In pursuit of self-expression, she permits herself moments of audacity—where she shoots from a peripheral locale or attempts to impose an implausible arc on a pass. If she self-censored her play, she would never take the risks that characterize her game, all those feints and jukes. To describe her style as exuberant might seem arbitrary, except for the fact that it’s so evidently part of her presence, especially her goal celebrations. Earlier in the tournament, one of those celebrations became a source of controversy. It came during the later stages of the U.S. team’s historic rout of Thailand. After scoring a goal, Rapinoe skidded across the grass on her backside, holding her leg in the air—an inside-the-squad joke, apparently. When certain gentleman pundits absurdly denounced her behavior as unsportsmanlike, Rapinoe unapologetically described the moment as a “explosion of joy.”
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In a way, her playing style is deeply countercultural, at least by contemporary American standards. During my long career as a soccer dad, I’ve watched how the tenor of American sports can drain the joy from the game. I will sometimes stand at one of my daughter’s tournaments and close my eyes. From all directions, I can hear the howling of sideline commissars, as if victory depended on players executing their coach’s every instruction. Coaching at the youth level is too often a variant of helicopter parenting, and youth soccer has become another emblem of the fretful American meritocracy that, in its grim pursuit of victory, induces a paralyzing fear of failure in kids.
Megan Rapinoe is the antithesis of all that. A World Cup is a uniquely nerve-fraying event, because it happens only every four years and extends over the entirety of a month. On-field moments and locker-room comments alike are picked apart by a press corps that gets irritable after having lived in Airbnb rooms for so long. But everything about Rapinoe’s demeanor suggests that she is immune to anxiety about the occasion. When the tournament bracket thrust the United States into a quarterfinal match with France—a pairing of the two best teams in the world that would have ideally happened in the finals—Rapinoe didn’t bemoan the fact, but reveled in it. She told reporters that she wanted a “total shit-show circus” of a spectacle, an occasion that she intended to extract for its full enjoyment, not fear.
In the athlete’s handbook, focus is everything; distraction is the enemy. But an occasion as big as a World Cup is also an opportunity to make an even bigger statement, and Rapinoe’s team has used it to launch a crusade for pay equity that is a model of selfless courage. Megan Rapinoe is 33 and almost certainly won’t play in another World Cup. Some of her teammates will have only this one chance. Yet, they have gone against ingrained instincts and invited distraction by suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for fair compensation on the eve of their biggest professional moment. They did so because the tournament gave them leverage to make the federation address its deeply sexist record. In every way, the tournament proves their case. With their success and charisma, the team members bring higher television ratings than their male counterparts; halftime brings a raft of advertisements, featuring the team’s stars. Indeed, their strategy has worked to perfection. In the middle of the tournament, the federation announced it would enter into mediation with the women’s players’ association.