Just like any story, a good sport needs an antagonist.
The USA women’s football team are quickly becoming just that and it can do nothing but good for the game.
Men’s football has its fair share of antagonists depending on one’s point of view. In the 90s and 2000s, it was the all-conquering Manchester United team that came up with more late winners and controversial penalties than anyone else.
Nowadays, it could be anyone from a financially doped Manchester City, to the sickening sight of Liverpool over-zealously celebrating every goal they scored towards the tail end of the season.
That’s not to mention those from further afield, like the sports-washing project at PSG or the evil empire at Real Madrid.
What these teams do is generate a desperation to see another team rise up and beat them.
How many neutrals would have cheered Newcastle on as they challenged United for the title in 1996? How many will watch the Women’s World Cup final purely in the hope of seeing the US get their comeuppance?
The desperation to see these teams beaten fuels a greater interest in the sport and it is something women’s football needs to take it to the next level.
Apathy is the last thing a sport needs if it wants to be taken seriously. If England’s loss to the US had been met with a shrug of the shoulders and a derogatory comment about how the Americans are great ambassadors for the game, women’s football would still be well behind the men’s game.
However, the exact opposite happened.
The USA are pantomime villains in the sport, and are quickly becoming the team that everyone loves to hate, akin to Dublin in the GAA or Germany in men’s football terms.
They embody everything cringeworthy about American sports, and it’s made about ten times worse because they’re the best team in the world.
Ever since their 13-0 humiliation of Thailand in the opening group game, the US have become the team everyone wants to beat. It was not the scoreline that irked so many people – in fact, it would have been far more disrespectful had the US let up and taunted the Thai players by playing keep ball – rather, it was the nature of their over-enthusiastic celebrations.
Frankly, the manner in which Megan Rapinoe celebrated her solitary goal, America’s ninth, was disgusting, and she wasn’t the only one.
If someone with absolutely no knowledge of the sport observed the 13-0 annihilation, they would surely think that the Americans carried some sort of grudge against the Thai players, such was the nature of the celebrations of Rapinoe and Alex Morgan in particular. Both celebrated like they had scored winning goals in the last minute of a World Cup final, when in reality they had scored exceedingly average goals against a semi-professional team that should never have been at the World Cup.
It’s humiliating enough to suffer the biggest defeat in World Cup history – men’s or women’s – without having your noses rubbed in it.
As the tournament has gone on, Rapinoe has somehow garnered almost unilateral respect on social media for her criticism of Donald Trump. Users have mistaken a dislike of the US President, something shared with the majority of people in the free world, as a personality trait.
A truer reflection of Rapinoe’s personality is her attitude towards the semi-professional Thai players when a bit of grace and decorum was required.
The utter arrogance of the US was summed up by Rapinoe in their quarter-final against France. The image of standing there, Zlatan-like, with her arms spread wide has been universally praised as a powerful image for the women’s game, yet it simply displays an arrogance unrivalled in the sport.
A celebration should, in essence, match the goal. Had Rapinoe curled one into the top corner from 30 yards then it might have been acceptable to give it large. But, she didn’t.
The reality is that she underhit a freekick and the ball trickled into the net. Her celebration exuded greatness she had not achieved and all it did was further build an aura of smugness around this great team.
Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping celebration against England on Tuesday was a further example of a lack of respect from the US. Yes, it was largely inoffensive, but slagging off another nation’s culture is not something that should ever be respected.
Rapinoe’s childish response to a journalist’s questioning on the matter was indicative of the US arrogance.
“Wah, wah, wah. It’s like we’re at the World Cup. What do you want us to do? We work hard. We like to play hard.”
Celebrating in a passionate, yet dignified manner might be a good place to start. It’s doubtful that Rapinoe would take kindly to a Dutch player stereotyping an aspect of American culture in Sunday’s final. We’ll never know because they won’t do it.
Morgan has since come out and played the gender card, stating that men’s players are allowed to disrespect opponents without receiving criticism. The thing is, that argument just doesn’t fly.
Players like Antoine Griezmann are regularly rebuked for the disrespectful nature of their celebrations and those celebrations don’t even mock opponents.
America are the big bully in a playground that everyone wants to see taken down. Their victory over Thailand was like a group of 12-year olds challenging a much younger and much weaker group of kids to a game of football and laughing in their faces as they take the piss out of them.
Like a bully in the playground, the rest of the world is waiting for someone to step up and put them in their place and that is exactly what women’s football needs. It needs controversy. It needs hatred.
It needs fans rooting for teams they have no attachment to just so the other team doesn’t win.
In essence, it needs tribalism; the utter contempt and irrational hatred of another team that is embedded in the rivalries of the men’s game. It’s what makes for such compelling viewing and it draws an audience without a shadow of a doubt.
So, keep on doing what you’re doing America, because it’s clearly working.