Last Sunday I coached a game, and I reffed a game. Both results saw clear winners, with lots of goals scored. Both matches had their moments of pride and joy for individual players, and the teams as a whole. Yet, from my point of view, not all of those moments of pride and joy were positive. At the risk of imposing my own codes of conduct on the wider world (regular readers may be used to this by now), I'd like to discuss the different ways we have of celebrating success in youth soccer.
In the morning, the girls U-14 team I coach played against a team we expected to beat. Although we play the game on the ground as much as possible, I've also been encouraging the team to attack the ball more at corner kicks. Rather than shying away from the ball, they should maybe try getting their heads on it from two yards out. To that end, I introduced a €20 incentive for the first player to score a headed goal, which has become a running gag among the team. (A $50 reward on the girls team I coached in the USA for seven years, with the same proviso, went unclaimed.)
As usual, in the course of the game we missed a couple of prime opportunities to score headed goals, through hesitancy alone.
Exasperated, I stood up and demonstrated to the bench the perfect fresh-air header. I then subbed one of the girls on the bench into the game and, moments later, she scored our first-ever headed goal, direct from a corner kick. Cue much laughter, and congratulations to the player, followed by mockery at my expense after the game as I handed over the cash. Though I'd have willingly paid double for the moment.
Also in this game — in the final minute, our opponents were awarded a penalty kick for a clear handball. We were leading 7-2 by that point, so the PK was of no consequence. As the opposition player placed the ball wide of the goal, the noise from my bench was way too loud and I ordered them to tone it down. It wasn't like our goalie had pulled off a spectacular save, and it wasn't as if a 7-3 scoreline would have made any difference to our day. It looked more like we were mobbing a player just for missing. Sometimes you can have a touch too much team spirit.
On to Game Two on Sunday evening, a girls U-17 game I was refereeing. The home team ran out clear 8-0 winner. In the second half, there were some niggly moments between players following deliberate fouls (from both teams), though despite a couple of lectures I didn't show any cards. At the end of the game, the heavily defeated team sat around their bench to hear a few words from their coach. The winners, meanwhile, gathered in a circle a few yards away and began to loudly chant and cheer while jumping up and down in a huddle.
I've noticed this kind of celebration a lot lately, at all levels of soccer. It used to be reserved for winning a title, or maybe reaching a cup final. That's fine. But for hammering an inferior opponent in a routine league encounter, who barely came close to your goal the entire game? When they're sitting right next to you and the coach is trying to pep them up after a colossal defeat? In this context, it seems excessive, unnecessary and wholly unsporting.
On the other hand, the losing team's goalkeeper shone a different light on the day. She wasn't the world's most natural shot-stopper, but made numerous decent saves throughout the course of the match. No matter how many goals her team lay in arrears, every time she stopped a shot or caught the ball, her face broke into a huge smile before she punted the ball upfield.
It's an obvious point, but there are good ways to celebrate good play. Smile when you do something good. Don't rub your losing opponent's faces into the dirt, even if you think they deserve it. By all means, go nuts if your team scores a last-minute winner in a tight game. Enjoy the moment — spontaneous exuberance is a fine and natural thing. But spare a second too to console the loser on the floor and shake their hand. We've all been there. There's no glory in gloating in someone's face, as even Lionel Messi admitted after Argentina's penalty shootout win over the Netherlands in last year's World Cup quarterfinal.
"I didn't like what I did, I didn't like what happened after," Messi said over a month later, referring to having cupped his ear at Dutch coach Louis van Gaal after scoring a penalty in the 73rd minute, and gestures he made at the desolate Dutch players after the shootout. "These are moments of nervousness and everything happens very quickly."
It was a belated acknowledgment that, even at the very highest level, you can lose your dignity in triumph at exactly that moment when you should be making the most of it.