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Lots of People Wanted Team USA to Apologize or Fail. Their World Cup Win Is One of the Greatest Responses in Sports

8 minute read

The expectations could have easily crushed any other team. The U.S. entered the 2019 World Cup as the top-ranked women’s soccer nation in the world, a squad so deep, according to many observers, that its bench players could have contended for a title. Seven of the eight teams to make these World Cup quarterfinals hailed from Europe; traditional European soccer powers, finally coming to their senses, started investing more in the women’s game. In its last three games of the World Cup, the U.S. faced an ascendant French power on home soil, England, a team that won a tune-up tournament in the United States earlier this year, and in Sunday’s final, the reigning European champion, the Netherlands.

The U.S. beat them all.

All the noise could have thrown them off their game. They celebrate goals with too much exuberance, critics howled. They’re arrogant. Rather than recoil under the heat, the U.S. players doubled down on their joy. Before the final, Alex Morgan refused to apologize for pantomiming a sip of tea after scoring in the semifinals against England. “You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is,” Morgan said. A loss would have satisfied the team’s newfound naysayers. Those American braggarts got their comeuppance.

But the Americans never did, since they failed to concede any big goals. The U.S. never trailed in a game the entire tournament. The Americans outscored their opponents 26-3.

During the World Cup, President Trump tweeted criticism at U.S. player Megan Rapinoe, saying she disrespected her country, the White House and the flag. (A viral clip, shot months ago, emerged in June featuring Rapinoe saying “I am not going to the f–king White House,” in response to a reporter’s inquiry about whether she’d accept the traditional invitation after the tournament.) Rapinoe also stood stoic during the national anthem, declining to put her hand over her heart or sing the song. Some on social media said that, due to Rapinoe’s words and actions, they’d refuse to watch the team in this World Cup.

Those folks missed out on on something spectacular. In one of the all-time great responses by an American athlete, Rapinoe scored the team’s first four goals of the knockout stage, added another one in the final, and won both the Golden Ball award as the best player in the World Cup, and the Golden Boot award, as the tournament’s top scorer. When she scored on a penalty kick in the final, to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 61st minute, she again spread out her arms, striking the “look at me now” pose, athletic royalty shrouded in defiance.

All this hubbub surrounding a sports team, and we haven’t even gotten to the equal pay suit. If you’re looking to avoid distractions going into a World Cup, skipping on suing your employer would seem to be a wise strategy. But the Americans weren’t seeking anyone’s approval in filing a gender discrimination claim against U.S. Soccer less than three months before the start of the World Cup. The move left some players on past teams almost awestruck.

“I’m not sure our team would have done that,” said former U.S. star Julie Foudy, who played on the seminal 1999 U.S. team that won the World Cup on home soil. “We wouldn’t want all that noise. I respect that they’re willing to absorb all that. It’s courageous.”

The Americans indeed absorbed everything: darts from the President and other naysayers, the rest of the world closing the talent gap, an equal pay fight. This team set a new standard for unapologetic excellence, in sports and beyond.

“These athletes have brought more attention, support and pride to women’s sport than perhaps any other team in history,” Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter after the U.S. team closed out its 2-0 win over the Netherlands on Sunday. “It’s long past time to pay them what they rightly deserve.” From the 2016 through 2018, the U.S. women’s games pulled in about $50.8 million in revenue compared with $49.9 million for the men, according to the Wall Street Journal. The men’s team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. In the stands in Lyon after the game, fans started chanting “Equal pay! Equal Pay!”

“This exact team was made for this exact American moment,” former U.S. star Abby Wambach, the world’s all-time leader in international goals scored, wrote in a text message. “We all just watched brilliant, brazen, united, joyful, unapologetic women – scoring, speaking out and celebrating on the world stage. Today, this team showed America what’s possible: no- they showed us what is INEVITABLE: women will lead us. And will win. And we won’t keep our mouths shut about inequality any longer.”

“Now pay them,” she said.

Going into the World Cup, the U.S. women knew that a win would do wonders in their battle for equal pay. “Even though we shouldn’t need success to fight for equality,” said Morgan before the tournament, “having success gives us the platform to fight for equality.”

So the stakes were set for the final against the Netherlands. For the first time all tournament, the U.S. did not score a goal within the first 15 minutes of a match. How did the Americans react to their lack of early success in the biggest game of the World Cup? By putting more and more pressure on the Netherlands, whose goalkeeper, Sari van Veenendaal, made several sharp stops to keep it scoreless at halftime. A little help from soccer’s controversial instant replay system, VAR, enabled the U.S. get on the board: replay showed that Stefanie van der Gragt of the Netherlands kicked Morgan in the shoulder in the penalty area. Rapinoe converted the penalty shot to score her sixth goal of the World Cup. Eight minutes later, midfielder Rose LaValle — as if to preemptively silence shouts that VAR would determine the World Cup champion — marched downfield with the ball, cut to her left at the top of the goal box and angled a beauty past an Veenendaal to give the Americans the decisive 2-0 lead that the team would have little trouble holding.

A World Cup decided by VAR? NFW.

Lavelle’s just 24, and proof that despite the emergence of European powers in U.S. soccer, the American team’s future is still bright. With the win, the U.S. became just the second team, besides Germany in 2003 and 2007, to win back-to-back World Cups. The Americans have won half of the eight women’s tournaments contested since 1991.

So what now for the U.S. women’s soccer team? First off is another ticker-tape parade in New York City, scheduled for Wednesday. The U.S. women’s pro league, the NWSL, is already capitalizing on the success of the U.S. and the women’s World Cup overall. ESPN has agreed to televise 14 of the league’s matches this season; 55 players on World Cup rosters, including Rapinoe (Seattle Reign), Morgan (Orlando Pride), LaVelle (Washington Spirit) and Australia star Sam Kerr (Chicago Red Stars) currently play in the NWSL. Budweiser also just announced a multi-year partnership agreement with the NWSL. The equal pay suit is headed for mediation; U.S. Soccer will face inescapable pressure to increase its bonus pool for the U.S. players.

Though the U.S. won it, this World Cup was a victory for the rest of the world too. Record numbers of viewers tuned into the tournament. In Britain, England’s semi-final match against America drew 11.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched TV broadcast in Great Britain this year. France’s quarterfinal against the U.S. attracted 10.7 million viewers, making it the most watched TV broadcast of the year in France too. In Brazil, that country’s round-of-16 game against France drew the highest-ever audience for a women’s World Cup game — 35.2 million people. FIFA expects that more than one billion people will have watched this World Cup across all platforms, up from around some 830 million in 2015.

Now, FIFA must correct past mistakes when it comes to the women’s game. Yes, FIFA has announced plans to increase investment in women’s soccer from $500 million to $1 billion over the next four years. The organization has also proposed a doubling of women’s World Cup prize money, from $30 million in this World Cup to $60 million in 2023. But that haul still falls far short of the $440 million the men will receive at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

New rules and interpretations of VAR began just before the tournament: one coach said the women were being treated like “guinea pigs” in this tournament, and it was hard to argue with her. Also, two major men’s regional tournament finals were scheduled the same day as the women’s World Cup final. Rapinoe called the conflicts “terrible” and “unbelievable.”

The women should never be triple booked again. Just look, for example, at Rapinoe and the Americans now. They stand on their own, cultural icons of their country.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com