Last week the United States women’s soccer team kicked off the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France with an emphatic 13-0 victory against Thailand. The top-rated USA’s victory against the soccer novices from Asia was the most lopsided result in the history of the tournament and started an unexpected debate about respect and sportsmanship.
Some members of the soccer-watching public wondered out loud if the USA had been guilty of poor sportsmanship by running the score up on a hapless opponent who, in essence, had no ability to defend themselves or their goal from the constant offensive onslaught.
Others found the exuberant nature of the American’s goal celebrations, when the game was irretrievably out-of-hand and approaching double-digits, to be offensive and unsporting.
In many sports, particularly at the youth and high school level, running up a large score against an inferior opponent is not only frowned upon, it is legislated against in the rules of the game or by the leagues and organizations that run them. At the college level the NCAA ‘mercy rule’ is applied in fast-pitch softball when a team is down by eight runs or more after completing five innings.
No such rule, or sentiment is deemed necessary in professional sports and particularly at a World Cup where the number of goals a team scores might well determine whether they advance to the next round of the tournament. This was one of the justifications voiced by the USA team and coaches after the 13-0 annihilation of the Thailand team and, although the statistical odds of the USA not advancing wre miniscule to begin with, they had every right to score as many goals as they were able.
The second justification from the USA camp was that playing as hard as possible, for as long as possible, even to the tune of thirteen goals, was a mark of respect to their opponents. Their reasoning being that, taking their foot off the proverbial gas, and not playing to the best of their abilities, would have been more insulting than playing hard throughout. While this logic may seem tenuous, it does hold up in reality. There are few things more infuriating than being behind to a team that is no longer taking the contest seriously; it is insulting and feels tantamount to taunting.
While continuing to score after taking a six or seven goal lead may have seemed beyond the pale to some, surely the more egregious behavior was the manner in which the USA team continued its vigorous goal celebrations even when the game was so far out of reach that their dispirited opponents were barely able to run, let alone defend against some of the best players in the world.
Being ruthless and efficient is part of sports and will presumably ever be thus; trying to win is expected, but so is a certain amount of decorum when it comes to truly showing respect to one’s opponent when they are well and truly beaten. Reasoning that this is the World Cup, and that everybody is justified celebrating every goal as though it were the tournament-winner, is a canard that the reigning world champions should be expected to rise above.
The USA women’s team have been a beacon in the burgeoning world of women’s and girl’s sports and have arguably done more to inspire and empower young women than any team in the past two decades. These women, and those that went before them have been paragons of soccer excellence and have spread much goodwill around the country and the rest of the world; They have been admired as ambassadors, pioneers and classy role models in the struggles associated with equality and fairness.
How disappointing then to see them behave in a manner so inconsiderate of their opponents from a fledgling soccer nation, and so self-absorbed as to engage in orchestrated celebrations at the expense of their utterly vanquished adversaries.
The national team has rarely attracted such negative attention, indeed it is quite the opposite and one assumes that lessons will have been learned that will restore their good name and may arrest their descent from revered to reviled after a record-breaking achievement.