Thirty-six hours before a ball is kicked, the narrative is taking shape. In the vernacular of the British tabloid press, England’s plucky Lionesses are now pitted in an ideological battle against the arrogant US Women’s National Team (USWNT). Not for goals, victories or honours, although one can assume that a game of football will break out at some point, but for the title of most dignified.
Megan Rapinoe won’t be winning that. She and her trophy hoovering cohorts’ behaviour on and off the pitch have been endlessly scrutinised and critiqued since this latest incarnation emerged onto the world stage, consistently failing to impress despite winning a World Cup, Olympic Gold, two CONCACAF Gold Cups and two SheBelieves Cups. They’re arrogant, apparently.
Never a good look on a lady.
That everything needs to be boiled down to good vs. evil is reductive and disappointing enough in 2019, but there’s more to this than idle tabloid journalism. Few mainstream outlets bothered to cover the gender discrimination lawsuit filed by the squad three months before the tournament kicked off. If they had, it might have provided some context for the 13-0 victory over Thailand in their opening game. Proving their level of superiority on the world stage is essential to the success of their case. Were they treated as heroes for making their point? No. Megan Rapinoe was burned for waving her leg in the air.
This was just the beginning for Rapinoe, who, barring incredible scenes in the last three games, will be remembered as the face of France 2019.
First, a little background. Rapinoe’s relationship with US Soccer has been fractious since 2016 when she became the first non-black professional athlete to take a knee in support of Colin Kaepernick. Within six months, the federation amended policy to ensure their staff and athletes stand during the anthem. Rapinoe toed the line and remained standing at the next time of asking, but kept her mouth firmly closed as her colleagues sang the words to the Star Spangled Banner. During lighter moments I like to imagine a boardroom filled with men in shirtsleeves at US Soccer HQ trying to figure out how to draft a policy to make a woman sing a song she doesn’t want to. I look forward to developments with interest.
If only Rapinoe was demure in the face of opposition. If only she’d been more polite when asked whether she would uphold the tradition of victorious teams accepting an invite to the White House by the President of the United States. In footage from a photo shoot for Eight by Eight magazine, she instead responded thusly.
She’s a proper potty mouth, isn’t she?
Naturally an offence of this magnitude attracts the interest of those whose job it is to uphold the traditions of a great nation. Donald Trump took time off from his hectic golf schedule to tweet a nationalistic diatribe at someone using the Twitter handle @meganrapinoe. The fact that he couldn’t be bothered to check he was sending his message to the right account says a great deal more about this than the words he used.
Rapinoe responded by scoring both goals in the USWNT quarter final against France. Her celebration for the second became a meme which quickly found into Donald Trump’s mentions. Trump apologist Piers Morgan had it covered though, issuing this scorching take.
Morgan’s painting by numbers form of journalism is increasingly popular. It is, after all, so much easier to look at a picture and fill in the blanks based on your own privilege, understanding of the world and the complacencies of the readership you’re aiming to please, rather than engage with what’s happening. But really? This celebration can only be perceived as arrogant if your understanding of the word is incomplete. It’s tough to see how she’s exaggerating her own abilities when she scores two goals in a quarter final when the President of the United States has just told you to WIN before you TALK.
The fact is, Rapinoe and her team mates can’t do right for doing wrong; a fait accompli that many women and allies will recognise. Win, but be gracious. Look attractive while you’re doing it. Lower your voice. Don’t engage in undignified behaviours like running around shouting, jumping on each others backs or heaven forbid, show self-confidence.
Make. Yourself. Small.
This tired, embedded attitude is policed and maintained with shame and is precisely the reason why Rapinoe’s popularity is transcending football. Far from being a negative influence, disrespectful to her country or egotistical, she’s providing direction in a post #MeToo world. The movement, thanks to the bravery of survivors, has lost momentum recently. The infrastructures within which misogyny, corruption and sexual abuse flourished still exist and want nothing better than for everyone to stop speaking out so normal service can be resumed.
Rapinoe, who took a knee in support of everyone who is treated unfairly by the system and refused to sing the anthem when they changed the rules to force her to stand up, is an existential threat to that infrastructure. She details her thought processes behind controversial incidents regularly on Players Tribune, offering a transparency unnerving to those who operate best in the shadows. Through direct action she is using the platform she earned through hard work and persistence. Rather than acquiescing to the demands of her employers, she questions their motives and actions, in public if necessary. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this in a culture where difference is separated from the pack and neutralised with shame before it can cause lasting damage.
If England win tomorrow night, I will be overjoyed. Unbelievably for a side operating under the auspices of the Cross of St George, they appear to be playing their way into form and the notion of making it to Sunday’s Final isn’t the flight of fancy it felt like in the group stages. But if the USA’s might is too much for the Lionesses, I’m going to look at it as a benefit for the greater good. I want the platform upon which Megan Rapinoe and her team mates operate on to be as big as possible. Impossible to ignore. I want to see her face staring out from newspapers, magazines and tv screens, communicating her message to as many people as possible, regardless of age, gender or preferred haircut.
Don’t stay quiet. Speak up. Be proud of who you are. Question everything. Be loud. Be undignified. It scares the living hell out of them.