All the top sports persons have that one defining image. For Megan Rapinoe, a football legend, it was when she scored the opening goal for the United States in the quarter-final against France at the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup.

Rapinoe, then sporting punk-rock pink hair, spread her arms in a manner familiar to Bollywood fans (think Shah Rukh Khan), with a slight smirk on her face as her teammates rushed around her in celebration.

The US went on to win the elite competition for the fourth time – a second for Rapinoe. She would also go on to win the Golden Boot (highest goalscorer) and Golden Ball (best player of the tournament) Awards and be immortalised in American sporting history as a veritable legend.

On the pitch, she’s won all the top awards the sport has to offer – including World Cups and an Olympic gold medal. But off it, she’s been a keen and fierce advocate for the rights of minorities and those in the LGBTQ+ community, and has spoken widely against racial discrimination.

Rapinoe was also named in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2020 and was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by American President Joe Biden in 2022.

Now, in her final season as a professional player, things are much different for her at the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup.

Rapinoe, now 38, is just about making it back to the national squad after recovering from a knee injury she picked up while playing for OL Reign in the NWSL. But the 2019 Ballon d’Or (best player in the world award) winner was not in the US starting line-up in any of the three group-stage matches.

It was a sharp contrast to how Rapinoe, who has over 200 appearances for her country, was the central force behind the dominance on display from the Americans in 2019.

Back in June, when US coach Vlatko Andonovski named the squad for the 2023 World Cup, he indicated that Rapinoe was “probably going to have a different role than the last World Cup or the previous two World Cups.”

In a press conference, the coach highlighted however, that the former captain’s leadership and influence would be crucial as the US were preparing to make an attempt for a fifth title and third on the trot.

Irrespective of whether the US scale that pinnacle, or if Rapinoe finishes the tournament never starting a game, she remains an inspiration to many around the world.

Megan Rapinoe opened the scoring against hosts France in the quarter-final of the 2019 Fifa Women's World Cup|AFP

Unflinching support

Another prominent photograph is associated with Rapinoe – that of her on one knee as the US national anthem was played before two matches against Thailand and the Netherlands back in September 2016.

Then 31, the California-native knelt in support of former American football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who wanted to highlight issues of racial discrimination and police brutality by ‘taking the knee’ during the national anthem ahead of his National Football League matches.

Kaepernick, who is African-American, faced criticism for his move – many touting it as ‘disrespectful’ and ‘unnecessary’. His American football career soon dipped with teams unwilling to sign him for fear of ‘activism’ backlash and he soon disappeared from the NFL.

Rapinoe, who knows a thing or two about being discriminated against for her beliefs (being a queer sportsperson herself), lent her support for the cause soon after Kaepernick’s stance.

In a 2016 article for the Players’ Tribune right after she was still one of the few supporting Kaepernick, Rapinoe wrote, “[If] you are in a position of influence like I am, you can use your platform to elevate the millions of voices being silenced, and support them in the tremendous work already being done.”

But in doing so, she was dropped by the then national coach Jill Ellis and was suspended by her football federation. They issued a statement soon after, highlighting a US Soccer Federation necessity for all national team players to stand during the national anthem. This was then introduced as a proper requirement as Policy 604-1 in 2017.

Such was Rapinoe’s impact, that nine of the eleven American players who lined up for a friendly against the Dutch in 2020 knelt during the national anthem, as the movement soon grew to include athletes across the world doing the same before their respective matches.

The American federation also repealed the policy in an executive council meeting in 2021.

That was only the beginning of Rapinoe’s more public activism and outspokeness.

The OL Reign player was also an integral part of the force behind the US women’s football team suing their own federation to earn equal pay between the men’s and women’s squads.

Beyond football

For all that she has achieved, Rapinoe is not the most successful athlete at home. Her wife, former American basketball player Sue Bird, has won five Olympic gold medals and just as many World Championship titles, along with four Women’s National Basketball League crowns.

Both Rapinoe and Bird have been active voices among the LGBTQ+ community in the US, using their influence to advocate for the rights of trans persons, racial minorities and investing their time and money in various social causes. The power couple also started their own production house that focuses on amplifying the voices of those from underrepresented communities and minorities.

In her autobiography, One Life, released in 2020, Rapinoe credited her inspiration behind pursuing the sport to her oldest brother Brian, who suffered from drug abuse and had several stints in prison in California.

Although generally upbeat and cheerful, when recalling her childhood and early years in the sport, Rapinoe conceded that having one of her biggest supporters so far away and unable to see her play for her country affected her relationship with her sibling, who ended up getting involved with white supremacists while in prison.

Because of her frank nature, her tendency to ruffle feathers whether it be her relationships or her opinions on society, Rapinoe tends to get fans riled up – especially the ones that believe that politics has no place in sport.

In the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, she wrote in the Players’ Tribune about how several fans created noise about her kneeling gesture and hurled abuse at her online, but “not a single person ever came up to me in real life and said anything negative.”

But as the US just about held on to a goalless draw against Portugal at the ongoing World Cup, there were several voices calling for the former US captain to be dropped and sent back home.

For Rapinoe though, it’s all about perspective. “I feel like I have never been in a tournament, even in 2019, where you just think you are doing amazing all the time and just flying,” she told reporters after the match.


As somebody who was crucial to the title wins in 2015 and 2019, it is evident that Rapinoe’s absence from the starting line-up in all three group games is something that the US are desperately missing.

But for the veteran, who is most likely to be used as a super-sub as per her conversations with Andonovski, this is just the beginning of her transition from an active player for the US women’s team, to somebody that is going into her final year of professional football.

Merely days before she jetted off for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand with her teammates, Rapinoe announced her retirement from the sport – the 2023 edition will be her final outing as a US player and the 2023 NWSL season her final as a club player.

It’s been eleven years since she publicly came out as gay. It’s been seven years since she became a household name not because of her exploits in football, but because she decided to take a stand, and a knee, for what she thought was right. And through it all, she’s built a sporting career peppered with accolades.

Irrespective of what she or the US achieve at the World Cup, Megan Rapinoe will hang up her boots knowing that she continues to inspire a new generation, beyond football.