By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 2, 2012) US Soccer Players – Once upon a time, a club in England was fighting to avoid relegation on the last day of the season. The team they were playing was safe and their league position wouldn’t change win or lose. The week leading up to the game, that team made a lot of noise about playing their reserves since no one wants to get hurt on the last day of the season. That raised the expected talk of how that would impact the other teams in the relegation battle, and ideals of sporting fairness. Whatever their original plan was, the team started their regulars and attempted to relegate their opponent.
A late winner spoiled those plans, but it took considerable effort from the team in trouble and potentially medication for their fans who had to watch this play out over 90 minutes. What was supposed to be a relatively easy finale ended up anything but. The message was clear: assume nothing.
That’s both the message and the problem from Japan’s attempt to game the Olympic Women’s soccer tournament by going ahead and choosing their quarterfinal assignment by not winning. In practice and in theory, that shouldn’t be the role of a competing team. For Japan, or at least their coaching staff, there was a strategic route they wanted to take into the knockout stage. To make that happen required finishing 2nd rather than 1st in their group. It also required working against an ideal of best effort.
Soccer in particular, and team sports in general, are held to a different standard here than other sports. The soccer tournament is spread out over an entire country, and teams have to take logistics into consideration in a way unlike any of the other Olympic competitions. They also have to deal with the group stage, to some extent the Olympic equivalent to the preliminaries and semifinals in say gymnastics or swimming. It’s the final that counts in those sports, and the goal is to get to the medal round. It doesn’t require expending the energy to win every round leading up to the final, and it’s usually the exception when a record is broken in say a swimming semifinal with no medal on the line.
Obviously, this isn’t a direct comparison and the expectation game-by-game is different for the team sports. Japan’s version of gamesmanship wasn’t sending shuttlecocks into the net as multiple competitors attempt to see what they can do to shuffle the assignments in the next round. That’s a version of gamesmanship taking that step too far that will never satisfy public scrutiny. Yet the soccer version is troubling.
In real terms, it’s up to the teams involved to decide the strategies they employ. Though the expectation is best effort, that can easily ignore the realities of a tournament with a group stage. A team taking a look at their options and deciding on a strategy should be expected, but that ideal of competition remains.
No one wants a coach in a competition using phrases like “”I feel sorry we couldn’t show a respectable game.” It’s the conversation as much as the actions that have turned this into an issue, and a serious one. We’re right back to the meaning of competition in a tournament format, but again competition and gamesmanship are linked in ways that sometimes don’t speak to the best a format has to offer.
FIFA, running the soccer tournaments in the Olympics, did as much as they could by starting the final games of the group stage at the same time. That’s their long-established hedge against overt gamesmanship. A team can try for a particular result, but it’s no guarantee of anything should the other game in the group not go as expected. Short of resetting the field at each stage, that’s as much as an organizer can do.
Whether or not it’s fair is an easy question for some, more complicated for others. The Olympics carry with it that competitive ideal we talked about earlier. Though gamesmanship is certainly part of competition, it rarely speaks to what’s ideal. Instead, it shows what’s possible.
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