Football has always been a universal sport that brings people together from all walks of life. Almost 3.5 million people watched the 2018 World Cup final from all over the world. Although in recent months certain events have transpired that suggest the contrary, as bigots, racists, and homophobes have begun tarnishing the popular sport.
The number of blatant racist attacks on players has increased dramatically, namely England’s game against Bulgaria where the game was almost suspended due to racist chants. Ligue 1 had a total of 20 homophobic reports in the first month of the 2019/20 campaign. The game between Nice and Marseille was stopped for 10 minutes after fans displayed a homophobic banner reading: ‘I won’t be on TV, because my words are not very gay.’ In response, the Ligue de Football organisation has put measures in place for individuals to anonymously report racial, sexist or homophobic slurs or incidents as a preventative measure. The individuals found guilty will be served a fine or could face a prison sentence.
During the Women’s World Cup in June, it was not uncommon to hear the phrase: “Guys, you’ve got to watch the women’s world cup, these girls actually know how to play!”. Although the increased viewership of the event was a welcome progression, the inherent misogyny of this comment is hard to withstand. Why has it only now occurred to men that women can play football just as well as the male teams, and possibly even better? Moreover, why do their efforts need the validation of male viewers to be permitted a modicum of respect amongst the supposedly inclusive football commnity?
Although countless players from all over the world – past and present – have stood up to advocate for social change in the football arena, not many have done it with quite as much style and sass as Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe has become something of a living legend in the fight for equality, in every sense of the phrase. Rapinoe had a turbulent ride to the 2019 World Cup; when she appeared in Rio in 2016 she had recently recovered from knee surgery and seemed a shadow of her former self. Naturally, this sparked retirement rumours, but the LGBTQ+ activist remained strong and worked tirelessly to prove herself.
Her fight for equality did not start at the Women’s World Cup. Before Rapinoe stood in the Parc des Princes, arms outstretched like a statue, in a goal celebration that would become iconic, she knelt. This simple fall to her knees cemented her as one of the first athletes to stand behind Colin Kaepernick’s protest for social change in America at a match between the Chicago Red Stars and Seattle Reign FC.
In previous years the Ballon d’Or has always signified the best player on the field, the player that has most excelled for the club and the country. The player that has led their team with or without an armband. Much like every other sport, football has evolved and now incorporates some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the world. In light of this growth, it makes sense that the player of the year should carry the responsibilities of not only being a dynamic footballer, but also an individual that represents the values of football off the field.
Rapinoe made a sturdy case for her own nomination in this respect; the star footballer made a statement at the World Cup not only on the field but off the field as well. In case there were any doubts about her professional ability, Rapinoe scored both goals that sent America to the final in the USA’s semi-final against France. She walked away with 6 goals in total at the tournament, even scoring in the final. It seemed fitting for her efforts that she walked away with the Golden Ball for the player of the tournament.
Off the field, she was just as busy. Rapinoe voiced her disregard for President Donald Trump’s discriminatory politics, and proudly stated that she would not be visiting the White House if the USA won the competition. Naturally, this was said in more colourful language. Rapinoe played sublimely at the World Cup, racing down the wing, dribbling defenders, energising the team and scoring goals when called upon. It was a World Cup to remember: a gay American woman with purple hair ran rampant doing exactly as she pleased, and the world stood in awe.
Yet it was her authenticity and the ability to turn mundane press conferences into conversations about equality that set Rapinoe apart. The Reign FC player raised the issue of gender discrimination while in France and forced the conversation about the gender pay gap. This effect was felt throughout the tournament as if the USA’s journey to the trophy and Rapinoe’s charge to inform the world on the issue of gender discrimination ran hand-in-hand. This journey climaxed as the USA lifted their World Cup trophy to a chant of “equal pay! equal pay!” from the crowd; Rapinoe had captured their attention. The world was not only witnessing some of the best football on offer but also being made aware of an inequality that still needs to be rectified.
As a gay American icon that doubles as a purple-haired football star, Rapinoe has shown that the spirit of revolution has many faces and even those who have everything to lose are equipped to start the conversation. The American winger did not leave her fire in France; the night she was honoured as the FIFA women’s player of the year in September, she again used her platform to speak out on issues that plague this great sport today, racism, homophobia, and sexism. Rapinoe begged any individual that has a platform to shed light on the issues that are rife in football and force the people that can affect change to do it immediately.
Rapinoe has been nominated for the Ballon d’Or, the ultimate trophy to signify the best player of the year. How should the best be defined? Perhaps in simpler times, it could be calculated by goals, assists and team awards but the times have changed. The impact that Rapinoe has had on football, society and the feminist movement cannot be measured. Surely an individual that can perform on the field for club and country, as well stand up and use her platform to start difficult conversations and make a difference, deserves to be known as the best.