Alone, We Go Faster. Together, We Go Further.

25 Jan

catherine-fitzsimmonsLast Sunday was quite the day for fans watching the ASPTT Albi vs Olympique Lyonnais women’s game. I followed along on Twitter, gasping mildly at each goal update. Final score? OL 14, Albi 0. Yup, you read that correctly. 14-0. Craziness.

It was expected that this game would be a rather lopsided affair. OL is a women’s football powerhouse in France and in Europe. They’ve won eight consecutive league titles, two consecutive UEFA Champions Leagues (2010-11, 2012-13), as well as UCL runner-ups twice. Albi was just promoted this season to Division I and are presently over 30 points behind leaders PSG. But the magnitude of the lopsidedness took all by surprise. These two teams met back in October, with OL coming out victorious 4-0. A modest scoreline to be sure, but there was little reason to anticipate such a blow-out would occur this go-around.

Normally with games like this, we never get any real insight into what transpired on and off the pitch. Not this time though.

In a recent blog post titled “Reflections on #OLAlbi” published on Women Soccer United, ASPTT Albi goalkeeper Catherine Fitzsimmons provides a well-written discussion on how it feels to be “that” goalkeeper and on the circumstances influencing the game before it even started. More importantly (I think) she looks at how this game needs to be looked at within the broader picture of developing women’s football.

I feel her post is a must read for all football fans, and have provided it below for your musings. Hopefully at least a few of you enjoy her frankness as much as I did.

14-0. Fourteen to nothing. Quatorze à zéro. In whatever language you spell it out, it looks weird. Wrong. Unbelievable, in fact.

Yet believe it people. That is, really and truly, the score my team lost by this past Sunday. Even as I write this post, after I have forced myself to watch the film of every single goal and relive every single action, I still have a hard time swallowing it. Ugh.

I wasn’t sure if I would write another blog entry. 2014 proved to be a tough year for me, and I felt my willingness to share my experiences abroad slowly melt away as my frustrations grew. I didn’t feel like flooding the Women’s Soccer United website with negative and critical stories, so I retreated, kept my feelings to myself, and tried to tough it out.

But, no more.

I am lucky to have this platform for my use, and I lost sight of that. My opinions, and they are just that, do have a place in the world of women’s football. Real life is definitely not ever perfect, and certainly not always easy. If nothing else, I hope that what I have to share will be a starting point for dialogue and critical discourse regarding women’s football, both in France and on a larger scale.

Back to the 14-0. Never, never NEVER did I think I would allow so many goals in one game. Getting beat so handily has prompted me to take a hard look at what I am doing with my life at the moment. It made me reflect on my choice to play abroad, the sacrifices I have made to continue playing, and everything I have been working for in relation to my soccer career. This game also forced me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. As a sociologist by trade (see Mom and Dad, I PROMISED that Rice degree would come into play one of these days!), playing in different countries has allowed me the opportunity to casually collect qualitative data on the influence of culture on women’s soccer, as well as observe the role that women’s soccer has in each respective country. What is the impact that women’s soccer has in France? How far-reaching is it’s influence? What role does it play in the development and empowerment of young women?

Thus, what follows are some of my personal reflections on #OLAlbi, starting with the game and then leading into some big picture takeaways.

To provide some context for Sunday’s game, my team drove up to Lyon on Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning as we were waking up, our bus driver realized that our bus had been broken into during the night. (We have had some really terrible luck this season on away trips; I couldn’t make this stuff up!) Everything was gone: our away uniforms, our home uniforms (we are obligated to bring two sets in case of a color problem), all of the game day materials- cones, pennies, pharmacy, and medical supplies. Every single one of our French Football Federation licenses (the document that recognizes you as an eligible player in the French league) was also taken. The worst from a financial standpoint was that our set of beautiful and wonderful Nike game balls- which run about 150 USD/130 Euro each- was stolen as well. Not a positive way to start the day.

Understandably, our coach was a bit preoccupied with the events I just described, and the same goes for our players. Nobody was in the ideal mindset for the match. Our standard pregame talk where we would typically go over tactics, formation, defensive roles, offensive responsibilities, and other subjects was moved aside as we instead scrambled to get in touch with the Federation, tried to find other uniform possibilities, and looked for options to make the game playable. There would have been no shame in forfeiting, and I think it’s honorable that our club did everything possible to avoid a forfeit, given who we playing against (read: a 3-0 forfeit would probably be the best result we could have asked for).

