The United States women’s national team opened up their World Cup appearance with a record-setting 13-0 win over Thailand on Tuesday.
That the margin of victory was so wide is evidence that women’s sports across the globe desperately need more funding and a stronger pipeline of recreational and collegiate competition throughout a female athlete’s life, said Dan Lebowitz, who is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.
“The score sends a message to FIFA that it needs to reinforce for its member-countries that subsidizing women’s sport is a priority,” Lebowitz said, referring to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the international governing body for soccer.
“This kind of score differential wouldn’t happen if there were better feeder systems around the globe,” Lebowitz said. “It’s a call for equity around the globe when it comes to empowering women in sport.”
The score, which set a World Cup record for the largest margin of victory for a soccer match—either men’s or women’s—sparked controversy, with some arguing that the No. 1 women’s soccer team in the world shouldn’t have continued to score goals after it became evident it would win by a comfortable margin and shouldn’t have continued to celebrate each goal.
Roger Gonzalez, a sports writer for CBS, wrote after the game, “You compete to win, and that’s understandable, but how can you not feel bad for this Thailand team that had absolutely no chance? The U.S. wasn’t classless by any stretch, as they were celebrating a record-breaking achievement. But 7-0, 8-0, 9-0 all would have been fine in my book.”
It is perhaps worth noting that neither 7-0, nor 8-0, nor 9-0 would have been record-breaking scores. Before Tuesday’s game, the World Cup record for margin of victory was set by Germany’s 11-0 win over Argentina in the 2007 Women’s World Cup.
Taylor Twellman, an ESPN soccer analyst and former player for the New England Revolution and the U.S. men’s national team, tweeted that “celebrating goals (like #9) leaves a sour taste in my mouth, like many of you.”
Far from gloating, the U.S. athletes were simply reacting to the excitement of scoring a goal in the World Cup, said Pamela Wojnar, who teaches in the Master of Sports Leadership program at Northeastern.
“I would be surprised if they even remember doing it,” said Wojnar, who also coached collegiate basketball and volleyball for more than a decade. “I’d be excited, too! And you’re talking about athletes who are in the heat of the moment.”
Lebowitz echoed Wojnar’s assessment, adding that “the U.S. women did the right thing on a number of levels.”
First, goal differential matters in the World Cup, he said. In the case of a tied record of wins and losses, a team’s margin of victory can end up being a factor in whether it advances through the championship, Lebowitz said.
“Let’s say it was 10-0 against Thailand, and the [U.S.] team ends up with a 1-2 record [overall]. If another team scored 13-0 and also ended up with a 1-2 record, that team would advance instead of the U.S. And then what?” Lebowitz said.
Second, teams at the World Cup are playing to win, Lebowitz said, and athletes need repetition to stay on top of their game.
“These players still need repetition in that much of a high-pressure situation to feel comfortable and gain momentum going into the next round,” he said.
For Lebowitz, the controversy is indicative of a broader, societal problem: resistance to gender equality. He contrasted the treatment of the U.S. women’s soccer team to that of the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team.
Both teams were dominant in their fields. Both teams included an all-star roster of athletes. Both teams beat their opponents handily. And yet, only one team is being pilloried for doing so, Lebowitz said. The U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team was nicknamed “the Dream Team,” and roundly cheered by fans and reporters alike.
More recently, the 2012 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team—a team that drew comparisons to its 1992 counterpart for showing a similar dominance—was celebrated when it set the Olympic record for scoring the most points in a single game.
The men’s team routed Nigeria 156 to 73. Hunter Felt, a sports writer for The Guardian, recapped the game by writing: “That was the best I think I’ve ever seen a basketball team play. I feel bad for Nigeria having to be on the other end of that, but that was just an impossible task.”
“Everyone was bowing down to the Dream Team in 1992,” Lebowitz said. “All of a sudden, women do it, and it’s a major problem. What we’re seeing here is the truth of how we allow negative narratives about women to gain unbelievable momentum.”