“Lend your platform to other people, lift other people up, share your success, we have a unique opportunity different to any other sport in the world, to use this beautiful game, to actually change the world for better.”
And with that, Megan Rapinoe signed off a bar-raising speech.
The United States’ World Cup-winning captain collected the award for Women’s Player of the Year at the FIFA Best Awards in Milan, Italy, and in speaking out so passionately and defiantly she set a new precedent. Expectations at sports ceremonies have now changed.
Less than two months into the brand new seasons across Europe’s major leagues, the ordinary football fan may be forgiven for avoiding awards nights. They are normally little more than a continued celebration of the privileged, the great and the greatest, with further gushing adoration for over-indulged professionals.
It was two recipients of FIFA awards at the Teatro alla Scala opera house in Milan who ultimately defied expectations. The pair commanded the most attention, injecting a much-needed legitimacy as well as setting a moral benchmark to the often fantastical circus of the awards ceremony.
First and foremost, it became Rapinoe’s show.
In September 2016, Rapinoe attracted the ire of the US Soccer Federation by showing solidarity with NFL player Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the US national anthem ahead of an international game with Thailand. Three years later at The FIFA Best Awards, the same guts and gaul were once again brilliantly on show.
In a venue which has hosted some of the world’s leading operatic talents, Rapinoe’s voice was just as loud and as powerful.
The winger was the exceptional talent at this summer’s World Cup in France, winning both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball for best player at the tournament. Remarkably she mirrored peerless pitch performances with an off-field audacity by going tête à tête with the White House, a place she was adamant she was “not f*cking going to” should the USA win the tournament.
In Italy, Rapinoe used her platform as one of the most recognisable sporting personalities on the planet.
Firstly, to applaud her football colleagues Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly for their respective stances in the face of racism, and then to address her fight as a woman of the LGBTQ+ community.
“If everybody was as outraged about homophobia as the LGBTQ players, if everybody was as outraged about equal pay or the lack thereof, or the lack of investment in the women’s game, other than just women, that would be the most inspiring thing to me.
“I feel like that’s my ask of everybody. We have such an incredible opportunity, being professional football players. We have incredible platforms. I ask everyone here – lend your platform to other people, lift other people up, share your success.
“We have a unique opportunity in football to use this beautiful game to actually change the world for better. I hope you take that to heart, and just do something, do anything. We have incredible power in this room.”
Her words and message have provoked praise from her peers.
“This message is clear. Thank you again Megan Rapinoe, for leading the way on and off the pitch. Congratulations [on] this amazing achievement.” proclaimed Wolfsburg goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, whilst Rapinoe’s compatriot Meghan Kingenberg produced the simple but profound statement: “Thanks for using your platform for more than football.”
Rapinoe, however, wasn’t the only figure to draw attention to matters outside of celebrating football. At the same ceremony, manager Jurgen Klopp won the award for Best Coach for his 2018/19 Champions League winning exploits with Liverpool.
In the subsequent speech whilst family were duly checklisted, as well as showing humility and modesty in saluting the work of runner-up Mauricio Pochettino, the charismatic German, never one to shy away from a soundbite, diverted the attention of his own achievements elsewhere.
“I want to use this stage to say one thing. Today is an individual prize. I don't 100% understand individual prizes but I get it. I'm here for a lot of people but we are all on the really good side of life. That is why we are here, legends.
"The past was great, the present is really good and the future will hopefully be good for us as well. But there are people out there who don't have the situation. I am really proud to announce from today I am a member of the Common Goal family."
The Liverpool Echo subsequently reported on the website crash as online attention to this last bit of information avalanched, and ‘Common Goal’ illustrates its mandate simply:
“Members pledge 1% of their earnings to a central fund. And together we allocate this fund to high-impact organisations that harness the power of football to advance the United Nations Global Goals.”
This initiative relates to the 17-step plan decided by world leaders In 2015. With an ultimate 2030 projection, these goals include ending poverty, removing famine and hunger, and providing clean water and sanitation, as well as such objectives as improving gender equality and economic growth worldwide. That 1% donation supports a group of 120 charities working on social projects across 80 countries, an idea established through the charity streetfootballworld and supported and brought to mainstream attention by footballer Juan Mata.
Klopp is just the second men’s football manager - after RB Leipzig’s Julen Nagelsmann - to join the cause.
Unsurprisingly, Rapinoe is also one of the 180 supporters of Common Goal, and in the manner of collecting The Best FIFA Women's Player on the night, the World Cup winner has gone on to share the majority of the headlines with the Liverpool gaffer, for all the right reasons.
In the summer Donald Trump despairingly attempted to curtail Rapinoe’s rhetoric and position of power in the sporting spotlight;
“Megan should WIN first before she TALKS!”
She did. She won everything.
She talked as she won, and she won as she talked.
Rapinoe and Klopp have now helped set a precedent and helped fuel an expectation of the responsibility of the football community. The annual rigmarole of the awards show might very well become less back-slapping than a much welcome cause célèbre, provoking debate and interest in matters outside of the sport.
A footballer who perfectly balances ability with activism, performance with philanthropy?
That’s The Best Player.