DECINES-CHARPIEU, France — With gold medals around their necks and fresh jerseys that proclaimed “Champions” on their backs, members of the U.S. women’s soccer team took turns cradling and kissing the World Cup trophy, then raising it aloft with triumphant howls.
Upon winning the country’s fourth Women’s World Cup title Sunday with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands, the team celebrated as it had competed the entire four-week tournament — wholeheartedly and unapologetically.
This was a sporting triumph, defending the 2015 title and extending a tradition of excellence that dates nearly four decades. With Sunday’s victory, the Americans have won four of the eight World Cup titles contested since 1991 and four of the six Olympic gold medals awarded since 1996.
But Sunday’s win was about far more than sports.
Three months before the tournament kicked off in Paris on June 7, the members of the U.S. women’s team sued their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation, for gender discrimination, citing wages and working conditions that are inferior to those of their less successful male counterparts.
In doing so, the athletes knowingly and deliberately made their burden greater heading into the World Cup. Whether the lawsuit was a post-match talking point or not (and it rarely was), each goal and each victory the U.S. women scored became a statement about their prowess on the field and their leverage off it.
Chants of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” rang out from the stands in the delirious aftermath of Sunday’s U.S. victory, leaving no doubt about how soccer fans would rule if they were judge and jury of the legal proceedings.
Within seconds, the hashtag #EqualPay spiked fivefold on Twitter, according to a company official. Twitter was the social media platform of choice Sunday for U.S. soccer supporters, including former first lady Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton; actors Ryan Reynolds and Bette Midler; and NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. President Trump and first lady Melania Trump also tweeted their congratulations.
In the context of the two-pronged agenda at the heart of the Americans’ World Cup campaign — victory on the field and a more enduring victory for equity off it — each goal was a statement not simply about the dominance of the defending champions.
Each goal was a statement about the quality and value of women’s soccer around the globe, the power of female athletes in all sports and the importance of ensuring that the next generation’s girls have an opportunity to compete, be coached and develop into champions.
“Everyone is ready for this conversation to move to the next step,” said U.S. co-captain Megan Rapinoe, 34, who scored Sunday’s go-ahead goal after a scoreless first half and was awarded both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards as the tournament’s top scorer and overall player, respectively. “I think we’re done with, ‘Are we worth it? Should we have equal pay? [Are] the [male and female] markets the same?’ Yada, yada. Everyone is done with that. Fans are done with that. The players are done with that. . . .
“What’s next? How do we support women’s federations and women’s programs around the world? . . . It’s time to move that conversation forward to the next step.”
It was fitting that it was Rapinoe who broke Sunday’s stubborn stalemate between two gritty, determined teams. Competing in her third World Cup, Rapinoe had scored all four U.S. goals over the first two games of the knockout stage, staving off elimination by Spain and then France.
At each round, it was Rapinoe who never flinched or backed down from a challenge. Nor did she sidestep difficult conversations. Midway through the tournament, a profane comment she had uttered six months earlier was aired, in which she said she wouldn’t go “to the f------ White House” should the United States win the World Cup. Rapinoe owned her political opinions, while apologizing to her mother for her profanity. She reiterated her opinions on ways in which she feels the United States has failed to protect minorities, the LGBT community and its most vulnerable citizens.
For many of those reasons, Rapinoe, with her lavender-tinted white-blond hair, had become a flash point for the U.S. women’s team. Yet she has always been a team-first player. Just the day before Sunday’s final, her eyes glistened with tears as she spoke through a broad smile about the pride she felt in seeing young teammates such as Rose Lavelle and Christen Press dazzle in their World Cup debuts.
As if on cue Sunday, just eight minutes after Rapinoe’s 61st-minute goal, a white U.S. jersey streaked up the field. It was Lavelle, all alone, the ball at her feet. She split two defenders and, with a fierce sweep of her left foot, sent a ground-skimming rocket into the back, right corner of the net for a 2-0 lead.
To that point, it had been a tense contest.
The Netherlands was making just its second World Cup appearance but, like the U.S. squad, had never trailed all tournament. Led by Dutch King Willem-Alexander, its fans turned out in force at Stade de Lyon, as they had all tournament.
Surely no nation makes a more jubilant noise in celebration of its athletes. The orange-clad Dutch are famed worldwide for bringing their bicycles, party buses and brass bands to speedskating ovals, velodromes, rowing courses and, this past month, to soccer pitches throughout France.
And they set a rousing tone for the bruising battle in store.
The favored U.S. women boasted depth, a variety of tactics, a blend of youth and experience, and ruthlessness. The latter, in the World Cup context, is an honorific, not a fault. That American “ruthlessness,” in fact, was the quality England Coach Phil Neville singled out as the trait that he most wanted his team to acquire in advance of its semifinal against the Americans.
And the U.S. squad paired its ruthlessness with unshakable confidence — certitude that whatever the deficit or however unbreakable the stalemate, it would find a way to win.
There was plenty of contact Sunday, including two ugly head-to-head collisions. One left defender Becky Sauerbrunn with a gash over her right eye and a rivulet of blood streaming down her face. Another sent Kelley O’Hara to the sideline for the rest of the match.
For the first time all tournament, the Americans failed to score in the first half despite creating several terrific chances and gut-check moments for Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal.
So when Rapinoe finally scored to break the standoff, with signature steely nerves on a penalty kick, she raced to a corner of the pitch and was smothered in hugs. The celebration after Lavelle’s goal was even more emotion-packed. And when time finally expired, the full bench emptied and raced onto the pitch for a party that went on and on.
There was so much to celebrate. The World Cup trophy they had trained, sacrificed and longed for for so many years. The right to compete against the world’s best. The right to fight for their beliefs, to take unpopular stances and, as professional athletes, to be fairly compensated.