One of the abiding images of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ is Abby Wambach’s last-ditch header to secure a scarcely believable 122nd-minute equaliser for USA in their quarter-final against Brazil. USA’s campaign was saved, an unprecedented failure to qualify for a FIFA Women’s World Cup semi-final avoided, and Wambach’s bullet header was named goal of the tournament. Many may have overlooked the architect of the epic goal, and in the same way that the moment reinvigorated USA’s campaign, Megan Rapinoe’s life hasn’t quite been the same since firing the crucial pinpoint cross on that summer evening in Dresden.
The silky-skilled wide midfielder with a love of music is, to use a metaphor, perhaps not quite stadium rock star, but certainly huge on the alternative charts. Since Germany 2011 songs have been penned about her, the national team apparel supplier produced a limited edition ‘Pinoe’ T-Shirt and there are tens of thousands of Twitter followers hanging on her every utterance. September even saw Rapinoe’s hometown of Redding in Northern California hold the first annual Megan Rapinoe Day.
The many accolades though are not without substance. The output has been consistently high and the contributions at key moments for Pia Sundhage’s team have been many. Rapinoe followed up her involvement in the Brazil win with an inspiring second-half entrance off the bench, providing an assist to help lift a stuttering USA past France and into the final. Despite the heroics up to that point, the 26-year-old saved her best for the final as Rapinoe hit the post and set up Alex Morgan’s opener in a dynamic performance on the left flank.
New found recognition
The 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup may not have ended perfectly for USA - Japan’s remarkable penalty shoot-out victory saw to that – but it nevertheless resulted in a major impact Stateside. “We didn’t quite achieve what we wanted to,” Rapinoe told FIFA.com. “The reception when we came back home was unbelievable.” Large crowds flocked to Women’s Professional Soccer matches and new found levels of media coverage duly ensured. “It was like we won. We managed to elevate women’s football to a level that it has never been before. It was almost as if we inspired the nation.”
So was this year’s final appearance, the USA’s first since the much-vaunted 1999 victory on home soil in front of a record women’s football crowd, the sun-drenched images of which are often reeled out, a watershed for USA women’s football? “I think so,” says Rapinoe. “Ever since 99, everyone talks about 99 and what they achieved, how popular they were and that we would never eclipse that until we won another World Cup, even though we have won two [Olympic] gold medals. I think we got over that and to some degree eclipsed that popularity. Not to say we are more popular than the Mia Hamms, but I think we are different and our personalities were able to come out.”
It would of course have all been different but for the “Brazil moment” as Rapinoe calls the last-gasp equaliser against Marta and Co. It was, Rapinoe says, “the biggest moment of my career”, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The highs are all the sweeter, they say, for having tasted the lows, and it’s fair to say Rapinoe has experienced her share of adversity. After impressing at the 2004 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, two successive knee reconstructions threatened to derail a promising career before it had really began, only for Rapinoe to get back on track in spectacular fashion.
Rapinoe’s off-field effervescence is reflected in her style of play with a cultured left foot and deft footwork a handful for any defence as amply demonstrated at Germany 2011. The distinctive smartly-cropped platinum hair is another reason Rapinoe stands out from the conventional, and was an inspiration for the popular selling T-Shirt.
Rapinoe’s likeable idiosyncrasies, perhaps partly moulded by several years studying in Portland, the north-west city with a strong counter-culture sensibility, was rarely better illustrated than after scoring her only FIFA Women’s World Cup goal. A smart finish against Colombia was duly followed by a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ into the television effects microphone positioned behind the corner flag.
“The song choice was [team room-mate] Lori Lindsey’s idea,” laughs Rapinoe, who goes on to explain it was partly a small way of playing tribute to the many US serviceman based in the area around Sinsheim, who had come out to support the team. “I don’t score many goals so, on the world stage, I thought it is time to do something big.”
Since Germany 2011, Rapinoe returned home to complete the WPS season in front of markedly swelled and enthused numbers. There followed some downtime and a brief two-game cameo with Sydney FC in Australia’s W-League, where Rapinoe’s fresh approach to football on and off the field attracted a new group of Pinoe coverts.
The football year will conclude with a training camp as USA seeks to maintain their momentum for January’s London 2012 qualifiers. USA has won the last two Olympic Women’s Football Tournament gold medals, but the anguish of narrow failure to win on the world stage in Germany must burn deep, not that it is borne out in Rapinoe’s reflections on that game in Frankfurt.
“We were sad after the game that we lost,” says Rapinoe “But I was genuinely happy for them [Japan]. It was an amazing story. They were deserving champs, they had an amazing run and were brilliant the whole time. I don’t think the World Cup could have ended with a better football game.”