It’s rare in sport that an athlete leaves behind a legacy such as the one Megan Rapinoe has cultivated over her remarkable international career.
Two World Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal would be enough for many, but the 38-year-old has never just been satisfied with sporting achievements.
Instead, the midfielder from California has become an influential campaigner, a philanthropist, a fashion icon and an advocate of equal rights across society.
On Sunday, fans will have the chance to celebrate all that she’s achieved as Rapinoe takes to the field one last time for the US Women’s National Team (USWNT).
The game against South Africa in Chicago, the final match in a two-game series, will begin with a ceremony to honor the soccer legend.
“It will be special to have this one last opportunity to play for my country in front of our incredible fans and get the chance to thank my teammates and everyone who has had an impact on me as a person and player over the years,” Rapinoe said in a statement.
Rapinoe will bow out from her international career having made 203 appearances for the country.
Since making her debut in 2006, she scored 63 goals and made 73 assists – ranking in the top-10 for both categories in US women’s team history.
Along the way, she won two World Cup trophies, in 2015 and 2019, and claimed gold at the London Olympics in 2012.
But it was in 2019 that Rapinoe’s star arguably shone the brightest.
After inspiring her country to World Cup glory, she won the Ballon d’Or Féminin and FIFA’s The Best award – cementing herself as the best women’s player on the planet at the time.
It was recognition for performances that had oozed class and confidence – traits encapsulated in an iconic photograph taken the same year.
After scoring two goals against host France in the World Cup quarterfinals, Rapinoe celebrated with a pose that was captured in arguably the most iconic photograph of her life.
The picture of a triumphant Rapinoe with her arms outstretched broke the internet, pleasing her supporters and, in truth, irritating her critics.
“This is one of my favorite sports pictures of the decade,” sports pundit Bill Simmons posted at the time.
The defiant celebration also appeared to speak to more than just sporting success, but also to her activism.
Throughout her career, Rapinoe has stood up for many issues including racial equality, women’s rights, pay parity and LGBTQ+ issues, to name just a few.
Naturally, when talking about such issues, Rapinoe found herself with critics – some more high profile than others.
She made waves in 2016 when she knelt during the national anthem before a Seattle Reign game as a show of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback whose protests against racial injustice and police brutality drew heavy criticism.
She continued to do so for the US national team, a symbol not appreciated by everyone in the country.
Undeterred by the wrath of those she challenged, Rapinoe also openly criticized former US President Donald Trump who publicly shot back at the midfielder in 2019 when she said she’d refuse a White House trip should the US win the World Cup that year.
But even a feud with the president of her country failed to throw her off-track.
In 2022, she did enter the White House, only this time to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States – from President Joe Biden, for her advocacy work.
“I am humbled and truly honored to be chosen for this award by President Biden and feel as inspired and motivated as ever to continue this long history of fighting for the freedoms of all people,” Rapinoe said in a statement.
“To quote Emma Lazarus, ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’”
Rapinoe, who previously called herself a “walking protest,” was most notably an influential figure in her national team’s drive for equal pay.
The dispute with her country’s soccer federation dated back to March 2019 when the women’s team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against US Soccer.
After a three-year legal battle, an agreement was eventually reached in 2022 which saw the women’s and men’s national teams receive an equal rate of pay in all friendlies and tournaments, including the World Cup.
“It’s a little bit surreal to be honest,” Rapinoe said at the time of the agreement.
“We’ve been in this for a long time and coming from a long history of women that have fought to put this sport in a better place.
“The thing I look forward to and I’m really proud of is that justice comes in the next generation never having to go through what we went through – it’s equal pay across the board from here on out.”
However, there was to be no fairytale ending to her glittering international career at this year’s Women’s World Cup.
Before the tournament began, Rapinoe announced her decision to retire at the end of the season, meaning Australia and New Zealand would play host to her last truly competitive international match.
In truth, at the age of 38, Rapinoe was no longer the player she once was and she was reduced to making an impact off the bench.
While there wasn’t as much running left in the legs, Rapinoe’s experience was an important asset for a young US team looking to rebuild itself.
But, despite all the success that went before, her World Cup dreams ended in a penalty shootout heartbreak.
Rapinoe’s last act came when she blazed her spotkick over the bar as Sweden knocked the reigning champion out of the round-of-16, marking the earliest exit ever at a World Cup for the US.
A smile of disbelief masked the pain as she trudged off the pitch, never to play in a World Cup again.
“It’s like a sick joke for me, personally,” Rapinoe told Fox Sports after the game. “I’m like, ‘This is dark comedy, I missed a penalty.’”
But many won’t remember that missed penalty when they look back on an unrivalled international career.
Her experience and quality on the field will be sorely missed but, one would imagine, her work and advocacy off it will continue.
As her teammate Kelley O’Hara summarized ahead of this year’s Women’s World Cup, Rapinoe is “one of a kind.”
“There’s never been one like her, there probably is never going to be one close to her.”
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