On Sunday afternoon on the French Riviera, the Swedish women’s national team will enter the Stade de Nice for an opening-round World Cup match against Thailand with an odd puzzle to confront.
It is as nearly ordained as the outcome of a sporting event can be that the Swedes, ranked among the top 10 teams in the world, will defeat Thailand, a humble team on the world stage that qualified from one of the weaker international confederations simply because someone had to.
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What Sweden must decide is whether it will attempt to match the United States in an escalating arms – or, more accurately, legs – race to secure first place among the group of four teams they share and, theoretically, obtain a better chance to advance through the knockout phase of the tournament.
On form alone, both the U.S. and Sweden are expected to go through this stage easily, with the only question being which will be the group winner and which the runner-up. The ensuing bracket offers contradictory clues as to which is actually the better path – a likely quarterfinal match against a very strong host French team awaits the first-place team – but if the reason to play is to win, then there’s no sense angling for second place in the group.
The issue is not as clearly divided as those on either side of the argument would have it. Instead, there are volleys of words being tossed over a complicated battlefield that takes in gender, sport, cultural differences, psychology, politics, and probably lingering hard feelings left over from previous battles.
Perhaps the most vociferous comments came from The Sports Network in Canada, where a panel of former women’s players were in agreement that the United States crossed the line and one labeled the spectacle “disgraceful.” The U.S. and Canada, of course, have a long history of being teams that, in the words of Keith Jackson, dooooon’t like each other.
Much of the criticism directed toward the team wasn’t about the sheer number of goals – although that is quite a number – but about the exuberant celebrations that followed them even as the score mounted steadily out of hand.
There were six goals scored after the 60th minute, including four in the final 10 minutes of regulation, one of which was apparently necessary to tack on during stoppage time.
A defense can be made of the onslaught because goal differential is the first tiebreaker in group play, but defending the repeated perceived embarrassment of a hapless opponent was more difficult.
This is partly where the gender divide was most hotly debated. In a men’s game at this level, there is a very good chance that cartwheels after a 10th or 11th goal would quickly be followed by a boots-up slide tackle to the cartwheeler’s cartwheel. The Thai women showed little inclination in that regard, and probably couldn’t catch the U.S. women if they did.
“A lot of this is about building momentum and, so as a coach, I don’t find it my job to rein my players, in,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.
No kidding. And perhaps establishing their dominance in the minds of their true competition, and putting the team on a wave of confidence is not just the right play, but the only play. It happens all over the world at all levels.
In 2018, at the Asian Football Federation women’s championship, Thailand had back-to-back early matches against Cambodia and Malaysia that were won by 11-0 and 8-0 scores. Take a moment to be thankful the U.S. didn’t play Cambodia.
All of that still leaves the Swedes in their quandary. They are already a minus-11 to the United States on goal differential (the U.S. plays Chile later Sunday in Paris), and if form holds, and the top two teams play to a draw in their match next Thursday, goals will indeed decide the group.
So, how many should Sweden try to score against Thailand? Will 13 be enough? How about 15? Or should the Swedes play a quieter game, get the win, avoid injury, and figure that, down the road, no one can really predict if a knockout path through, say, Canada and Germany, is really that much tougher than one through Spain and France?
The old adage may be the one that applies here: It’s not whom you play, but how you play.
The U.S. team has announced how it intends to play – full gas, full party, and full of indifference for anyone who doesn’t like it. (In a particularly audacious bit of coaching against Thailand, the three second-half subs selected by Ellis were all forwards. Admittedly, the defenders weren’t tired.) You do have to respect that chin-out quality, even if you would have preferred they toned it down just a touch against the Thais.