Opinion by Amy Bass
(CNN) — “Sport isn’t about what we know,” US soccer legend Abby Wambach narrated in a FIFA/Fox promo that aired before the US faced Sweden in the round of 16 at the World Cup in Australia. “It’s about what we believe.” I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan. I know this to be true.
But in sport, there is a critical difference in believing any team, any athlete, will win, and expecting them to win.
Some 27,706 fans filled Melbourne Rectangular Stadium to watch the defending World Cup champions the United States get knocked out of the tournament in a penalty shoot-out with Sweden, two 15-minute extra time halves not enough to settle the score between these perennial foes.
The red, white, and blue or blue and gold face paint made clear which team the fans believed in. Their very presence made an already wild ride of a tournament even more historic, breaking the total attendance record (set in 2015) at 1,267,037 with so much soccer yet to be played.
Less than 24 hours earlier, a sold-out crowd filled the Now Arena in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, for the US Classic, unsure of what to expect or what to believe as legendary gymnast Simone Biles, inarguably the greatest of all time, returned to the sport she dominated, two years after a case of the “twisties” bested her at the Tokyo Olympics.
Biles, like the US Women’s National Team (USWNT), knows a thing or two about expectations and beliefs, praised by some for taking her mental health and safety seriously, and unfairly derided by those who accused her of letting her team, her country, down.
It is hard to live under the pressure that comes with the assumption, the expectation, of a gold medal (or five) or an unprecedented World Cup title. It’s pressure that women, perhaps, whether on the field or elsewhere, know especially well.
In Melbourne on Sunday, many in the crowd booed loudly when an image of USWNT superstar (and now sport analysist) Carli Lloyd’s image hit the big screen. Lloyd’s criticisms of her former team (and I’m not going to rehash them – some were legit, some were likely personal, and some were improbably political) boil down to faulty expectations.
Those critiques fail to acknowledge how this USWNT is not the same as the one that won four years ago and certainly not the same as the one who took the trophy eight years ago.
Now that the US is going home, the “what went wrong” analyses will go on for a while, including discussions of how a team riddled by injuries that left the likes of former captain Becky Sauerbrunn and offensive powerhouse Mallory Swanson on the sidelines could be in contention at all. But there are a lot of those conversations going on this time around, and not just in the United States. Brazil’s mythical Marta and Canada’s icon Christine Sinclair didn’t expect to be flying home after the group stage.
Few — if any — expected Morocco (ranked 72 in the world!) to move forward. No one expected Jamaica, who needed a viral fundraising campaign to even get on the plane, to become the first Caribbean team to hit the knockout stage since Cuba in 1938. South Africa wasn’t expected to take out Italy and go on to give the Dutch a run for their money.
And, oh yes, Germany, Germany and Germany (a two-time World Cup champion who had never failed, until now, to advance to the knockout round).
The US celebration after pulling a draw with Portugal that got them through to face Sweden, the merriment that Lloyd criticized so harshly, showed in no uncertain terms: this isn’t your mother’s World Cup. Progress on every level will need to be earned, not assumed or expected.
Yet even — or perhaps especially — FIFA and Fox had those expectations, their promotions conveying assumption that a top performance in the group stage would land the Americans in a prime Friday night broadcast spot for their first match in the knockout round.
In Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” blockbuster, America Ferrera’s Gloria defines the expectations we have for women better than most, outlining the unbearable and unreasonable truths that make it “literally impossible to be a woman,” from the requirement to “always stand out and always be grateful” to the fact that “not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.” (The distributor of “Barbie” and CNN share a parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery.)
Yet despite the endless list of double standards — and Gloria goes on for a while — there is always the ability to shine. No one expected defender Emily Sonnett to be the missing link in the US mojo, but she helped to spark the kind of passing and connection that was missing in the team’s group stage games, dominating possession against Sweden as the sun crawled out of bed on the east coast, and making fans believe, if not expect, that the US women could, would, win.
But they did not.
If any moment in sport requires belief more than a penalty shootout in soccer, I don’t know what it is. After 90+ minutes of hard play and the extra time minutes, the USWNT went down, the beautiful game turning cruel on the Americans, as shoot-outs often do, the goal line technology used to determine that Sweden’s winning goal was, indeed, a goal, making soccer a game of a millimeter rather than one of inches.
The US, like dynamo Germany and Olympic champion Canada (both soccer dynasties in their own right) goes home, the dream of an unprecedented three-peat buried in Australian dirt. There are no expectations left to be had, at least for now.
But there is something to learn from the years that have passed since the last time anyone saw Simone Biles in action. Her return to competition, where she once again defied gravity, sparkling in a black and white leotard, is a vivid reminder that while expectations may wane, belief should not.
Biles hit the floor Saturday night with just a few months of training under her belt, her wedding to football player Jonathan Owens having made more headlines than anything she did in the gym.
At the US Classic, we witnessed what a 26-year-old Simone Biles with lowered expectations looks like, throwing a Yurchenko double-pike — what will undoubtedly someday be called the Biles II — on the vault and performing a floor routine that included an unusually profound artistry alongside her famed powerful tumbling routines, scoring a full point higher than the next best. Her total winning score of 59.10 was by far the best of the night.
But Biles is cautious about what it all means, and what we might expect of her moving forward. “I’m not going to think so far ahead,” she said in the mixed zone after the meet. “I know everybody, when you get married, they ask when you’re having a baby. When you come to Classics, they’re asking you about the Olympics.”
Biles’s take is one that that the USWNT, its fans and (especially) its critics should pay attention to. Set aside expectations and take a moment to believe not just in the team, but rather the game. There’s more soccer to be played. Believe in it.
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