I’m glad to see that the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final had captured the attention of a worldwide audience in general and a large captivated audience of Americans in particular who ordinarily would give any fùtbòl, let alone the brand played by women, none to scant attention. Quite frankly, though, it is offensive if anybody characterizes the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s penalty kick loss to Japan, a national side that had never beaten the Americans in 25 tries, as anything worse than a major upset.
Did the USWNT miss early – and often – opportunities to score and put the game away by halftime? Yes they did. Did they give away two late leads, either one of which would have won them the World Cup? Absolutely. Did they fail miserably at taking their penalty kicks, a skill they clearly had mastered in previous international competitions? Sure.
Does any one of these reasons by themselves, or a combination of all three, qualify as a choke? HELL NO!…
…And if you think it does, then you clearly don’t know anything about the game of fùtbòl.
The USWNT took 15 shots in the first half, 7 in the first 15 minutes – but only one on target. So while they did a great job of keeping possession, keeping Japan from having any attacking opportunities in the USA final third, getting forward and attacking, and keeping the pressure on Japan by pinning them in their own end, the USA weren’t taking quality shots on goal.
The USA did have leads late in both the second half and extra time. The important distinction is that none of those leads were by any more than one goal! ONE GOAL! Alex Morgan scored with 21 minutes left in regular time, and Abby Wamback scored with 16 minutes left in extra time.
Before I go any further, let me define what I think a choke is. To me a choke is this: You’ve been killing them all game long, just dominating; the other team/player can’t score to save their lives because your defense is just suffocating; the other team/player can’t defend and are just helpless in the face of your offensive onslaught; you’ve have what appears to be this huge lead and you are so far ahead with so little time late that even if the other team/player made a token surge it just won’t be enough; and you have got this in the bag. Then, with only minutes left to play, for whatever inexplicable reason, you fall apart; you make mistakes both on offense and defense – then more – then still more, and now you can’t stop the bleeding; so then you begin to get too cautious, but as the other team now starts mounting this late charge, you’re taking a lot of these late blows that just minutes earlier and for a vast majority of the game would have stood no chance of landing; and now the other team/player is scoring at will, and by now nothing you do offensively or defensively works. Then, with only seconds left or no time at all, you look up and see that the other team/player has either caught up or has the lead or has won – and the only thing that you can do is wonder WTF just happened and why is the trophy that should be going home with you walking out with somebody else…
Now does that sound like what happened on Sunday?
The USWNT did play a good game, but they made mistakes early and often, so while they clearly were the better side, they certainly weren’t dominating. Does a one-goal lead with 21 minutes left, or a one-goal lead with 16 minutes left, sound like an insurmountable lead? In basketball is a 5-point lead with a minute to play safe? In football is a 3-point lead with 2 minutes to play safe? In baseball is a one-run lead in the bottom of the 9th safe? In tennis is a 6 games to 5 lead in the 5th set safe? In fùtbòl a one-goal lead at any time is the equivalent of all four.
We are talking about the game of fùtbòl, where a majority of games at the top levels end 0-0 or 1-0 – and that score line doesn’t mean that both teams were not attacking. In the 2004 European Championship Final, Portugal took 15 shots, 8 on target, while Greece attempted only one shot the entire game. Portugal attacked furiously, while both sides played unbelievably suffocating defense, throughout the entire game. Final score: 1-0 – Greece.
This is not an anomaly; it is common to the game. One score changes everything, so a one-goal lead just can never be considered a dominating lead at any time in a fùtbòl game, early, late, or even as time is expiring.
Sure, the penalty shootout is the one aspect of the game that the USWNT has historically excelled at. But there’s a reason fùtbòl teams try to avoid that: Because it’s not as easy as it looks. After running up and down a 120-yard field ceaselessly for 120 minutes, oftentimes in suffocating heat, even the best-conditioned world-class fùtbòlers with jelly for legs that they can’t stop from cramping up find penalty kicks a chore. At best the penalty shootout is a crap shoot, a toss-up. Deciding fùtbòl games on penalty kicks is the great leveler; it’s the one aspect of the game where the semi-regular substitute on a club side has a 50-50 chance against the greatest goalkeeper in the world, and has fresher legs than his legendary counterpart on the other team. Even the demigods and legends of the game have missed them. The legends of the 1999 USWNT (Hamm, Chastain, Foudy) have missed them; they just didn’t miss in the final (Mia Hamm missed one early in that tournament).
On the same day that the USWNT lost to Japan in a penalty shootout they’ve since been getting eviscerated for, the two best national sides in the world at taking penalty kicks, Argentina and Brazil, lost in the quarterfinals of the Copa America, the South American championship – by penalty shootouts after 120 minutes.
The same people who were criticizing the USWNT as chokers after this Sunday’s final were the same people who (1) exclaimed the team’s greatness after winning the 1999 World Cup via penalty shootout, (2) again exclaimed the team’s greatness after winning their quarterfinal penalty shootout against Brazil only a week ago, all while (3) hypocritically vilifying the game for years because it determines its winners by something so pathetically weak as a penalty shootout after regular and extra time. Those people didn’t know what they were talking about all these years, and they certainly don’t know what they are talking about now.
I agree that we shouldn’t coddle women just because they are women. Women want to be treated as full and equal citizens in society, so we should treat them like we would their male counterparts. If this was, say, the Los Angeles Lakers, who laid a goose egg on the Dallas Mavericks, then I’d say the same thing. Fact is, the Lakers neither choked nor were upset. The just plain stunk.
Look, upsets happen. It’s part of what makes sports so special. Sure, the USWNT was the better and more talented team, and they had never lost to Japan in 25 tries. But mathematically that alone is an anomaly. If you play somebody you’ve beaten the pulp out of enough, the law of averages says at some point they will eventually catch up, get better and learn how to beat you. How is it that you can make the claim before Sunday that this was not the same Japan side that had not beaten the USA in 25 tries, then be shocked and critical when it turns out they really weren’t? It’s as if you are blaming the USA more for losing than giving credit to Japan for winning.
I didn’t see this result coming any more than anybody else. But the mere fact that, going into Sunday’s final, that Japan had beaten the two-time defending world champions and the #2-ranked team in the world in Germany AND the #5-ranked team in the world in Sweden, should have been enough of an indication that Japan, in that moment and for whatever reason, was serious world-class competition and were coming to win a championship. It’s just as clear that, 23-0-2 record against them notwithstanding, the USWNT didn’t take them lightly.
Something else we should learn to get used to: In women’s fùtbòl the world is catching up. There are no easy national women’s sides anymore. American women ruled the world of fùtbòl for well over a decade, but now even they aren’t the ’27 Yankees anymore despite their #1 world ranking (which they will keep after this World Cup). We all recognize the current Yankees as the best team in baseball with the most money to get the best players anytime they want, but even they have to work at winning the World Series. Same for the USWNT. It was easy when this tournament started for women in 1991 but it sure as hell isn’t now. Maybe there aren’t any players on the national side on the level of Hamm or Chastain of Foudy or Akers or Scurry, but believe me even they in their prime would have a harder time winning hardware in 2011 than they did in 1999.
So to Bryant Gumbel, Jamele Hill, and Jim Rome, I ask you this: Did the 69’ Baltimore Colts choke? Did the 80’ USSR Hockey Team choke? Did Sonny Liston choke in 64’? Did the ’07 New England Patriots choke? Did the ’60 New York Yankees choke? Did Mike Tyson choke in ’90? Did the ’76-’77 Philadelphia 76ers choke? Or did they all just run into a motivated opponent who, in their respective moments, raised their level of play, refused to lose and wanted it more?
It wasn’t a choke. It was an upset.