Megan Rapinoe gets put on the spot a lot. It happened again Sunday, for the third or 10th or 50th time at this World Cup, except this time it was the World Cup final, and the game was a scoreless deadlock. Those other kicks had been important; this was a career-definer. She didn’t boot it over the bar like Baggio or Beckham; she didn’t slip like John Terry; she didn’t dribble a weak grounder like Steph Houghton in the semifinals; she didn’t send a souvenir to a lucky supporter in Row 37 like Sam Kerr against Norway. No, on the biggest stage in her sport, Rapinoe calmly poked the ball past the best goalkeeper in the tournament, Sari van Veenendaal.
Rapinoe and Alex Morgan each scored six goals in America’s championship run, but it was Rapinoe who served as the team talisman through the knockout rounds. Morgan netted five of her goals in a 13-0 rout over Thailand; Rapinoe scored five of America’s eight goals from the round of 16 onward despite sitting out the semifinal against England. She scored both goals in America’s 2-1 win over Spain, and both goals in a 2-1 win against France, the hosts and non-USWNT favorites:
And after all that, she got the go-ahead goal in America’s championship win. (In a nice bit of symmetry, the dagger goal was delivered by the youthful Rose Lavelle, presumptive heir to Rapinoe’s throne.) Rapinoe’s final opener was her third penalty goal—like I said, she gets put on the spot a lot.
It’s almost a shame Rapinoe’s biggest goals of this World Cup came from penalty kicks. She’s at her best with the ball at her feet on the left wing, with a petrified defender unsure whether they’re about to get crossed over by Rapinoe or whether Rapinoe is about to hit a cross over them. (See: her beautiful goal against Colombia in 2011; her spin move before scoring on Australia in 2015; her picture-perfect 50-yard cross to Abby Wambach to tie Brazil in the 122nd minute of the 2011 final.) At times in France, America’s attack seemed woefully disjointed, but Rapinoe often single-handedly created danger for the opponent down the flank. Her game is so much more than successfully converting penalties, but when Rapinoe is on the spot, she delivers.
This World Cup, Rapinoe was also put on the spot away from the pitch. Months before the tournament, a reporter asked her whether she would visit the White House. A left winger off the field as well as on it, Rapinoe didn’t think much about the answer—“I’m not going to the fucking White House.” She meant it in two ways: She found it unlikely that Donald Trump, the first president to publicly yell at sports teams for not respecting him enough, would invite a team with liberals and lesbians after snubbing NBA and WNBA teams year after year. And furthermore, she wouldn’t dignify him with her presence.
From the moment those quotes were published, Rapinoe was the story of the tournament. To the Fox News fan, Rapinoe was a boogeyman: anti-American, arrogant, and—hide the kids!—gay. To others, she was an on-field manifestation of the Resistance. Headlines about her play were often overshadowed by headlines about her political views and her celebrations. She’s dividing America! She should be president! She refuses to sing the national anthem! (I used to think kneeling was the thing you weren’t allowed to do. Now I guess you can’t just stand there, either.)
Somehow, Rapinoe handled the influx of irrelevant BS without skipping a beat. Megan, are you un-American? She gave the perfect answer. Megan, do you think Alex Morgan’s tea celebration was disrespectful? She gave the perfect answer. Megan, talk about equal pay! She gave the perfect answer. Megan, can gay people be good at sports? She gave the perfect answer. She swerved from carefree to serious and back when needed, all while scoring critical goals in some of the most important games of her life. When you put Megan Rapinoe on the spot, she delivers.
All of a sudden, Rapinoe’s every game was a referendum on all these things that are so much bigger than soccer. Her wins were wins for female athletes; wins for the right to protest; wins for everything other people decided she represented. In the funniest twist in sports history, the flag-humping contingent proudly announced that they were rooting for France and England in women’s soccer. (Seriously, you couldn’t write satire like this.)
Rapinoe didn’t ask to be the “I’m not going to the fucking White House” person; she simply answered a question that was asked of her. It’s unfair that Rapinoe and athletes like her are given all this extra weight to carry. When men play sports, the discussion is almost always about the game. Female athletes, even champions, don’t have that luxury. People talk about the social meaning of their achievements instead of the achievements themselves. If they fail, it’s proof they’re not to be taken seriously.
And so when Rapinoe was put on the spot, her kick carried so much on it. But as we learned time and time again this World Cup, when you put Megan Rapinoe on the spot, she delivers. And Team USA are the champions of the world because of it.