Why Megan Rapinoe is one of the most important players in the world - and why we’ll miss her when she’s gone

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If you want to know why Megan Rapinoe is important, both as a player and as a woman, a lot of it is there in her first World Cup goal, against Colombia in 2011.

Darting in from the left of the area, her first touch knocked the ball past the unbalanced opposing captain Natalia Gaitán and the second sent the ball sizzling over Sandra Sepúlveda in the Colombian goal. Then she sprinted joyously over to the corner flag, grabbing a pitchside microphone and blasting a brief rendition of the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s classic protest song, Born in the USA, to the crowd.

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Over the rest of her career – 199 international appearances and 63 goals so far, with one last World Cup to come by way of a final act – the finesse of that first touch and that fizzing strike have been seen time and time again, as has her extroverted determination to make some righteous noise atop the pedestal she has earned the right to stand upon. When she retires at the end of the NWSL season in November, she will leave a void that may never quite be filled, at least not in the same way or with the same brio.

That she is a great of the women’s game is beyond any question. To list every record broken, every accolade earned and every medal won would take an age, but even the highlights blow most of her peers out of the water – a two-time World Cup winner, the oldest woman to score in a World Cup final, Golden Boot and Golden Ball winner in 2019, Olympic champion, triple continental champion, FIFA women’s player of the year. Few have ever matched her skill, determination and longevity, and almost none can hold a candle to her roll of honours. Besides, she’s probably the only player of any gender to be honoured with a corn maze in the shape of her face.

But Rapinoe is so much more than a brilliant footballer. She has spent just as much energy drawing attention to injustice off the field as she has in becoming world class on it. She was brave enough to kneel through the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested racial injustice in America and was hounded for it. She had the guts to take on the USSF, her own employers, to try and secure equal pay and treatment for the women’s national team. And she has used her platform to support LGBTQ+ rights and access to abortion services persistently throughout her career.

All of which means that she is just as hated by bigots as she is beloved by those who appreciate her efforts to support worthy causes, or simply her unquestionable footballing ability. She isn’t just a campaigner for social justice – she’s an outspoken, loud and proud lesbian with brightly-dyed hair who refuses to shut up about the issues that matter to her for one split second, even in the face of endless abuse, and has refused to bow to anyone who yelled at her to shut up – and there have been plenty of those. The world needs people like Rapinoe, perhaps now more than ever.

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In an age when so much political injustice is meted out by burgeoning far-right movements in positions of power across the Western world, and when so many football players and other celebrities prefer to keep their heads down and smile for the cameras without making a fuss, there is a pressing need for people who pick the microphone up and make their voices heard whether anyone else likes it or not. But in an age when women’s football is growing at exponential pace, there is also a need for brilliant female footballers to inspire future generations to run with the baton, and she has fulfilled that role in equally extraordinary fashion.

To highlight her deeply necessary work to promote LGBTQ+ rights and women’s equality is to risk overshadowing how damned good she is on the football pitch, and how hard she seems to live every minute she plays. Every gut-busting run down the left, every late dart into the box, and every left-footed shot crashed ferociously into the far corner has been made with a facial expression that makes it look like the most important moment of her life. Few players do grim determination like Rapinoe, and few seem to be filled with so much joy when it all goes according to plan. She’s the kind of player that makes football worth watching.

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It’s there in her solo goal against Australia in 2015, when she took the ball from her own half all the way to the opposing box and slammed an angled shot into the side netting. It’s there when she lobbed the Chinese goalkeeper from 40 yards in 2012, and in the way she smashed a bouncing ball brilliantly past Nadine Angerer and inside the far post during the 3-3 thriller against Germany in 2013.

It’s there in perhaps her best goal, for Seattle Sounders against Houston Dash, when she clipped the ball in from the left flank at an angle that would make Marco Van Basten whistle in appreciation, and it was there when she held her nerve to slot home the opening goal from the penalty spot in the 2019 World Cup final against the Netherlands on her way to a player of the match performance. Gutsiness, glory and joy in equal measure, matched with an apparent appreciation for every moment that she has on the field.

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That’s what we’ll lose when she hangs up her boots – because you can bet that she won’t let retirement stand between her and her philanthropic work, or her willingness to use her voice to amplify others, or any chance she gets to get up the noses of the bigoted and the self-centred. Megan Rapinoe will never shut up, and the more people want her to, the louder she’ll get – and thank god for that.

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Anyway, she isn’t done yet. In just a few short days the 2023 World Cup gets underway in Australia and New Zealand, and the USA are favourites to claim a third successive crown – and if they do, you know who will lead the celebrations. Enjoy the player while you still can, and appreciate the woman for as long as she can find a microphone to shout into.

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