Outer Limit: More Notes on Losers

Cameroon’s performances in the group matches hinted at the possibility that they might explore the outer limits of the possible. Every game they’ve played in this tournament has been characterized by the sense that anything might happen. They played the edge until it wasn’t playable.

They lost to the Netherlands (3-1) in a match that had the audience riveted. The pace and intensity of that game was glorious. I saw players race around the pitch with a tornado like intensity. They were really good at loosening the ball from their opponent’s intention and exploiting the chaotic episodes of a match. Canada shut them out (3-0), but Cameroon fought from start to finish. They made Canada work. They beat New Zealand (2-1) in a barn-burner, scoring on literally the last touch of the match. One of their players was stretchered off the field at the end of the match: she had collapsed from exhaustion.

At the group stage, they played by tearing the game open — they can appear very emotional but that emotion doesn’t necessarily mean they are out of control. I think they like discombobulating their opponents —  some teams work like that. They’ll push — literally — and how you perform against them has a lot to do with how you respond to the provocation. I don’t think any of their opponents (even the ones that beat them) really played “their” game. It felt like Cameroon was authoring these matches, even from the losing side.

England’s first goal was the direct result of Cameroon’s mistake: Ejangue, in a scramble in front of the goal, kicked the ball into the keeper’s hands — a miserable mistake — Houghton converted the indirect free-kick. Cameroon seemed to feel the call against them was somehow not fair — I would say it was more humiliating than unjust and that the refusal to acknowledge this mistake was a very bad sign.

England scored again just as VAR-enhanced extra-time wound down: the goal was initially waved off as off-side but then awarded after VAR review corrected an indisputably bad call. Cameroon nearly stopped playing; for a good bit, they refused to kick-off.

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Apparently, after all that, at half time, Cameroon’s coach, Alain Djeumfa, told players that the referee wanted England to win.

THEN, at the start of the second half, the truly incredible Nchout Ajara scored — only to have VAR take that goal back because a sliver of her heel (her back was to the goal) had crossed the line. The validity of that call is debatable.

The misery that ensued made me think of the following: When you get a red card, you have to leave the field — not just the field of play. You have to remove yourself from the game entirely. This happens because there is a real risk of fighting if that player doesn’t go to the locker room. It is a very, very bad idea to let a struggling team that feels like they’ve been cheated stand on the field contemplating the injustice of a bad decision while referees commune with the VAR apparatus. A better team, a more grounded team, a team with a stable situation, a team that trusted the refereeing might use that time to center themselves. But this team was convinced the fix was in.*

Cameroon’s coach was dropped into this position in January, after the team’s head coach and goalkeeping coach were unceremoniously fired. Why? Federation politics? Is it related to the political situation in Cameroon (Anglophone regions are threatening to secede)? Is is corruption? Were they cleaning house or the opposite? I would love to know the answer to that.

In any case, Cameroon’s players were not concerned by the question as to why none of them were given red cards — an elbow to the face, a cynical tackle which might have broken an ankle, the shove of the referee’s back, spitting on an opponent, refusing to get off the pitch at half time — the players had been tempting that fate from the start of the game and they were all spared.

And for all but the opening minutes of the second half, England did not let themselves get sucked in by the game’s drama. They very nearly paid for the few minutes they lost that focus.

People who haven’t spend much time with women athletes may find that Cameroon’s combination of attitude, playing style and tactic challenges their ideas about the women’s game. People who only watch the most intensely regulated and produced versions of the sport might have been shocked by what they saw on television. But people who watch a lot of the sport and who have played it will know that things like this can happen — in a way, the game is actually always threatening to fall apart and it takes a lot of effort on the part of match officials, event producers, coaches, support staff and players to give viewers a good game.

When a team starts to feel that the game is fixed, and that all is hopeless, they have to actively fight off the desire to stop playing. So very many national teams in the women’s game must struggle with this.

We might judge the Cameroonian side harshly, but we can do that with compassion—and perhaps use this moment to appreciate the losers who have lost well — to send some good wishes to teams like Nigeria, Thailand and especially to Brazil, who lost their match against France last night. An incredible constellation of stars are rotating out of the sky.