In a very short couple of hours, we somehow managed to procure uniforms, have someone fax another set of the player licenses, and figure out how to get eleven girls on the pitch for the game. It was evident early on that things were not going to go well, and the game started to go downhill quickly for us. One aspect of the match I want to address early on is the level of officiating. One of the beautiful things about soccer that makes it unique to any other sport is the role of the referee. It’s the only sport where the rhythm of the game has the potential to influence the referee’s decision-making. The flip side of this, of course, is that when a referee feels the need to leave his or her fingerprints all over the game, it tends to get ugly. The referee on Sunday made it clear that she intended to leave her mark. Two of the fourteen goals were penalty kicks given on questionable calls (when the score was already severely one-sided), one goal involved a player returning from an offsides position, and the linesman was ignored multiple times when trying to signal for a foul or offsides in the second half. Necessary? Not at all.

Everyone who has already read other accounts of this game is likely wondering about the proverbial pink elephant, so I will address that as well. How does it feel to get scored on by an opposing goalkeeper who decided to saunter down the field to take a penalty kick when the game was severely lopsided in her team’s favor? (Hint: about the same way it feels to be playing against a team, losing badly, and listening the opposing players complain about calls, whine about challenges, intentionally dive for penalty kicks, and essentially exude an air of entitlement for 90 minutes.) After the match, some of the OL supporters felt it necessary to come up to me and explain that they hope I wasn’t too humiliated, as that wasn’t anyone’s intention. Be honest, they said, wouldn’t you have done the same thing if you had the chance?

No. The answer is an absolute, resounding, one-hundred percent no. Of course I think about what it would feel like to score a goal; every goalkeeper does. However I think about doing it like Tim Howard did with Everton, or even Mo Isom with LSU. I can’t imagine a situation in any match where I would feel the need to take a penalty kick in the run of play, and, by doing so, risk mortifying a player who shares my position. I cannot comprehend the idea of taking an opportunity to gain individual glory at the risk of humiliating another person. It goes against everything I stand for and try to promote as an athlete and as a human being. We rise by lifting others, not by tearing them down in order to get a cool YouTube clip or a headline in a newspaper.

Ultimately, here’s the greater message. When people see scores like this, they complain that there is a competition problem in the French Division 1. The simple answer is yes. Of course there will be a competition problem when the league consists of both teams with the budget and resources of an Olympique Lyonnais and teams that are run as semi-professional and are simply trying to staying afloat in the top flight. The more complicated answer, the one people don’t want to address, is that these scores don’t come from a competition problem. They come from something bigger, something more difficult to distinguish (sociology to the rescue once again!).

These problems come from a lack of the principles that football, and in fact all sports, stand on. These principles are the reason we start playing sports, the reason why sports play such an important role in culture and society. In the United States, parents start their children in sports at a young age to introduce these important values that are vital in every facet of life. Teamwork. Accountability. Discipline. How to win with grace. How to lose with composure. Compassion. Respect. These ideals make up the spirit of sport, and yet, what has happened to the spirit of sport in the French Division 1?

We are all aware of les grosses equipes and their prowess on the pitch. Just because they are capable of blowing up teams and running up the scores, does that mean they should? What would happen to the league and its standard of play if teams spent more time incorporating these principles back into their club’s football? Maybe if OL would refocus their strategies and put more of an emphasis on these principles, they would spend less time blowing out teams in their own league and more time advancing into the deepest stages of Champions League. Consider the possible long-term effects: domestic games would be more competitive, and the league would become more globally respected. More foreign players would aspire to play in the French league; more French players would want to continue to develop their skills. The standard of the women’s game would grow. Alone, we go faster, but together, we go further.

Someday, I will forget this game. I will forget the frustration, the anger, and the shame. This Sunday in January will not define me, nor will it be something I think about often as my life moves on. This is one beauty of life:x that it moves on. Lyon will go on to blow out other teams in our league. My team, ASPTT Albi will fight to maintain Division 1 status. If anyone outside of my friends or family read this blog entry, they may think I am just complaining or giving excuses for the score. If that’s the case, then I will feel sorry that they missed the message entirely. The only way that women’s football will continue to grow and flourish is if each of us understands the responsibility we have as players. Not only are we responsible for upholding the image and integrity of the sport, but we are also accountable to the waves of younger players who will come after us. Our responsibility also includes the ability to be critical and reflective not only of ourselves, but of our clubs and countries. We must always continue to ask ourselves how we can further the sport and how we can do better.

Peace, love, and onto the next,

– hopechaser

2 Responses to “Alone, We Go Faster. Together, We Go Further.”

  1. mygypsyspirit January 25, 2015 at 10:01 pm #

    She is so spot on in her assessment. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. Ally January 26, 2015 at 3:27 am #

    Well said, Catherine!

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