Updated: Jan 1, 2020
I just attended my first World Cup game featuring the United States, my home country. A game which they won by an absurd margin. Am I happy? No. I feel gross. I wish I hadn’t been there. I wish I had gone to Rennes, or just stayed back in Paris. I wish I hadn’t been in a stadium full of Americans, cheering on – with chants of “USA! USA!” and “We Want More!” ringing out around me, while their team racked up double digit goals.
I’m not trying to lob accusations at anyone. I understand that it’s complicated. People paid a lot of money, took a huge amount of time and energy to come here. This is one of the only chances they may ever get to see their national team play in the World Cup. They want to celebrate, and they have every right to take some joy in the process. I get all that.
And still, I have a sour taste in my mouth, and my stomach is churning.
The fans made a deliberate choice to put their own joy over recognizing the pain of others
Because, in the bigger picture, this wasn’t an event to celebrate. The US obliterated the opposition, and they were able to do so because they have fifty years of institutional support behind them. Thailand was overrun, not because there is no one in Thailand with the ability to play soccer. They were overrun because there is no network of support to nurture and develop the people with the potential. There is no coaching system to train them. No resources to pay them.
That inequality is a part of the game, and there’s no way to run a tournament like the World Cup and not have it play a role. So the solution can’t simply be to throw up our hands and give up. We still want a tournament, and that means the teams with more resources are very likely to beat the teams without them.
But we don’t have to celebrate it. And the fans in the crowd stepped over that line. I am sure that none of the meant it maliciously. I don’t think they’re bad people. But as a group, they exhibited behavior that we should lament, not valorize.
The coaches made a deliberate choice to run up the score
I don’t blame the players. They kept going because that’s what they do. Maybe they could have cooled it with the big celebrations after the 8th or 9th goal, but in the moment, I completely get it. So while I wish that they had decided to dial things back a bit, I don’t blame them.
But I do blame the coaches. The US made three substitutions. Three forwards. They finished the game with five strikers on the pitch – six, really, if you count Crystal Dunn. There was no need for that.
I understand why they did it. Strikers work on confidence, and you want all your attacking options to feel like they’re in the zone. You want to give them a chance to get their feet wet in a low pressure situation. I get it.
But you could equally argue that the US would have benefited from ratcheting everything down five notches – save legs, save energy, coast to an easy 6-0 win and call it a day. The US does this all the time, and suffers no psychological problems. I’m thinking of the semifinals from the CONCACAF qualifying against Jamaica, for example.
If Ellis had subbed in three more defensive players, she would have communicated to the team: now is the time to practice seeing out a victory. That would have been a perfectly valid tactical goal, would have caused no problems with psychological management, and would have kept this in the realm of a normal thumping. Instead, she subbed on the strikers, and told her team to keep going full pelt. She told them: we want to be the bully.
And yes, sometimes being the bully works. But that doesn’t make it right. And it certainly doesn’t make it something that I personally want to associate myself with. And please don’t bring up goal difference. The US is going to blow Sweden out of the water in goal difference, and that was true by the time they scored their fifth goal.
Sometimes, feeling bad is the only good thing to do
This should have been a happy occasion. I’m at the World Cup. I just got to watch the team I’m covering win a famous victory. It should have been fun.
It wasn’t fun. It was just a sad reminder of how unequal the playing field is, and little is being done to remedy that inequality. None of it is any one person’s fault, and I don’t want to imply that US fans or US coaches caused any of this. They’re merely small parts in a huge story. Poor players who strut and fret their hour upon the stage.
But tonight a lot of people had a choice: do I do the hard thing, and swallow my sense of self just a little bit? Do I put myself in the shoes of the others out there who don’t have what I have? Do I do those things, even acknowledging that it’s going to dull the joy a bit?
I understand why everyone did what they did. No one was being unreasonable. No one was being intentionally cruel. So I hope this doesn’t read like an attack on anyone. I’m certain that I have made many similar choices in my own life. But here, tonight, it felt wrong. And it felt important for me to try and explain why. Even though it was hard.