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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