Martina Navratilova, the tennis great, has criticised Megan Rapinoe for claiming that she would “absolutely” welcome a transgender player on her team.

The row started when Navratilova retorted with a single-word tweet – “Yikes” – in response to Rapinoe saying that women’s sports is being “weaponised” in the complex and fierce debate about the participation of transgender athletes in women’s events.

Rapinoe has also been accused of virtue-signalling by American swimmer Riley Gaines, who said that the footballer is attempting to be inclusive when “it’s actually exclusive what she’s fighting for”.

‘Now we care about women’s sports? That’s bulls—‘

In a cover interview with Time magazine, two-time World Cup winner Rapinoe, who announced earlier in July that she will retire from football at the end of 2023, said: “We as a country are trying to legislate away people’s full humanity.

“It’s particularly frustrating when women’s sports is weaponised. Oh, now we care about fairness? Now we care about women’s sports? That’s total bulls—. And show me all the trans people who are nefariously taking advantage of being trans in sports. It’s just not happening.”

The former Ballon d’Or winner continued: “I don’t want to mince words about it. [American comedian] Dave Chappelle making jokes about trans people directly leads to violence, whether it’s verbal or otherwise, against trans people. When Martina [Navratilova] or Sage or whoever are talking about this, people aren’t hearing it just in the context of elite sports. They’re saying, ‘The rest of my life, this is how I’m going to treat trans people.”

Asked if she would embrace a transgender woman on the US team, Rapinoe said: “Absolutely. ‘You’re taking a “real” woman’s place,’ that’s the part of the argument that’s still extremely transphobic. I see trans women as real women. What you’re saying automatically in the argument – you’re sort of telling on yourself already – is you don’t believe these people are women. Therefore, they’re taking the other spot. I don’t feel that way.”

‘It’s not kind to ask a girl to undress in front of a man’

Rapinoe’s words have also irked a number of known opponents of transgender athletes’ involvement in women’s sports, including Gaines, who said: “This is a classic case of virtue signalling. She wants to be seen as kind. She wants to be seen as inclusive, but it is not inclusive what she’s fighting for. It’s actually exclusive.

“It’s exclusive to the very female athletes who the women’s sporting category was created to protect. And it’s not kind to ask a girl to undress in front of a man in a locker room, that is the exact opposite of kind.”

American television personality Megyn Kelly also criticised Rapinoe, referring to her upcoming retirement, saying: “She didn’t have to compete against biological men. She wants your daughter and my daughter to have to compete against a man.”

Among Rapinoe’s USA team-mates, striker Alex Morgan has previously spoken of her support for transgender athletes in youth sport, saying in February: “The inclusion of trans kids in sports is the inclusion of kids in sports. Everyone should have the ability to play sport. And the fact that it’s being taken into politics so big is really sad. And I think it’s at the cost of trans kids’ lives.”

Morgan and Rapinoe are not alone in the women’s game. Scotland captain Rachel Corsie, writing in her column for the Press & Journal, said: “My genuine view on trans women’s participation in Scottish women’s football is I am happy for them to be included, and I don’t feel any opposition to trans women being on my team or in opposition teams.”

Morgan and Rapinoe, along with the rest of the USA squad, will begin their bid for a third consecutive World Cup trophy when they face Vietnam on Saturday in New Zealand.