South Africa head coach Desiree Ellis has paid tribute to USA icon Megan Rapinoe, praising her “huge” achievements for women’s football before the American’s final international match.
The 38-year-old and her team will host Ellis’ side in a friendly in Chicago on Sunday – in what will be Rapinoe’s 203rd appearance, having made her debut for the Stars and Stripes in 2006. She has scored 63 goals.
“I think what Rapinoe has achieved is huge – not just as a player but as an activist for women’s football,” said Ellis ahead of the game.
“For us to be part of that [what is being dubbed Rapinoe’s “Farewell game”], it is incredible. I think a lot of the players that played and those that are currently playing have looked up to her.
“We are really blessed to be part of that send off – hopefully we can make it not such a good send off!”
Sunday’s game is the second of two back-to-back friendlies. On Thursday, the Americans – with Julie Ertz playing her final match – beat Banyana Banyana 3-0 in Cincinnati, although Rapinoe was not involved.
Rapinoe criticises Spanish Football Federation and United States critics
Rapinoe to retire from football at end of NWSL season
South Africa women’s coach Desiree Ellis stands on the sideline during a game
Desiree Ellis led South Africa to the knockout phase of the 2023 Women’s World Cup for the first time, where they lost to the Netherlands in the last 16
Rapinoe’s glittering career with USA
Rapinoe is a two-time World Cup winner, lifting the trophy in both 2015 and 2019.
But she was denied a glorious farewell at this year’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand as the USA lost in the last 16 to Sweden, their worst ever result.
Not only was the midfielder limited to three substitute appearances during the campaign, she also missed a penalty in the shootout against the Swedes, all a far cry from the 2019 World Cup in France where she was named best player and was joint-top scorer.
Her other accolades include an Olympic gold medal at London 2012, a bronze at the 2020 Tokyo Games, and the Women’s Ballon d’Or and Best Fifa Women’s Player awards in 2019.
Megan Rapinoe reacts with tears and pulls up her shirt to her face after the United States lose to Sweden at the Women’s World Cup in 2023
Rapinoe struggled to hide her emotions after the USA’s 2023 World Cup exit. Aged 38, she was the oldest member of the squad
As for Ellis’ team, they made history by becoming the first South African side to reach the knockout stage of a World Cup. Many of the players are grateful to Rapinoe for addressing key issues affecting female footballers.
“She has done a lot, and not just for the US, but for female athletes,” midfielder Kholosa Biyana told BBC Sport Africa.
“She has fought for women’s football. But that game [Sunday’s friendly] against them is not just about her celebration.
“We are getting an opportunity to play against the best in the world and it is an opportunity for us to test ourselves and see how far we have come as a team.”
South Africa’s Kholosa Biyana up against retiring American Julie Ertz, who played her farewell game on Thursday as USA beat Banyana Banyana 3-0
Rapinoe is still revered around the globe by many for her contribution to tackling social issues, including LGBTQIA+ rights, gender pay equality and racial inequality.
Vice captain Thembi Kgatlana, who scored a dramatic winner as Banyana recorded their first ever World Cup victory against Italy, also praised the American.
WATCH: Why is song and dance important to South African football?
‘Beyond my imagination’ – Desiree Ellis’ post-apartheid journey
“It is a lovely career for Rapinoe,” said Kgatlana, who plays her club football in the USA for Racing Louisville.
“She has been an icon for women’s football and it would be lovely to see how packed the stadium will be.
“I think a lot of my team-mates don’t have the privilege to play in such a packed stadium, so it is exciting to see how other countries support women’s football.”