On Sunday night in Melbourne, as the seagulls of AAMI Park wheeled freely overhead, the United States lost to their old frenemy Sweden in the round of 16 at the World Cup. Despite the Swedes dominating their group while the U.S. scraped out of theirs, it began as a match of uncertainty. But everyone took to heart the lesson that this World Cup is about confounding expectations. Megan Rapinoe felt that perhaps most acutely of all.
What happened was what you should have predicted with both sides feeling so uncertain: scoreless in regulation, scoreless in extra time, and then to penalties to decide who moves on. But the unexpected element of it finally came into play as Rapinoe stepped up to take her penalty, the fourth in line after three confident penalties from her teammate. Sweden’s Nathalie Björn had just missed, giving the U.S. an advantage. Rapinoe has, in the past, been as reliable a penalty taker as there is. In fact she had only ever missed one before, a save by Aubrey Kingsbury in NWSL play back in 2018. In this moment — a moment so familiar to Rapinoe — cradling the future of 22 teammates in her hands, she skied the ball over the goal. It was the first time she had ever missed the goal entirely with a penalty in her 23 career attempts.
Maybe there’s a metaphor in there about the ways that careers end in this game; that sometimes you don’t get a satisfying end to the chapter. Sometimes you have to live with what you get, even if it’s sad and frustrating and a giant what-if that you just carry around, until the weight gets familiar and you can hold it without thinking about how heavy it is.
Rapinoe herself seemed to understand that the best. She smiled a wry smile in the mixed zone, red-rimmed eyes in a wan face, having just gone through a line of video cameras and now patiently answering questions from even more press even though she’d been in tears minutes earlier. “Well, now that I’m in therapy, and I’m you know, 38, that’s like — this is life,” she said. “I wish we were moving on and I could guarantee a championship and do all that, but I feel like it doesn’t take away anything from this experience.”
Not that she was totally zen about it at all. She was clearly still wrapping her head around the miss as she was guided to a stop by the USWNT staffer in front of the assembled American press. She gave an almost bewildered chuckle, a little bit shellshocked, scoffing at herself.
“There’s some dark humor, me missing a f—ing penalty at the end of this game,” she said. “I feel like you know, I joke too often — always in the wrong places and inappropriately. So maybe this is ‘ha ha’ at the end. I don’t know.
“Nobody’s gonna laugh because you guys feel bad,” she added to the scrum, which of course had the effect of making everyone laugh. She rambled somewhat, almost processing it out loud in real time, her voice wavering slightly with restrained grief. “But it’s kind of funny. I mean, you guys thought I was gonna make it. I was like Jesus Christ, skying it?”
It was consummate Megan Rapinoe: charming, direct, not shying away from the events of the night. Maybe after a few days of getting her head around it she might have had a more sober assessment but what else is there to be said? “Jesus Christ, skying it” indeed.
Rapinoe also gave her attention to the younger players on the team, the ones who would be carrying on the legacy of the United States from now on. “The kids are taking over,” she said, her smile turning warm for just a second. “This is, I think whatever — 13 or 14 players’ first World Cup? So they’ll all be back and better and in just four short years. You know, it is sad. We’ve had some of the best players on and off the field that the game has ever seen. Marta, Sinc (Christine Sinclair), obviously Becky (Sauerbrunn)’s not here. Being able to be in the atmosphere with all those players at the same time was really special. And now it’s time for us to move on and time for the new ones to cement themselves.”
Lindsey Horan’s voice broke as she talked about that generation leaving the World Cup behind. “it’s emotional. Now those are some of the greatest football players of all time. Players that I’ve looked up to. Pinoe, you know, Sinc. Both of them I got to play with. Marta. literally one of the GOATs. It’s hard as a women’s football player, (to) see these guys exiting like this. But look at how much they did for women’s football, them on the field, their character, everything. They’re the reason that we’re all here today.”
Certainly these players all deserve to be discussed together, but Rapinoe’s exit does stand in contrast to the departures of other legends of the game. Christine Sinclair and Marta both called time on their World Cup careers with their respective teams having done so much for their countries but never counting a star above the crest. Rapinoe helped the U.S. win two World Cups, and an Olympic gold medal.
So there is, perhaps, less melancholy and more a sense of sweet sadness at Rapinoe’s departure from the World Cup. This is a player who has seen and done it all, hoisted trophy after trophy while rising to cultural icon status in the United States. At the individual level, she won the 2019 World Cup golden boot and golden ball, and was named The Best FIFA women’s player that year, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2022. She was on the cover of Time magazine. Her repeated advocacy for issues such as pay equity and racial equality has been a major contribution for other athletes who want to address the intersection of politics and sports. Truly, hers has been a fulfilling career.
At the end, Rapinoe went to her family in the stands. She hugged her fiance, Sue Bird, for long, long moments, searching for some solace in a time of such bruising public heartbreak. Even a giant needs a hug and the reminder that they are loved for who they are.
“I’ve been sort of reflecting from time to time, even during the tournament. It’s hard not to,” Rapinoe said. “I’m trying to stay in the moment but things sort of crop up. But, I mean, I feel pretty good about my World Cup resume. You know, three finals, two championships, four World Cups. To be able to play this long and still be impactful. I mean, obviously, you want to win everything all the time and that’s the goal. But I feel really proud of it and really proud of this team and really proud of all the players that I’ve played with, and I’ve just loved every bit of my career and I’ll just miss it to death. But yeah, it also feels like the right time and that’s okay.”
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(Photo: Alex Pantling – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)