In the aftermath of World Cup final victory, USWNT coach Jill Ellis, part of her face hidden by a white cap with a USA badge on the front, was alone on a podium facing a puzzled media. Her captain was not by her side, as is usually the custom in post-match press conferences.
When it was revealed that Megan Rapinoe had been picked for a doping test, the room deflated in unison. Such has been Rapinoe’s pull these last few weeks that posing questions to the first coach to win the Women’s World Cup twice did not have quite the allure as talking to the 34-year-old who now transcends her sport.
But towards the end of the press conference Rapinoe emerged, to the warm applause of some in the room.
“I just killed doping,” the ebullient forward told reporters, smiling as broadly as a World Cup winner should.
Ever since Rapinoe agitated US President Donald Trump during the World Cup by saying that she would not attend the White House should the US win the competition, the forward has been the center of attention in France.
But her performances on the pitch have elevated her to another level of stardom, too. She was the match winner in both the last-16 and the quarterfinal and also scored the opening goal in the final, helping secure a 2-0 win over the Netherlands.
After the match, the forward spoke as passionately and as eloquently as she always does.
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‘A little public shame never hurt anybody’
Asked about her thoughts to the crowd’s booing of FIFA president Gianni Infantino as he walked towards the presentation stage and the chorus of “equal pay” which rippled around the Groupama Stadium in Lyon as the USWNT prepared to lift the coveted World Cup trophy, Rapinoe said: “I’m down with the boos.”
“I think everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step,” she said.
“I think we’re done with ‘are we worth it, should we have equal pay, is the markets the same, yadda, yadda.’ Fans are done with that, players are done with that and, in a lot of ways, I think sponsors and everyone’s done with that.
“Let’s get to the next point. How do we support women’s federations and women’s programs around the world?
“What can FIFA do, what can we do to support the leagues around the world?
“We put on as players – every player at this World Cup put on the most incredible show that you can ever ask for and we can’t do anything more to impress more, to be better ambassadors, to take on more, to play better.
“It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step and a little public shame never hurt anybody, right.”
On Saturday Infantino described France 2019 as the “best Women’s World Cup ever.”
He also said that he wants to expand the Women’s World Cup to 32 teams and double the current prize money of $30 million for the next tournament, setting out a five-point plan to make sure the sport “seizes this opportunity.”
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But even if FIFA were to double the prize money for 2023, it would still mean participants at the Women’s World Cup would be receiving significantly less than men’s teams. For last year’s men’s World Cup, the overall prize fund was $400 million, with winners France taking home $38 million.
The USWNT is also fighting its own equal pay battle with the squad announcing earlier this year that they were taking legal action against their own federation, alleging “institutional gender discrimination.”
“It is time for the Federation to correct this disparity once and for all,” said Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the US Women’s National Team Players Association, in a statement published after the victory which gave the USWNT its fourth World Cup, a remarkable feat as there has only been eight editions of the tournament.
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In Rapinoe, the squad has a player of global acclaim who will fight and speak loudly on their behalf.
She celebrated in Lyon as she did in Paris – when she scored against France just days after irking Trump – her arms outstretched in a statuesque pose before being engulfed by teammates.
Her now signature celebration, a pose which can be seen emblazoned on T-shirts, epresents her attitude, she explained.
“I’m generally pretty off the cuff,” she said when asked about her celebration.
“This just felt right in this moment to have me and the person and the things I stand for with a big sh*t-eating grin of your face in all of our glory, I say that as my team and all the women’s players that have played in this tournament and around the world.
“I feel that it’s kind of iconic of everything that we’ve gone through and continue to go through and yet we still put this beautiful product out on the pitch.”
That Rapinoe used the word “iconic” was apt as that is what she and her team have become after a month where they have blazed a trail both on and off the pitch.
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Just before Rapinoe had walked into the press conference to hold court, Ellis was asked whether the attention her player had received in recent weeks was a distraction.
“Megan was built for this, build for these moments, built to be a spokesperson for others,” she replied.
“I’ve sat in a couple of press conferences with her and she’s just incredibly eloquent, speaks from her heart and we need people like that in the game – to be honest, to call things for what they are.
“In terms of her dealing with this, I’ve never had any issue with that. For the past four, five years I’ve seen what she’s capable of. The bigger the spotlight, the more she shines. For Megan, it highlights who she is.”