The World Cup champion has been transcendent, on and off the field. Fifa had no other option but to name her the best womens player on the planet
By the time Megan Rapinoe stood in Stade de Lyon after Julys World Cup final, arms outstretched like a statue one might find at the Muse dOrsay, it was obvious she had arrived at an apex few of us can ever hope to reach. The heart of a World Cup-winning USA team that will go down as the greatest ever, Rapinoe was the worthy recipient of Fifas The Best award on Monday in the womens player category.
But a few years ago, it was almost inconceivable that Rapinoe would be standing under the bright lights, hailed as a hero. It appeared Rapinoes career was winding down and her best days were behind her struggles that, in retrospect, propelled her to the stage at Fifas awards gala.
There was the disappointment of the 2016 Olympics, of course, where Rapinoes US team were knocked out in the quarter-finals the earliest exit for the Americans in any major tournament. Rapinoe made her return during the Rio Games after 252 days without playing competitive football and, in her rushed return from an ACL injury, she failed to make the impact coach Jill Ellis had hoped for.
There were also the off-field diversions. Rapinoe joined Colin Kaepernicks protest against racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem for both club and US team games. In response, the US Soccer Federation passed a new bylaw stating that any player who didnt stand for the anthem would face punishment, something that threatened her place on the team.
All the while, Ellis vowed to upend her roster before the 2019 World Cup and veteran players soon found themselves out in the cold. Call-ups and starts that used to belong to Rapinoe had gone to young up-and-comers such has Mallory Pugh, a winger 13 years Rapinoes junior.
It was a year that Rapinoe later admitted was a difficult one but she insisted it also rejuvenated her. On the pitch, she was resurgent, fitter and stronger than ever. Away from the game, she became more committed to speaking out, even if it meant being labeled as a controversial athlete.
It really only solidifies who I am as a person and the things that I stand for, she said in 2017. Often times you stand up [for something] and people clap, and sometimes you do and they dont. It only strengthened my resolve and my ethos of standing up for what I believe in.
Her comeback from one of the most tumultuous years in her career laid the groundwork for her eventual breakout in 2019. At this summers World Cup, Donald Trump tweeted criticism of Rapinoe, chastising her for not respecting our Country or our Flag after she had said she did not want to visit the White House. Rapinoe promptly scored twice in her next game, a marquee match-up between the US and France. For good measure, Rapinoe scored again in the World Cup final, which the US won, and left with a literal armful of trophies. Criticize her at your peril.
Rapinoe, to be sure, is a dazzling player to watch. A crafty and audacious winger, her enthusiasm is spellbinding she plays like shes having the time of her life, even when it seems like everyone wants to bring her down. Shell dribble a defender into circles, find a seam for a pass out of nowhere, or score an impossible curler and make it look routine. But her sensational 2019 was buoyed by something more than that something beyond what she could do with the ball at her feet. Her authenticity and self-belief set her apart in the most rigorous edition of the Womens World Cup ever played.
She used routine press conferences to talk about the inequities in womens football and, even as a Fifa media officer sat close by, she didnt hold back in her criticism of footballs governing body. Fifa hadnt shown it cared about the womens game and offered lip service but not enough resources, she calmly argued.
Rapinoe and her teammates have sued the US Soccer Federation over allegations of gender discrimination, and she didnt demur as the topic came up in France. By the time she and her teammates lifted the World Cup trophy, the crowd in Lyon erupted into a rousing chant: Equal pay! Equal pay! If the USAs biggest star in the tournament had been someone else someone less inclined to speak so openly about inequality its worth wondering if that chant would have happened.
It was only fitting that on the night she was being honored as Fifas top player of the year, she again made the platform bigger than herself, calling on everyone to combat racism, sexism and other ugly elements of football.
I ask everyone here: lend your platform to other people, she told the crowd in Milan. Lift other people up. Share your success. We have a unique opportunity in football, different to any other sport in the world, to use this beautiful game to actually change the world for better. Thats my charge to everyone. I hope you take that to heart and just do something. Do anything.
How to define the word best may vary depending who you ask, and it becomes all the more complicated when trying to untangle a players individual success in a team sport. But if best can be defined as the player who made the greatest impact with the most poise at the highest level, there is little doubt that Rapinoe was the best 2019 had to offer.
Her performance has been transcendent, not just within the white lines on the grass, but at podiums and in front of crowds. Awarding the top individual honor to any other player simply wasnt an option.