From her comments about Donald Trump to her criticism of FIFA, Megan Rapinoe has been the voice of this Women's World Cup. Now it's time for FIFA to show it is serious about the women's game, writes Michael Da Silva.
It was fitting that Megan Rapinoe, reinstated to the starting lineup after sitting out the semifinal, scored the goal that set the United States on course for victory in the World Cup final.
The firebrand from California has transcended this tournament. She cleaned up the individual awards, winning the Golden Boot for her six goals and Golden Ball for a string of standout displays in France, but her damning comments on Donald Trump, equality and FIFA's attitude to the women's game will be an even stronger part of Rapinoe's legacy.
The men enjoyed a prize fund of €356m ($400 million) at last year's World Cup in Russia, while the women this year had to make do with €35.6m. In her calls to double it immediately and quadruple it by 2023, Rapinoe has shaken up the FIFA establishment and her cold exchange during the trophy ceremony with its president Gianni Infantino, who has also felt the heat following accusations of inaction in the Afghan sexual abuse scandal, was telling.
At 34, this is likely to be Rapinoe's final World Cup, but she has been the perfect ambassador for a tournament that has seen record-breaking TV audiences and discovered a mainstream following that many doubted existed even four years ago. Tactically and technically, the women's game has never been in better shape. It's just a shame that rather than giving the tournament the greatest possible platform to succeed, it was used as a test tube for a deeply flawed VAR system that simply ruined many games. The contempt with which FIFA still view the women's game is as obvious as it is depressing.
Nevertheless, the past four weeks have been a triumph for the women's game, women's sport and for the furtherment of sporting equality. Sports is often trumpeted as the great leveler, but the reality is that it still has a long way to go — and if there is one thing this tournament has highlighted it is the limitless potential the women's game has. From a commercial perspective, women are just as marketable as men and it's a wonder why it's taken until the year 2019 for the world to wake up to the potential.
This should be a watershed moment for women's football, the moment from which the game demands comparable funding as the men to establish itself as not only a variant of a men's game, but its equivalent. There was a hint of that sentiment after 2011, a stronger sense of that possibility in 2015, but 2019 really should be a seminal moment. It's no longer a fight that women should be making alone.
The fight for equality
But the hurdles are significant. FIFA must demand, not merely request, that the federations invest equal amounts in the women's game as in the men's within ten years. There is also an opportunity for the US to capitalize on their status as the world leaders in the game by investing in their domestic league and spreading their focus from the national team's success. If they don't, the European leagues will dominate the women's game as the men's does — and that could harm America's long-term future. In addition, all women's European leagues should be played in the summer, because pitting it against the men's during the winter is only going to harm interest and attendances.
This tournament has been electric, but so have previous ones. The key now is to ensure that even when the excitement around the men's season returns in the coming weeks, people are still talking about the women's game. Funding initiated by FIFA is the big issue, because the sponsors are already on board.
We could look back at 2019 as a tournament that cemented the legacy of the women's game or another missed opportunity to file alongside 2015 and all the others that preceded it. Young girls watching this tournament need to feel they are valued as much as the young boys. They need to feel that the game is for them too. As Brazil's Marta put it: "The women's game depends on you to survive. So think about that. Value it more. Cry in the beginning so you can smile in the end."