Megan Rapinoe's legacy on and off the court 2:30

(CNN) -- Rarely in sport does an athlete leave behind a legacy like the one Megan Rapinoe has cultivated throughout her remarkable international career.

Two world titles and an Olympic gold medal would be enough for many, but the 38-year-old has never settled for sporting achievements.

On the contrary, the Californian midfielder has become an influential activist, philanthropist, fashion icon and equal rights advocate.

This Sunday, fans will have the opportunity to celebrate all of her accomplishments when Rapinoe takes the field for the last time with the U.S. Women's National Team (USWNT).

The match against South Africa in Chicago, the latest in a two-match series, will begin with a ceremony honoring the soccer legend.


"It will be special to have this last chance to play for my country in front of our incredible fans and to have the opportunity to thank my teammates and everyone who has made an impact on me as a person and player over the years," Rapinoe said in a statement.

American Glory

Megan Rapinoe's accomplishments with the U.S. national team 0:23

Rapinoe will leave her international career after having played 203 games for her country.

Since her debut in 2006, she has scored 63 goals and provided 73 assists, ranking among the top 10 in both categories in U.S. women's team history.

In his career, he won two World Cup trophies, in 2015 and 2019, and won the gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012.

But it was in 2019 when Rapinoe's star arguably shone brightest.

After leading her country to World Cup glory, she won the Women's Ballon d'Or and FIFA's The Best award, cementing herself as the best female player on the planet at the time.

Rapinoe won the Women's World Cup twice, most recently in 2019. (Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

It was recognition of performances that oozed class and confidence, traits encapsulated in an iconic photograph taken that same year.

After scoring two goals against hosts France in the World Cup quarterfinals, Rapinoe celebrated with a pose that was captured in what is arguably the most iconic photograph of her life.

The image of a triumphant Rapinoe with outstretched arms shattered the internet, pleasing her followers and, indeed, irritating her critics.

Megan Rapinoe celebrates during the 2019 Women's World Cup. (Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images)

"This is one of my favorite sports photos of the decade," sports expert Bill Simmons posted at the time.

The defiant celebration not only seemed to allude to his sporting success, but also to his activism.

Throughout her career, Rapinoe has championed many issues, including racial equality, women's rights, pay parity, and the LGBTQ+ community, to name just a few.

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Naturally, when talking about these issues, Rapinoe encountered criticism, some more loud than others.

He caused a sensation in 2016 when he knelt during the national anthem before a Seattle Reign game as a show of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback whose protests against racial injustice and police brutality drew harsh criticism.

He continued to do so against the United States team, a symbol not appreciated by everyone in the country.

Unfazed by the wrath of those she challenged, Rapinoe also openly criticized former U.S. President Donald Trump, who publicly responded to the midfielder in 2019 when he said he would turn down a trip to the White House if the U.S. won the World Cup that year.

But not even a dispute with her country's president managed to get her out of the way.

In 2022, he did enter the White House, only this time to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States – from President Joe Biden, for his vindictive work.

"I am humbled and truly honored to be chosen for this award by President Biden and I feel as inspired and motivated as ever to continue this long history of fighting for the freedoms of all people," Rapinoe said in a statement.

"To quote Emma Lazarus: 'Until we are all free, none will be free.'"

Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rapinoe during a ceremony at the White House in 2022. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Advocacy work

Rapinoe, who previously billed herself as a "walking protester," was above all an influential figure in her national team's campaign for equal pay.

The dispute with her country's soccer federation dated back to March 2019, when the women's team filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against US Soccer.

After three years of legal battle, an agreement was finally reached in 2022 whereby the women's and men's teams received the same salary in all friendlies and tournaments, including the World Cup.

"It's a little surreal to be honest," Rapinoe said at the time of the deal.

"We've been at this for a long time and we come from a long history of women who have fought to put this sport in a better place.

"What I hope and what I'm really proud of is that justice comes in the next generation that will never have to go through what we went through: it's equal pay in all areas from here on out."

No perfect ending

However, her brilliant international career did not have a fairytale ending at this year's Women's World Cup.

Before the tournament began, Rapinoe announced her decision to retire at the end of the season, which meant Australia and New Zealand would host their last truly competitive international match.

The truth is that, at 38 years old, Rapinoe was no longer the player of yesteryear, and was forced to come off the bench.

Although she didn't have as much leg to go, Rapinoe's experience was an important asset for a young U.S. team looking to rebuild.

However, despite all the previous successes, their World Cup dreams ended in a disappointing penalty shootout.

There was no perfect end for Rapinoe, as the United States was eliminated from the knockout stages of the 2023 Women's World Cup. (Photo: Alex Pantling/FIFA/Getty Images)

Rapinoe's last act came when her shot went over the crossbar and Sweden eliminated the defending champion in the second round, marking the United States' earliest elimination at a World Cup.

A smile of disbelief masked the pain as he stumbled off the field, never to play in a World Cup again.

"It's like a bad joke for me, personally," Rapinoe told Fox Sports after the game. "I'm like, 'This is black comedy, I missed a penalty.'"

But many won't remember that missed penalty when they look back on an unparalleled international career.

We will miss his experience and quality on the pitch very much, but you can imagine that his work and defence will continue off it.

As teammate Kelley O'Hara summed up ahead of this year's Women's World Cup, Rapinoe is "one of a kind."

"There's never been anyone like her, there probably never will be anyone who looks like her."

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