 

 

*a side note: in a very, very corrupt sport we should pause and reflect before dismissing players for feeling this way.

Their Loss, Our Loss

As the USWNT moved from dominating Thailand to obliterating them, people watching the game wondered, “is this OK?” Shouldn’t there be a mercy rule? As players and supporters celebrated the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th goals, people wondered — are those goal celebrations…necessary?

There are many ways to answer that question. The importance of goal differentials to establishing one’s path out of a group is the easiest. Other teams playing Thailand in the group will likely score a lot. Any attempt on the part of teams in the group to collaborate in capping scoring against Thailand would also challenge the rules governing the game — while this is certainly the decent thing to do in amateur league play, it’s not the kind of community-oriented practice supported within a World Cup tournament.

There are, however, other angles into this match’s scenario.

Some of us have played in games like this. There are the games in which one’s team scarcely touches the ball. Games where, for example, a team might pass the ball amongst themselves while limiting each player to two touches. In which they might, oh, count off each pass they complete—turning your game into their drill. Last night’s situation may be unheard of at the highest levels but it isn’t terribly unusual for an amateur league.

When your opponent is at a level you would normally never get close to, it’s possible to play, lose big, and to take a lot from that experience. But you won’t get that kind of experience from a team that withholds its game from you.

For the USWNT team to stop scoring in that game, they would have needed to abandon any pretense towards attacking. They would have needed to turn a World Cup match into a drill. That is actually, in my view, not respectful to opposing players.

It is also makes for terrible television. That sort of thing is, for the spectator, even worse than the one-sided win.

Last night, the USWNT played as they play. Thus the Thai-American player Miranda Nild described it as “amazing” and “as a really cool experience.”

Pushing back against those who chastise US players for scoring too much, and – horrors — for enjoying scoring lots of goals — numbers of people have been pointing to similar kinds of results in the men’s game. Generally, men are not criticized for the lopsidedness of their wins, nor is their affect and composure monitored in the same way. But their losses are also very different. When Brazil collapsed in their 2014 World Cup semifinal, giving up five goals in the first half, we experienced that collapse quite differently than we experienced Thailand’s loss. Brazil’s loss manifested as an existential crisis. It was a spectacular melt-down; a shame spiral of epic proportion. We conjured a thousand reasons for that collapse, none of those explanations, however, centered on the team’s ability. The mess of that game, in fact, was all the more spectacular because we know those players, we know what they can do.

Last night’s match was a different experience entirely; we glimpsed the systematic debilitation of the women’s game. There is a lot of nobility to Thailand’s performance. Being up for a game like that takes a ridiculous amount of fortitude. But there is nothing noble about the state of the women’s game globally — even the world’s most privileged players are fighting for equal treatment within their federations. Let us remember that last year’s golden boot winner hasn’t played for her national team in two years because she expects her national team program (Norway) to be as professional as her club team (Lyon). USWNT players are suing their federation; Thailand and Jamaica’s teams are supported by private benefactors who are compensating for the lack of support the programs get from their federations; Afghanistan’s players were subjected to horrifying abuse; women’s teams are less likely get the money they earn in competition (and the money they earn is insanely less than that earned by men); federation official will give coaching positions to friends of friends who use the team to feed their egos while the federation turns away from the program’s losing record. You will find struggles against material forms of inequity at every level of the women’s game. (See Shireen Ahmed’s blistering statement on this fact.)

There are a lot of reasons to feel angry about that game. The way the USWNT played is not one of them. We should not feel shame for the losers, or for the winners. That shame, in my view, belongs entirely to FIFA and to mainstream sports media — which honestly, even now, when it is doing so much more than it used to, still does so very little serious reporting regarding the corruption, incompetence and abuse that hinders the development of the women’s game.

I can imagine a situation in which teams might collaborate in refusing to produce a lopsided result. This action would not be staged in order to spare Thai players a humiliating loss. It would be a protest, a labor action — the athlete’s version of a work-slowdown. In such a game, women might pass the ball to each other. They might refuse to defend but also refuse to score. Thai players might abandon the pretense of defending, and lose even bigger. These actions, however, only make sense for teams committed to destroying the World Cup as we know it!

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