccer star on her detractors, the U.S. team’s role in the global game, and taking penalty kicks

On Sunday, Spain won the FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was the end of a tournament and, for the U.S. women’s national team, the end of an era. This was the last World Cup featuring Megan Rapinoe, a player inscribed in the history of the game for both her goals and her activism. Rapinoe, who will retire later this year, has starred in so many important games for her country that it’s hard to imagine her absence on the pitch.

I first met Rapinoe when my wife produced a documentary about the U.S. women’s team and its struggle for equal pay. Yesterday, I spoke with Rapinoe on the phone about the World Cup, which finished disappointingly for the U.S.—Rapinoe missed in the penalty shootout that ended the team’s Round of 16 match against Sweden. I also asked her about her critics, as well as the inequities that continue to plague the global women’s game.Franklin Foer: You watched yesterday’s game?

Megan Rapinoe: Not live, but I watched it in the morning and did not know the score.

Foer: Well done, avoiding social media.

Rapinoe: It was tough. Sue [Bird, Rapinoe’s fiancée] actually knew and didn’t tell me.

Foer: Why is Spain such an exceptional team?

Rapinoe: So many of these players play together all of the time. Most of them play in Spain, most of them play for Barcelona, and they play the same style. So there’s a deep philosophy.

Foer: One of the cringiest moments I’ve ever watched in all of sports was when the head of the Spanish football federation kissed a player on the mouth while congratulating her.

Rapinoe: It made me think about how much we are required to endure. Think how much that Spanish team had to shoulder: Some of the players who stood up way back last year [to protest poor treatment by their coach and federation] still aren’t on the team. Maybe that was something that galvanized them, but you shouldn’t have to have that.There was another picture that signals such a deep level of misogyny and sexism in that federation and in that man [Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish soccer federation] at the final whistle, just grabbing his crotch. What kind of upside-down world are we in? On the biggest stage, where you should be celebrating, Jenni [Hermoso, the Spanish midfielder who was kissed by Rubiales] has to be physically assaulted by this guy. [Editor’s Note: Rubiales has since publicly apologized for the kiss.]Foer: Along these lines … your team was constantly forced to fight political battles, even when you’re not picking them. I’m thinking of Donald Trump’s post after you were knocked out by Sweden. He said, “The shocking and totally unexpected loss by the US Women’s Soccer Team to Sweden is fully emblematic of what is happening to our once great nation under crooked Joe Biden.” That’s hard to parse.

Rapinoe: It always is, because what he’s saying is fake. It’s a compilation of hit words and hot-button words that don’t actually make any sort of sense or square with reality at all … I think, just in general, the way that our team was spoken about over the course of the tournament, it was fake. And it didn’t make sense to me: In 2019, we were ultra-confident, ultra-swaggy—and won everything. And even though we won, we did it in bad taste, according to our critics. This time, we weren’t confident enough, and we don’t have the right “mentality.” And so we lost. It’s just so disingenuous. There’s no way for us to win, and there’s no way for us to lose.

Foer: You’d expect Donald Trump to posture in this way. But more troubling is watching the Fox coverage, because Fox is making a ton of money off the U.S. women’s team by broadcasting its matches, but then also recycling a lot of the tropes that you’re describing. The commentator and former U.S. men’s-national-soccer-team player Alexi Lalas called the team “unlikeable,” and your former teammate Carli Lloyd complained about the team celebrating and dancing after the draw with Portugal.Rapinoe: Yeah, it was really disappointing—and the speed with which those comments got into the atmosphere. Everybody on the right—and everybody who was using hateful language and these tropes—it’s like they have just been waiting since, I don’t know, 2016? 2019? They’ve been waiting for this team to stumble. But when we are perfect, then we are accused of thinking that we’re perfect.

Really, what’s happening is that the right wing wants this to be true: They want women to believe that you can’t fight for things and be excellent; you can’t ask for what you deserve and be successful. But the reality is, we’re doing that. Beyoncé is doing that. Taylor Swift is doing that. Coco Gauff is doing that. We are still great on the field, and we’re fighting for equality, and it’s better for our bottom line and the sport’s.

Read: Megan Rapinoe makes resistance look effortless

One thing that America does really well is backlash. I think there’s a huge backlash against women happening right now.

