LYON, France — They stood with arms hung over each other’s shoulders, off to the side of a makeshift stage where they were about to be called up to accept a slew of World Cup awards – individual honors, the team trophy.
Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, two American captains, two Californians, southern and northern respectively, who had dominated this World Cup in every imaginable way. They combined for a dozen goals and a half-dozen assists on a United States team that steamrolled the competition, never trailing for a minute, including in Sunday’s 2-0 victory over the Netherlands.
Now they were sharing a winner’s pose, a champion’s embrace, as FIFA and U.S. Soccer officials took the stage for the trophy presentation. It was then that a chant emerged from the sellout crowd here and began crashing down on the field in waves.
“Equal … pay!” the fans shouted. “Equal … pay!”
It was coming from American fans and Dutch fans and just fans in general, louder and louder. It was as impossible to ignore as the brilliance of these American players and this American team. FIFA president Gianni Infantino had to sit there and listen to it. U.S. Soccer’s Carlos Cordeiro, and delegates from around the world, did as well.
“A little public shame never hurt anybody,” Rapinoe said.
This was the work of Morgan and Rapinoe and the team they lead, a moment when everything they put into this tournament, on the field and off, was being honored.
They were determined to make this World Cup about something bigger than themselves. It could have been just about individual glory; they knew coming in they were likely to be the stars. They could have made this just about their team winning. The Americans were the overwhelming favorites.
This could have just been about grabbing endorsements and promoting brands and them, personally, benefitting in every imaginable way.
Instead, they wanted it to be broader, more important, more lasting.
They wanted to use the stage to force uncomfortable conversations about proper investment in the game and growing respect for female athletes. In America, yes, but even more importantly around a globe that is increasingly watching this event.
There was no more time for being polite. There was no more time for accepting what they’ve been given. The team was too good, the soccer too powerful, the time too important.
“I feel like this team is in the midst of changing the world around us as we live,” Rapinoe said.
So the U.S. players sued their own national federation, seeking a pay increase since they receive a fraction of the far less successful men’s program. Then they spent every opportunity to call out FIFA for its lack of commitment to the women’s game.
“We need people like that in our game, calling things for what they are,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.
With Morgan and Rapinoe sharing the role of captain, they had the most opportunity to speak publicly and they never hesitated.
They smacked federations from smaller countries for lackluster investments, clapped back at critics who wanted them to play a more demure game and essentially wouldn’t stop being noisy and combative with those FIFA suits who make decisions in FIFA suites.
“We are such a proud and strong and defiant group of women,” Rapinoe said of her American team. “We have done exactly what we set out to do. We did what we wanted to do. We say what we feel, all of us, really. I know my voice is sometimes louder, but in the meeting rooms and the conversations everybody is in this together.”
It was like an avalanche that kept building, the Americans’ play spinning heads as they reached levels previously considered unachievable by women, and then the American captains filling ears with demands about getting other women the same chance.
“We are willing to fight,” said U.S. defender Ali Krieger. “We just love to play this game but we also understand we have somewhat of a responsibility to uphold and being a role model for people who maybe don’t have a voice, not only in football but in important issues that are happening around us.”
The advocacy was relentless, but it needed an equal dose of play to match it. The more the Americans spoke, the more some wanted them to lose. They lost fans and gained critics and had to listen to people tell them to just shut up and dribble.
“We are more than just athletes,” Morgan reminded.
No matter what, they wouldn’t let anything rattle their focus on victory. They continued to lift their others’ games until they were dominant champions.
“[To] back up all of those words with performances and back up all of those performances with words,” Rapinoe said.
No one expects there to actually be equal pay. Rapinoe has said she understands the economic difference between the men’s game and the women’s game right now. The demands are far more reasonable and the details far more nuanced than some critics want to allow.
They are seeking to make things better, though. They are demanding improvement and respect and mostly the end of having to even argue that they are worthy of anything but FIFA scraps.
“Equal pay!” was the chant. “Equal pay!” was the battle cry.
But these are realists. It was about forcing the issue at long, long last.
And so as Morgan and Rapinoe walked up to that stage to receive their awards, they shook the hands of the very executives they’ve called out for weeks now here in France, the ones upon whom those chants from the fans were hammering down.
What did Gianni Infantino say, Rapinoe was asked?
“Just pleasantries,” she said. “A wry smile in there for sure. He knows that I know that he knows that I know.”
Rapinoe laughed, as she often does.
“He said let’s have a conversation about that,” Rapinoe said. “I said, ‘I’d love to.’”
A championship won. A mission, perhaps, in the process of being accomplished.