The telling difference between men’s and women’s soccer at the U.S. national team level:
The men need to apologize for never being good enough.
And the women are supposed to apologize for being too good?
So the Americans begin their FIFA Women’s World Cup run by beating Thailand 13-0 on Tuesday in France, setting Cup records for most goals and biggest goal differential as Alex Morgan tied the individual record by scoring five times. The United States was unrelenting, scoring until the end, and celebrating every goal.
It was an impressive display of power, of the world’s No. 1-ranked team at its best on the biggest stage. It was especially impressive juxtaposed with the nearly relentless disappointment from the U.S. men’s team, which didn’t even qualify for the last World Cup.
For a women’s team that is not only the reigning world champion but also is righteously fighting for pay equity with the men, it was quite a statement.
It was something else, too, though. It was off-putting to some who thought the U.S. “ran up the score” or should have stopped celebrating each goal.
My editor won’t let me use swear words in a column, so I’ll sanitize my reaction to those critics such as broadcaster Kaylyn Kyle of Canada’s TSN, who said on-air, “I’m disgusted, honestly. There are kids watching this.”
There sure were. And you know what they were seeing from the United States? Greatness. The power of teamwork. The strength of women. Joy. Role models.
“I think it’s disrespectful [to the opponent] if we don’t show up and give or best for 90 minutes,” as Morgan put it. “I’m happy just ignoring those [negative] comments.”
Said U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who lives in Palmetto Bay, near Miami: “To be respectful of opponents is to play hard against them.”
This is not a youth league tournament at your local park. It is not a sportsmanship argument. This is a world championship. It happens once every four years. If an athlete is lucky, she gets to play in two or three of these. She has to be the best at what she does to even play in one.
Scoring as much as you can is the idea in World Cup group-round play, because goals differential is a tiebreaker than can be the difference between advancing or not. Playing hard for 90 minutes is in your athletic DNA. And showing happiness for scoring maybe the biggest goal of your life, well, that’s sort of human nature.
“Once you score a goal, of course you have to celebrate,” as Thai TV commentator Adisorn Phiungya told the New York Times.
Quick aside: In an international “friendly” match last year, the Thailand women beat Indonesia. The score? It was 13-0.
Maybe that explains why the complaining about the Americans scoring or celebrating too much has not come from the Thai squad.
The criticism has had a sexist feel to it.
“Would you tell a men’s team to not score or celebrate?” as former U.S. star Abby Wambach tweeted.
(If only U.S. men’s soccer was good enough that the question might ever apply...)
There is no outcry when the dominating U.S. men’s basketball team led by NBA stars is routing some outmanned Olympic opponent by 60 points. Or when Duke opens March Madness by doubling the score of some hopeless 16th seed. But the U.S. is supposed to feel sorry and apologize because the grown women professional athletes on the other team weren’t good enough? I don’t think so.
By the way, Thailand is 34th of 155 nations in the current FIFA Women’s World Ranking, hardly a bottom feeder. Maybe they just had a really bad day. More likely, maybe the U.S. women are just that good.
There are only 24 national teams in this World Cup, but they are not the 24 best teams in the world, because every region of the globe is represented. It’s sort of like the NCAA men’s basketball tournament letting in small-conference winners not nearly as good as SEC or ACC teams that didn’t get in.
This, along with FIFA including goals differential as a tiebreaker, invites the occasional mismatch such as we saw Tuesday. Perhaps FIFA should either lead a global push to develop women’s soccer to increase the depth of quality, or rethink the qualifying rules on the women’s side so the 24 best teams get in and 13-0 results are much less likely.
The United States figures to again win comfortably in its next match Sunday, vs. a Chilean team ranked 39th in the world. A much, much better test figures to come in America’s final group-stage game a week from Thursday, vs. ninth-ranked Sweden.
Big teams that think they can dethrone the United States, like host France, Germany and England, will await if the Americans keep winning.
I love everything about this American team. Their excellence. Their off-field outspokenness in the fight for pay equity and gender equality. Their unity. Their muscle and joy.
They are worth celebrating — without apology.
That Canadian critic said, “There are kids watching this.”
Yes. I hope so. Watching, and being inspired as they see their own dreams play out.