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Women’s World Cup: Why the USA’s celebrations go beyond the issue of sporting decency and respect

The debate swirling around such celebrations somewhat misses the point. At the heart of this matter is something more specific to this tournament

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Wednesday 12 June 2019 16:02 BST
England vs Scotland women's World Cup match has all women panel

It was an utterly embarrassing scene, but not for the hugely unfortunate Thailand players.

Why exactly were the US team so vigorously celebrating the last eight goals in a 13-0 thrashing?

It was – in the words of former Canadian international Kaylyn Kyle – “classless behaviour”. And almost laughable in itself.

Arguments about the feat of scoring in a World Cup don’t cut it, not when some of those scoring and celebrating – Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd – are defending champions who won the last World Cup. Yet here they were, letting it all out as if they’d won it again.

They’d instead subjected a grossly outmatched team to something akin to sporting trauma. The sight of the Thai players and their families ashen-faced in the Reims crowd ended up being the only truly striking thing about this farce of a match.

The problem is primarily one of sporting, almost human, decency.

And that is absolutely not to say the USA should have just stopped playing or eased off once the game was obviously won.

That – to paraphrase Pep Guardiola after Manchester City faced a similar predicament against Burton Albion – would be just as insulting, as you are not offering a footballer the respect of treating them as an opponent.

“We spoke about that at half-time – to play simple, let them run and try to score more goals,” the Catalan said after that 9-0 hammering. ” It’s the best way to respect the competition and respect the opponents. If you are 4-0 up and forget to continue, you don’t have respect for the competition or your opponent. The best way is do what we have to do.”

It doesn’t follow, however, that playing normally means celebrating normally.

In fact, the extent of the reactions were entirely out of sync with the way these kind of extreme results usually go.

You only have to look at a precedent from the Women’s World Cup itself. When Germany demolished Argentina 11-0 in 2007, there were a few restrained smiles after the last few goals, some mild congratulations. It was similar when Germany ended up battering Saudi Arabia 8-0 in 2002.

Thailand's players react after their defeat at the hands of the USA (Getty)

That’s because they were entirely natural reactions.

Part of the reason that goals are celebrated as they are is because of their rarity value in a low-scoring sport, where they have a genuine significance and release.

That was very far from the case in this match.

A tournament that, up until to kick-off in that match, had a South Africa 2010 goal return of a mere 2.1 per game suddenly had one every seven minutes. Strikes were not rarities that brought instinctive reactions, but entirely rational inevitabilities.

That is why there’s no “cut-off” for when it is no longer appropriate to celebrate. It’s about what is natural. And the extent of the celebrations just didn’t naturally follow here.

Many might point to the fact a player like Mallory Pugh scored her first ever World Cup goal, that Megan Rapinoe had recently had a potentially career-ending injury, or that the entire USA squad have been dealing with a whole host of off-field issues related to inequality within the sport.

First off, though, no one is saying those two shouldn’t celebrate at all. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Pugh getting congratulated for her goal, or Rapinoe relishing hers – even if the context should mitigate against the achievement.

But overt and almost affected reactions from the entire team are not natural, even if they are supposedly part of “US sporting culture”. If that is the case, although it feels an entirely disingenuous argument, maybe have a think about that culture in the context you’re playing.

USA's celebrate scoring yet another goal against Thailand (Getty)

But the debate swirling around such celebrations – and the issue of sporting decency and respect – somewhat misses the point. At the heart of this matter is something more specific to this tournament, where there are much bigger questions to be asked about why so many teams go to it with almost minimal investment compared to the men’s.

This World Cup has rightfully been held up as a potential breakthrough moment for women’s football, and a landmark in its development.

One of the primary challenges with developing sports, however, is with the very size of showpiece tournaments like this. They have to be big enough to showcase the sport and spread its appeal, but concentrated and small enough to maintain an attractive competitive balance.

It is a tough balance to strike – and one that the Rugby World Cup in particular is still struggling with. This tournament seems to have similarly failed.

In the exact same way there were very fair questions about Concacaf’s number of World Cup places after Panama’s humiliation in Russia 2018, there should be fair questions about how Thailand have ended up here, in a situation where they were grossly mismatched.

It is why comparisons to Brazil 1-7 Germany from 2014 are also disingenuous, and just bogus.

They were two teams operating off the exact same footing.

This was not. The USA are a genuine juggernaut of their sport. Thailand’s presence at this tournament was meanwhile a product of myriad inequalities, and issues that need to be addressed.

It is precisely why the very argument “this is a World Cup” is not a legitimate defence for the celebration.

It is why this really wasn’t something to revel in.

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