In soccer, perhaps more than in any other sport, teams don't have to play to win the game. It happens all the time: A team has already qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup and doesn't field its best players in its final group-stage game. Or perhaps a team that has already qualified actually wants to lose its final group game, so as to avoid meeting a more feared team in the knockout round.
Incentives to lose can be taken to extremes. Barbados deliberately scored on its own goal in a 1994 tournament against Grenada, and so did Vietnam in a 1998 tournament against Indonesia. (The Vietnamese player who clapped after scoring the game-losing own-goal was banned from the sport for life.)
But most play-to-lose scenarios aren't so extreme. In 2004, the U.S. under-23 team (with Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley) faced a situation in which a loss in its final Olympic qualifying group match against Honduras would have allowed the U.S. to avoid playing Mexico, the host, in a winner-take-all game for an Olympic berth. (Losing to Honduras would have brought a less-imposing matchup against Costa Rica.) But the U.S. coach, the late Glenn (Mooch) Myernick, couldn't fathom the idea of lying down on purpose, even to your own benefit. And so the U.S. beat Honduras ... and then lost to Mexico, missing out on an Olympic bid for the first time since 1976.
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, Bob Bradley could have benched his starters, and the U.S. players could have mailed in the game after going down 2-0 in the first half.
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, Oguchi Onyewu, for six months to a serious knee injury suffered late in the game.
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 Jonathan Bornstein's last-minute strike.
Besides, as U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley pointed out after the game, how could the U.S. not have played its hardest when the same U.S. team needed help from Brazil just to qualify for the Confederations Cup semifinals in June? Remember? To survive that night, the U.S. needed to beat Egypt 3-0 and have Brazil eliminate Italy by the same 3-0 score. Brazil only needed a tie for its own good, but that didn't keep the Brazilians from going up 3-0, didn't keep them from preventing the Italians from scoring even the one second-half goal that would have sent them to the semis at the expense of the Americans.
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.
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