LYON, France — The chant was faint at first, bubbling up from the northern stands inside the Stade de Lyon. Gradually it grew louder. Soon it was deafening.
“Equal pay!” it went, over and over, until thousands were joining in, filling the stadium with noise. “Equal pay! Equal pay!”
Few sports teams are asked to carry so much meaning on their shoulders, to represent so many things to so many people, as the United States women’s soccer team. Few athletes are expected to lead on so many fronts at once, to be leaders for equal pay and gay rights and social justice, to serve as the face of both corporations and their customers. Fewer still have ever been so equipped to handle such a burden, so aware of themselves, so comfortable in their own skin, as those American women.
Yes, they had acknowledged as the World Cup got underway last month, anything less than a trophy would be a failure. Yes, they were willing to be made symbols of different fights for equality around the world. Yes, they would be as spectacular on the field as they unabashedly insisted they were.
With the swagger of pop stars and the inevitability of a freight train, the American women completed the sporting part of their journey on Sunday, clinching their second consecutive World Cup trophy by dispatching the Netherlands, 2-0, in the tournament’s final match.
The victory, which gave the United States a record four titles over all, was secured with goals from Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe, the latter of whom was honored as the best player of a tournament in which her opponents, at times, ranged from rival teams to internet scolds.
“Getting to play at the highest level at a World Cup with a team like we have is just ridiculous,” Rapinoe said, “but to be able to couple that with everything off the field, to back up all of those words with performances, and to back up all of those performances with words, it’s just incredible.”
On top of her official honors, which in addition to most valuable player status included the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer, Rapinoe over the course of a month made herself the unofficial face of the World Cup: a soccer star immune to the false modesty that afflicts so many athletes when faced with microphones; a proudly gay athlete eager to use her platform to champion the rights of marginalized communities; the target of the ire of President Trump who, halfway through the tournament, publicly criticized Rapinoe on Twitter for dismissing even the possibility that her team would visit the White House once the competition was over.
After the game, on the podium where she and her team would lift the tournament’s gold trophy, Rapinoe had a long chat with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, and she accepted an invitation to talk in the future with FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, whose organization she has criticized repeatedly for not caring about women’s soccer and not investing enough money in its growth.
Several hours after the final whistle, even Mr. Trump was tweeting his praise. “Great and exciting play,” he wrote in sending his congratulations. “America is proud of you all.”
The American women won because, in their minds, on an existential level, they had to win. In March, the team’s players filed a lawsuit in federal court in March against the United States Soccer Federation, accusing it of engaging in illegal workplace discrimination — in areas such as pay, medical treatment and workplace conditions — on the basis of their gender. The heart of the argument for better compensation was their stellar performance over the years; winning in France would help them make their case. Losing, they knew, would sting.
In the competitive sense, this was by most accounts the toughest, most competitive women’s World Cup, reflecting all the progress made around the world in the game since the United States won the first edition of the tournament in 1991.
Within this crucible, though, and amid the distractions, the American women hardly missed a beat. They scored 26 goals and allowed only 3. They did not trail for as much as a second, winning seven straight games, including four knockout-stage games in a row against a series of ascendant European rivals.
“In terms of the path and the level, this was pretty challenging,” their coach, Jill Ellis, said.
The United States and the Netherlands played evenly in the first half of Sunday’s final, with the Dutch stanching the vaunted American attack with nerve and physicality for the game’s first hour. In a span of two minutes late in the first half, the Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal used three different parts of her body — her rib cage, the bottom of her foot, and her fists — to stop clear scoring chances from the Americans.
“I said to the players at halftime, ‘At some point it’s going to break, and it’s going to break our way,’” Ellis said.
That happened, finally, with 30 minutes to play, when the Dutch defender Stefanie van der Gragt, trying to clear a ball floating through the penalty area, instead kicked striker Alex Morgan in the shoulder, gifting the Americans a penalty kick.
Rapinoe stepped up and converted the shot — low and to the goalkeeper’s left — to score her sixth goal of the tournament. As the pro-United States crowd filling the stadium erupted in cheers, Rapinoe jogged toward the corner flag, uncurled a slow pirouette and lifted her arms to either side, like a bullfighter awash in adulation.
Lavelle clinched the victory nine minutes later. After receiving the ball at the center circle, an acre of space ahead of her, she dribbled in a straight line toward the goal with a series of delicate, little touches, a magician wiggling her fingers before a trick. Once in range, she shimmied her hips one final time, unsteadying the lone defender in front of her, before cutting the ball to her preferred left foot, which she used to wallop the ball inside the right post.
Almost immediately after the final whistle, Nike, one of the team’s sponsors, released a stirring advertisement portraying the players not merely as soccer champions, but as champions of equal rights, with a narrator envisioning that “a whole generation of girls and boys will go out and play and say things like, ‘I want to be like Megan Rapinoe when I grow up.’ And that they’ll be inspired to talk and win.”
And in a sign of how much the United States team has meant to fans and even players from other countries, the Dutch team before the game posted its own tribute video to the American women, stating, “You showed us where dedication and ambition can bring you.”
“So much of what we have to shoulder all of the time is heavy,” Rapinoe had said before the game. “It’s no secret that we’re sort of the leaders in the women’s game in a lot of different issues — equality, pay quality, gender issues — and at large our team has been very open and willing to sort of get in any kind of equality fight.”
The fight continued, even as the game came to its conclusion.
When the final whistle blared, the Americans rushed onto the field and zigzagged across the grass in celebration. The Netherlands players collapsed to their knees. Players from both teams broke down in tears. Enormous American flags emerged, and the United States players draped them over their shoulders.
Then came the chants for equal pay, and in that moment, the victory, the trophy and the team, became vehicles, once again, for a message.
Andrew Keh is an international correspondent, covering sports from Berlin. He has previously covered Major League Baseball and the N.B.A. and has reported from the World Cup and the Olympics. @andrewkeh
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