Competing at the highest level is not an easy task. When it comes to soccer, there is no bigger stage than the World Cup. Women from all over the globe fine-tune their skills over a period of four years to prepare for the rigors of the WWC. This painstaking process is similar to the Olympics. When the Games are held, I try my best to follow as many events as possible, and I honestly mean that. I can’t remember how many times in my life, I have cheered on the United States in lesser known sports such as curling and equestrian.
Initially, I don’t understand the rules, but the commentators are able to get me up to speed. The most important factor, to me, is the preparation and desire to win. There has never been a sport which doesn’t intrigue me. Even competitions that are not athletic events are interesting to me. Whether it is the national spelling bee, America’s Best Dance Crew, or log cutting during ESPN’s Great Outdoor Games. (Yeah, I said it; I’ve watched ABDC—Mario Lopez is the man. How can you not support A.C. SLATER!) The dedication and commitment required to succeed at the Olympic Games is unmatched. The heart-break is also unparalleled, one can lose by less than a tenth of a second. I could never imagine devoting years of mental and physical preparation, only to earn a silver medal by a fraction of a second; it doesn’t seem fair. Why do I watch? How can I not watch!
The consensus among sportswriters seems to be, “the U.S. women’s soccer team choked.” Bleacher Report columnist Kyle Vassalo wrote, ‘Huge Choke Job Sets Back Women’s American Soccer.’ (This is not a personal attack on Vassalo, I simply read the Bleacher Report because I am a follower of the Florida Gators, and I happened to come across his article.) ESPN’s Jemele Hill also got it wrong in her column, ‘The World Cup ‘C’ Word: Choke.’ Just because people called the US Men’s loss in the Gold Cup Final a choke, doesn’t mean they got it right! (Again, not an attack on Hill, I follow her on twitter because I have always respected her as a journalist, but she was inaccurate on this one.)
The term “Choke” is used far to often, but we need to examine all of the factors before forcing the title on an individual or team. We must be careful not to disregard the competitive nature of the opponent. Sometimes, the other side has a will to win that cannot be matched or understood by the prognosticators, or so called “experts.”
I can appreciate how someone could mistakenly categorize Sunday’s Women’s World Cup loss as a choke which sets back US women’s soccer, but nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, the final match between the US and Japan was one of the most inspiring sporting events of our time. There are millions of women around the world who will turn to soccer as a means to improve their lives. The Japanese victory, not only uplifted earthquake ravaged Japan but was an example of what hard work and a strong will can accomplish. If you understand the nature of competition, you will be hard-pressed to call the US loss a choke. There are always two sides in every competition. Understanding each story is paramount to evaluating the outcome.
The US team was not the overwhelming favorite coming into the WWC, regardless of the number one ranking. The distinction of most probable victor was reserved for two-time defending champion and host nation, Germany. Also, Brazil, Sweden and France were all capable challengers. The US team actually struggled to qualify. Furthermore, most of the commentary leading up to the tournament was about, IF the United States would be able to sneak by Brazil and, IF they did, how would they beat powerhouse Germany. Yes, the number one ranking has some merit, but coach Pia Sundhage’s talented squad was not playing like the best in the world prior to the tournament. The experts were discussing, how the rest of the world had closed the gap on the US women. Not to mention, the American team last won the title in 1999.
The Japanese victory, in the quarter finals over host Germany, was labeled one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Prior to the game, no one gave Japan a chance. Even during the match, it seemed as if the commentators were simply waiting for Germany to turn it on and win. The experts often predetermine a champion based on talent, usually failing to consider HEART. The German loss was branded a choke initially but, upon further review, we now understand that the Japanese team was just better than every other nation in the WWC. The word choke is used because people often underestimate the “underdog.” There are too many instances in which a ranking turns out to be completely meaningless; it happens every year during March Madness.
The pre-season polls in college football are arguably the most erroneous rankings. Let me remind everyone that my Gators were ranked #4 in US Today and #3 in the AP polls; that didn’t quite work out for the team, which ended up in turmoil and unranked at season’s end. Why was Japan such an underdog? Because the prognosticators, who almost never know what they are talking about, said they were! What the perception of Japan was before the tournament didn’t matter. No one would be calling a US loss a choke if it came at the hands of the mighty Germans.
