The Guardian Footballer of the Year is an award given to a player who has done something remarkable, whether by overcoming adversity, helping others or setting a sporting example by acting with exceptional honesty.
“It’s weird. It’s like it’s changed completely for ever but it’s also like my life’s sort of the same. I am comfortable. I’ve always sort of spoken fast and loose and I’ve always been a soccer player, so those things are normal. It’s just all … amplified.”
Megan Rapinoe’s global exposure may have been lifted by a staggering trophy-laden year but it is the fact that, alongside an all-conquering World Cup, she used the spotlight to amplify the voices of others that has made her Guardian Footballer of the Year.
There is an irony to the manner in which the 34-year-old has divided opinion. Whereas her outspokenness and politics have gone from splitting the room to being somewhat unifying amid increasing polarisation, her football has done the opposite.
To some, winning the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball and the World Cup have not done enough to make up for only six domestic appearances with no goals and no assists, nor justify the Ballon d’Or and Fifa Best awards. Critics also point out three of Rapinoe’s six World Cup goals were penalties.
“I’m not out here being like: ‘I’m the best player,’” Rapinoe says. “I’m probably not even the best player on my team, much less best player in the world but we draw the penalties and you have to score them.”
The forward, who becomes the fourth Guardian Footballer of the Year following Fabio Pisacane, Juan Mata and Khadija Shaw, says it was thriving under pressure in France that set USA apart. “There is no more pressure that anyone else can put on us that we haven’t already put on ourselves. For us it is a catastrophe if we don’t win the World Cup. We feel it all the time.”
Rapinoe says individual awards are “an honour” but admits she feels uncomfortable with them. “It was such a massive team effort. I’m not out here thinking I’m Lionel Messi, you know? I’m not at that level but to be able to couple everything together is the most important thing; we are seeing the world change around us and we’re a big part of it. That feeling is almost addictive, and motivating.”
Sitting at breakfast in a New York hotel there is none of the arrogant air some misconstrue her confidence for. This is a more understated Rapinoe. The bright pink hair is hidden beneath a white cap and the thoughtful, humble, reflective, but still confident, person familiar to anyone who has spent any time with her is keen to philosophise about this new spotlight.
“Everybody has a personal responsibility to do what they can to make the world a better place in the most impactful way that they can. This is it, this is the moment and I’m so aware and understand that. I’m not just winning all these awards because I had a great year. It’s the culmination of it all. And with that comes so many other people: it comes with the team and what we’ve been able to do and the way we are organised and the way we fight together on and off the field; it comes from Colin Kaepernick, from MeToo; it comes from all of these other movements.
“It’s very clear I am a culminating moment of all of that’s happening right now. So for me to get on the stage and just thank family and friends would be so weird. It would seem inauthentic. It’s a privilege and an honour to sort of be the mouthpiece in this culminating moment. That’s crazy. It is a big responsibility and I do feel a responsibility to take care of it and to give props and thanks and call out the people who could very well be in that position also.”
Rapinoe has no regrets over the video that went viral during the World Cup but was filmed months earlier, in which she said “I’m not going to the fucking White House” when asked what the team would do with an invite should they taste success in France. After Donald Trump responded Rapinoe’s teammates, partner Sue Bird and family were supportive.
“My teammates were like: ‘This is LOL’,” she says. “But they were also definitely worried about me. They were like: ‘Are we good? Are you OK?’ And I was like: ‘Uh, yeah, I am, this is wild.’
“Allie Long was like: ‘Duuuuude, this is so crazy, you’re a G, you took down the president!’ The whole environment was: ‘We got you. This is our player and we just have to roll with it.’
“My mom, I mean bless her, she was like: ‘Can’t you just stop? Why are you taking all this on all the damn time?’ But this is what it is. It’s par for the course for me, I guess.”
Did she ever think of distancing herself from her words? “No, never. Because it was like: ‘I’m not going and I don’t want to go and these are the reasons why.’ I didn’t want to shy away from it and I don’t want to shy away from it. Ever. I think that would just give him power, give the proverbial him or they power.
“I just don’t compartmentalise that way,” she continues, after the suggestion that she could ‘just stick to the football’ to quieten things. “It’s all part of the experience and life for me. Even on the field: I don’t go into a zone, I don’t shut out; I hear the fans, I see who’s in the stands, the energy is always flowing through me.”
She admits she cannot understand how footballers steer clear of having a say on politics and society. “You live in the world, in the city, you pay the taxes, you are affected by it all, so to think you can just be away from it is stupid,” she says.
In the end, her stance on Trump, and the team’s on equal pay, connected them to the fans in a way she could not have envisaged.
“I feel like this World Cup really touched people’s lives. There was this sense that we all won, like it was something bigger. People have these really emotional connections and experiences with the World Cup.
“So then, when they’re coming up to me, it’s not like: ‘Oh, high five, awesome soccer.’ It’s like: ‘Wow, your team changed the world or changed my life.’ It’s this emotional exchange, which is actually amazing.”
Chants of “equal pay” echoing around the ground after the win against the Netherlands in the final in Lyon was the peak of that connection. “What an amazing moment of collective conscience,” Rapinoe says. “What I love about football so much is everyone’s in it together.”
Rapinoe was thrust into the role of ally in a big way when she took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick three years ago and the backlash was grim. “People were mad, big mad,” she says. Her waitress mother in the Republican, conservative Californian city of Redding bore some of the brunt. The photos of her daughter were removed from the walls of her workplace as people complained to management and were rude to her about her daughter. “It would have been better if I was there,” Rapinoe says. “Then they could just direct it at me.”
Two years later Rapinoe helped raise huge sums for those affected by the fire that ripped through the area. “All my family live there, I grew up there, I love it there. We obviously have different views but that’s OK. I don’t really care if you voted for Trump; if your house has burned down, you still need a place to live.”
Her clothing business with her twin sister struggled after she took a knee. Now, though, she feels there has been a shift in public perception of her decision to back Kaepernick. “People are starting to see it’s part of this bigger thing. It’s all the same thing. You can’t be cool and supportive of me being gay and not cool with the kneeling. Or cool with the equal pay but not with the lawsuit or whatever.”
Having been named Glamour magazine’s woman of the year she used her speech to highlight the privilege she is afforded as a white woman speaking out while Kaepernick remains unsigned.
“Being white is part of the reason why it’s culminating with me. The system is alive and well, so I think it’s important to just say that. It’s not my fault I’m benefiting but I am, so it’s my responsibility to acknowledge that and to try to dismantle that system. I think it’s really important to say those words, say ‘white privilege’, acknowledge the fact it’s happening.”
Talking politics comes naturally now but that was not always the case, even though Rapinoe was brought up to care for and stand up for people, and to use her voice. Football gave her opportunities that fed her social conscience and essentially saved her from treading a road similar to that of the brother she idolised and who introduced her to the game.
“My brother is a drug addict and has been in the criminal justice system since he was 15. He’s still in it, basically, at almost 40 years old. He’s out now but he’s still a part of the system and it was kind of realising he probably just needed drug treatment but instead got prison that showed me there’s greater consequences to everything.”
It is this compassion as well as her hope for a similar attitude from the rest of society that makes Rapinoe so worthy of her various crowns, including the Guardian’s.
The Guardian Sport