I think we see that with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. We’re seeing that with the trans argument in sports. Does Alexi know exactly what he’s saying? If I was saying stuff that anchors on Fox News are also saying … I would be worried about the cosign.

Foer: We’ve seen players taking action against unfair workplace conditions that they’ve been subjected to; protests have spread across the world. How do you view your own role and the role of the U.S. women in the global story?

Rapinoe: What I’ve realized for a long time is that we’re playing two games at the same time. One, we’re playing all against each other. And then the other one, we’re all playing together to win equality and progress and what we deserve.

We want these other teams to be paid equally, and to have the resources that they deserve, and to not be subjected to misogyny and racism and sexism. If that comes at the expense of our own dominance, yeah, we want that.

Maybe that’s a novel concept for some people, but it’s not for us. And I think we’ve understood for a long time that being one of the best teams, and being one of the teams that [has] been invested in the most—[although] not enough—it is our responsibility to continue to push the game forward. And I take a lot of pride in the World Cup being what it is today versus even four years or eight years ago. I take a lot of pride when I see teams speaking up for themselves.

Foer: Before I let you go, because I’m going to be cruel, I wanted to talk about the Sweden game. It felt like the U.S. had struggled to click, but in that game, you guys started to play.

Rapinoe: It felt a lot more fluid. I think we set up more to our strengths and what was going to make us hard to beat. I wish we’d done that earlier, because we would’ve had more time with it. But obviously, hindsight is 20/20.

Was there a little bit more in the tournament for us? Yes, I think so. But in the end, I think we played as good as we could, and we tried as hard as we could, and sometimes you lose. It’s hard to win everything. That’s part of life, and that’s a beautiful part of sport to me. I don’t look at it as this devastating thing and a verdict on who we are as players or as a team.Foer: What went through your mind when you stepped up to take that kick against Sweden that you missed?

Rapinoe: I’m going to score. Honestly, something that has made me so successful in penalty kicks for so long is the acceptance and the realization that I will miss them. I miss them in training regularly. I’ve been lucky not to miss a lot in actual competition, but eventually, that can happen. But I love taking them. I would take them all the time. I would take that one again. I would pick me to take them.

For a long time, I have thought about missing one in a really big moment. What are you going to do? The only other thing you could do is to not take one. I’m not going to do that. I would rather step up and be in that moment. And I think that’s something that made the criticism after that loss particularly fake and disingenuous and absurd and outrageous to me. It’s like, you’re going to bash on me for getting out there and trying my best?

Foer: So where does U.S. soccer go from here? Do we resign ourselves to the fact that it’s just going to be a more competitive world than in the past?

Rapinoe: That’s part of it. It is incredibly competitive, and it’s getting more competitive, and we’re still right there in the mix. It’s almost like people see the rest of the world “catching up” as somehow the U.S. racing backwards, and that is not the case at all.

Other federations have a lot more low-hanging fruit, whether it’s the quality of travel or having more medical people on staff. That stuff affects performance a ton. And we’ve had that for a long time. And yet, all these other federations haven’t even had that.But we can still get better in so many ways. From an overall federation perspective, it is worth at least a deep-dive look at our structure. We haven’t done that well in the youth tournaments. I think a more consistent style and a more consistent philosophy from the younger teams all the way up through the senior teams is necessary. It’s a lot more difficult in America, because we don’t have the academy system that they have in Europe. They’re honestly better set up for a more holistic approach. It’s going to be more difficult here.Foer: What will you miss most about the World Cup?

Rapinoe: Oh, man, the buzz around it—walking into these stadiums, the feeling that, on any given day, anything can happen. There’s just something that brings out the best in players, in teams. And if you catch that little piece of fire, it’s just special.

And I’ll miss being able to represent our country. I think, a lot of times, that gets lost, when people talk about me in particular: Oh, you guys don’t sing the anthem, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You don’t love America. But we do love America. It’s just more in a James Baldwin kind of way, not in a bald-eagle-on-your-shoulder kind of way.

I look back and feel so lucky and so grateful to have had the career that I have had, for as long as I have had it. It’ll be something that I will miss forever. I don’t think I’ll ever not want to play in the biggest games, but I’ll be the biggest fan. I’ll be a fan at the next World Cup for sure.

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