Chris Wondolowski just scored his first goal for the US Men's National Team in 2015 in the run up to the Gold Cup tournament. In a preview of this summer of USMNT soccer Fox Sport ran an article this week on Wondolowski's feelings on his return to the USMNT - a chance to make amends for his missed chance in the 92nd minute against Belgium in last year's World Cup, "I'd like to put a cap on it and not have that bitter taste."
The responses to Fox's tweet promoting the article, were immediate and had that familiar churlish tone: "Damnit why. Go home" exhorts one 'fan'; "booo" from an equality-rainbow sporting ‘fan'; "he better not see the field" said another. Sadly, but predictably, it goes on like this for a while.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 2, 2015
In a week that saw England's Laura Bassett score an own goal in the 92nd minute of their defeat in the Women's World Cup semi-final, we all saw a swift outpouring of support and sympathy for her. Why was there such a difference in the fans' response to the two players' World Cup stumbles?
Laura Bassett's own goal was the defender's attempt to clear the ball - a missed clearance that lobbed her own goalie and bounced of the crossbar and into the net -- Japan were suddenly propelled into the World Cup FInal. England fans are used to losing their knockout round games on penalties (usually against Germany), but to go out on an own goal was a new, and especially agonizing way of exiting the World Cup. Support for Laura Bassett from her team mates, English TV pundits and fans worldwide was immediate -- and predominantly sympathetic.
Wondolowski lofted his shot over the crossbar in the 2014 World Cup round of 16 match against Belgium - he stretched and got his boot to the ball, but Thibaud Courtois, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, had closed down the angle to become the hero in Belgium. Cue the "Wondo Rage" - a term coined by SB Nation - and demands that Wondolowski have his US passport revoked as punishment; a particularly blunt rejoinder for the first Native American to play in the World Cup. While Wondolowski received and appreciated the support of his USMNT team mates, it's clear that the rage among the USMNT fans, and some members of the soccer media, has not yet died down.
Photo: Robert Cianflone
Both plays under discussion happened on the World Cup stage, with the eyes of thousands in the stadium, and millions on TV and social media focused on each. Both events happened in the knockout rounds of their respective World Cup tournaments, with England having progressed even farther than the USMT. Neither team had been predicted to graduate from their "Group of Death" and certainly neither was expected to win their tournament; even the US coach Jurgen Klinsmann predicted the USMNT couldn't win the 2014 World Cup.
So, Wondolowski and Bassett were playing for their national team under similar circumstances. What factors play into the vastly different social media reactions to each of their pivotal plays?
The topic of gender in sports is wide ranging, comes up frequently in soccer and probably has a role to play here. Is it easier to sympathize with Bassett than Wondolowski because of her gender? If it is, then, as Claire Cohen argues in the UK's Telegraph newspaper, is the outpouring of sympathy sexist? Cohen writes "...if we really want men and women's football to be on a level playing field - as has been the rallying cry throughout the Women's World Cup - then we need to treat all players in the same way. Anything else is sexism." And why not extend the argument here that empathy with the player is preferable to their vilification.
Laura Bassett is English and Chris Wondolowski is American - two soccer players separated by a common language. English fans expect to win nothing - history has shown time and time again (at least since 1966) that England fans shake their heads, rue the bad refereeing over a pint in the pub and then they move on; no choice really. US fans believe, believe that, believe that they will win. Until the USMNT wins everything, or the US fans become more realistic about their chances of winning the World Cup, perhaps Wondolowski will continue to fulfill the role of scapegoat.
Bassett was inconsolable after the semi-final game, her tears flowed for the world to see, and she was consoled in the arms of her team mates. Wondolowski was equally devastated, but while he held his head in his hands after the game, he sucked it up and did not break down and cry -- at least not in public. Would US soccer fans have sympathized with him more if he had cried? We'll never know.
The England women most definitely exceeded expectations in the 2015 Women's World Cup, and the country wholeheartedly embraced their victories. Most American viewers of the men's 2014 World Cup dismissed Belgium as a walk over -- a country more famous for beer and chocolate than soccer. True soccer scholars recognized Belgium as a as a top flight opponent -- a team that currently stands #2 in the FIFA rankings behind Germany, and ahead of Argentina and Brazil.
With each tournament US fans have come to expect more and more from their national teams - and with these higher expectations comes increasingly severe criticism when their expectations aren't met. Heck, even the US journalists and TV pundits are also developing a taste for the English national sports of double guessing the manager, criticizing the players and blaming the governing body for the teams' lack of success. This recently developed belligerence among fans and press is just the latest manifestation of the maturation of both the men's and women's soccer game in the psyche of the United States.
So, if the USWNT fails to win the 2015 Women's World Cup Final on Sunday, are you likely to ask yourself whom you will blame. Will you take to social media to vent your spleen on the missed opportunities? Or will you focus on celebrating the team's successes throughout the tournament? Will you consider the fact that even when the USWNT weren't firing on all cylinders, they still pulled out the victories that propelled them to the final? Or that the tactical changes that Jill Ellis has made for each opponent have been outstanding?
It's really, really difficult to win the World Cup; just ask Lionel Messi. This Sunday afternoon, the USWNT will face Japan, who are the reigning World Cup Champions. Set your expectations accordingly, enjoy the game and celebrate -- whatever the outcome.