There are those who may say, “Japan’s win was a fluke.” Those are the idiots! The Japanese equalizing goal in the game’s final minutes defines competition; if they weren’t supposed to score, the referee should have ended the game once the US regained the lead. The WWC is just another example of the experts being completely wrong, which is why the games are never played on paper.
How can you call a team working hard and persevering, a choke by the other team. No, the Miami Heat didn’t choke—the Mavericks were just a better team. Lebron James didn’t choke in the NBA Finals, he merely has yet to figure out the secrets to winning. Making it over the hump and finally becoming a champion is a skill that must be acquired. I am one of the most die-hard Red Sox fans and, in the past, I have called the 2004 comeback against the Yankees the biggest choke in History. I was mistaken; we all were. The Yankees didn’t choke. The Sox laid down during the first three games, before refocusing and playing like champions. The Yankees didn’t collapse—Boston barely won games four through six. The Yankees were simply out-competed. Going into the series, everyone believed the Sox had a chance, and every single Red Sox fan knew we were going to win, until the 0-3 deficit. As a matter of fact, we felt the Sox were the ones who choked when they were down three games to none.
I’m not suggesting the word choke can never apply. There are many instances in which players or teams succumb to the pressures of winning. Rory McIlroy’s performance at the 2011 Master’s comes to mind. In that instance, there were no rankings which predicted Rory as the expected champion. He performed amazingly, then fell apart in the end. You can categorize his loss as choking if you wish, but the WWC is completely different. Two teams earned the opportunity to play in the final game and one team prevailed in the end. The Japanese played the exact same game as they did against the Germans; they earned the victory!
As far as Mr. Vassalo calling the game a set back, he is dead wrong. The Associated Press has reported that the WWC set the new record for tweets-per-second, eclipsing the (British) Royal Wedding and the death of Osama Bin Laden. I watched the game in the living room with several male family members and we watched every minute, cheering on each scoring chance. The game did everything to legitimize women’s soccer as an exciting sport. There were three Brazil soccer fans in the room, and we only changed the channel, to watch the Brazil vs. Paraguay game, during halftime of the WWC. The level of competition rivaled any major men’s sporting event, and the American loss was equally frustrating. Anyone who chooses the term “choked” to describe a loss in the Championship game of a World Tournament, which only occurs every four years, must not appreciate how difficult it is to win in sports. Did Roberto Baggio choke in the 1998 World Cup Final against Brazil? No! The Brazilian team was great. Baggio over-kicked the ball; these instances happen in sports. Winning is never easy!
As much as I hoped to see the US bring home the gold, watching the Japanese players perform with the true hearts-of-champions was amazing. They stepped up in the clutch and did what was necessary to attain victory. The US did not choke; there were many missed first half opportunities, but Japan also had missed chances. A game-changing infraction happened in the first half when the referee mistakenly called Shinobu Ohno, who was onside with a full head of steam, offside. Hope Solo is a great goalie, but I doubt she could have prevented a goal. Women’s soccer in America is in good hands. Abby Wambach is the world’s premier scorer, and a new star has emerged, Alex Morgan.
I believe the WWC’s following will continue to grow, and the Olympics will be a great sporting event for women’s soccer. No Jemele, I am not lowering the expectations for the US team because they are women. I’m simply pointing out that they stepped on the field, played at a high level, and lost to a better team. As far as the penalty kicks are concerned, did anyone actually expect the US to win? I have always been under the impression that the team which fights to earn a tie, will usually out-perform the team who has to deal with the disappointment of losing a lead. Not to mention, Hope Solo didn’t have the luxury of studying previous Japanese PKs; this was Japan’s first ever. Advantage Blue Team. I didn’t witness any “choke,” Japan out-performed the US.
Hopefully the United States players forget about the accolades which come with being ranked number one, and prepare like champions. The reason I watch sports is because I know the outcome is never predetermined; no team or individual is supposed to win. Being a champion is something that is earned, not handed out by experts. Set Back? No, US women’s soccer has a new fan. Great job ladies…bring home Olympic Gold!