In soccer, perhaps more than in any other sport, teams
Incentives to lose can be taken to extremes. Barbados deliberately scored on its own goal in a 1994
But most play-to-lose scenarios aren't so extreme. In 2004, the U.S. under-23 team (with
Some people called it a failure, faulting Myernick for being naive. But it was a victory for fair play, a triumph for the spirit of the game.
Which brings us to 2009. On Oct. 14, the U.S. national team, which had already qualified for the World Cup, had a "meaningless" final Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. As many coaches around the world no doubt would have done,
But Bradley played his top guys, and the U.S. refused to roll over, coming back to score the equalizer in the 95th minute for a 2-2 tie.
Was it worth it for the Americans? Pragmatists might say no. After all, the U.S. lost its best centerback,
Yet Onyewu's injury highlights the point even more: You play to win the game. Fair play matters in sports, and once we lose that we lose something that's bigger than any injury. That 2-2 tie may have been "meaningless" for the U.S., but it most certainly was not for Costa Rica, which lost an automatic World Cup bid with the final U.S. goal, or for Honduras, which landed its first World Cup berth since 1982 on
Besides, as U.S. midfielder
If the U.S. doesn't get help from Brazil, then the Americans don't beat world No. 1 Spain and reach the first global FIFA tournament final in the history of American men's soccer.
So maybe there's some karma involved. If you play to win the game when you don't need to, other teams may do the same for your benefit. And if you defy the fair-play gods, then you deserve whatever bad luck may come your way.
Plenty of teams are willing to do that, though. Which is why I'm giving my 2009 Sportsmen of the Year award to the U.S. and Brazilian soccer teams -- and any others that always play to win the game.