Megan Rapinoe is a winner off the pitch but she is not the best footballer

Joanne O’Riordan: Awards are just popularity contests for the players who have a profile

United States forward Megan Rapinoe  might have made my top 10 list when it comes to influence and inspiration, but my winner was Julie Ertz or Lucy Bronze. Photograph: Getty Images

United States forward Megan Rapinoe might have made my top 10 list when it comes to influence and inspiration, but my winner was Julie Ertz or Lucy Bronze. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Awards season is always the most fun time of the year. It creates an unhealthy debate, statistics fly around, opinions are like arseholes and of course, those who wield the most power, i.e. the voters, always misuse their power and vote for the wrong person . . . always. I’m looking at you Sri Lanka, who voted for Liverpool right-back Trent Alexander Arnold as the obvious Ballon d’Or winner.

But with the ever-growing interest in the women’s game, now the 50 journalists who vote for the women’s game are under similar scrutiny to the men’s winners. The rules are quite simple: you vote based on individual and collective performances, player’s class (skill and fair play) and perhaps the vaguest element, a player’s career. Let you interpret what any of those mean.

So, the women’s vote was simple. We all knew there was a few nailed-on winners. Vivienne Miedema thrilled Arsenal and WSL fans alike. Sam Kerr brought Aussie coolness in front of goal (and backflips), Julie Ertz brought tenacity and technical ability in midfield and Cristiane Endler dragged Chile into the World Cup, one save at a time. Honourable mention goes to NC Courage midfield stalworth Denise O’ Sullivan . . . who knew Cork produces great midfielders?

The obvious, but also not perfect winner, in the end, was Megan Rapinoe. Megan Rapinoe was the obvious winner due to the headlines she created off the pitch. And yes, while she epitomised fair play in terms of demanding equality, her on-the-pitch skills were, meh, at best.

Discredit

But that’s not to discredit Rapinoe. Who didn’t love her ability to draw ire from middle-aged men across the world, the white boys on Twitter who like having that power over women which automatically allows them to put women down? Who didn’t love the way Megan Rapinoe tackled Donald Trump and the US Soccer Federation? And who didn’t love the way Megan Rapinoe used her platform to ensure female athletes’ struggles were heard?

Megan Rapinoe doesn’t mind taking the flack, she doesn’t mind being the poster girl for equality, and she certainly doesn’t mind using her voice. But, Megan Rapinoe is not just aware of her limitations, she ensures those who are better equipped than her in certain aspects get their attention.

Watch how she praises Christen Press for her role in the USA’s lawsuit against US Soccer, watch how she’ll embrace younger players and bring them on in their skills. While off the pitch she is a perfect role model and a nailed on winner, on the pitch, she’s not even the USA’s best player. In truth, she should struggle to get on the starting 11.

And therein lies a problem that isn’t Rapinoe’s fault. As the women’s game struggles to catch up in terms of access to games, it is only those who either have a profile or perform well at a major tournament who are selected for major awards. It is virtually impossible for a fan to access games every weekend, let alone a journalist who probably has 50 other things to do or report on.

As the very best in the women’s games are increasingly overlooked, maybe the next steps for the women’s game should be to open access to games. The Uefa Women’s Champions League is impossible to find, let alone stream. Many leagues, such as the Frauen Bundesliga, the WSL, La Liga Imperdola are reliant on club websites or the increasingly bad local television to stream the games.

Performance rankings

As well as that, getting results and match performance rankings or any form of analysis is tricky too. The few journalists that do cover games are limited in space due to the volume of sport, and some journalists are literally fans with badges in some cases.

The Ballon d’Or and Fifa’s The Best do not do what they say on the tin. They are just popularity contests for the players who have a profile. Sometimes it’s deserving and the right player its chosen, other times it’s a total disaster (Carli Lloyd 2016, who knew herself it was weird) and makes the women’s game less important or even less talented when the highlight reels are running.

Megan Rapinoe might have made my top 10 list when it comes to influence and inspiration, but my winner was Julie Ertz or Lucy Bronze. The women’s game and awards will forever be treated as a popularity contest for as long as games are hidden in empty grounds with no one there to watch. Unless it is taken more seriously, more tactically and more analytically, the best player will never win. The awards continue to just be prizes with very little meaning or credit.

Megan Rapinoe will continue to win awards, and rightly so, for her humility, motivation and ability to use her platform. But in 2019, Rapinoe was not the best footballer.

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