REIMS, France (REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST) - The shots came at Thailand’s goalkeeper from all directions, from too many red-shirted Americans to count.
On the pitch in front of besieged Sukanya Chor Charoenying, her teammates ran after the ball in vain, only to get dispossessed in the rare moments the defending champions let them touch it.
From the 12th minute of their Women’s World Cup Group F opener against three-time winners United States on Tuesday (June 11), Thailand, making only their second appearance at the event, were a goal down.
By the final whistle, it looked not so much like a match but some video compilation of scoring highlights that had taken human form in Reims, where a wildly partisan capacity crowd of 21,620 fans loved every minute of the rout.
The Thais suffered a 13-0 loss to the top-ranked US, whose players spun around in circles, slid across the pitch and did conga-line dances en route to setting the largest margin of victory in either the men’s or women’s World Cup.
Afterwards, opinion was split on whether the Americans should have so mercilessly punished their hapless opponents who wept at the full-time whistle.
Former US forward Taylor Twellman tweeted that the over-exuberant celebrations left a “sour taste” in his mouth, but Abby Wambach defended her former international teammates, claiming the criticism was sexist.
The retired record American goalscorer (184) tweeted: “For all that have issue with many goals: for some players, this is their first World Cup goal, and they should be excited... Would you tell a men’s team to not score or celebrate?”
Thailand manager Nuengrutai Srathongvian admitted that the scoreline was not harsh on her side as “we know that all (our) players’ experience cannot be compared with them (the Americans)”.
Her opposite number, Jill Ellis, also offered no apology and was puzzled by the line of questioning, noting that goal difference could determine qualification to the knockout stage.
“To be respectful to an opponent is to play hard against an opponent,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s my job to harness my players and rein them in. I respect Thailand. I celebrate that they’re here.
“I spoke to some of the players after, and said, ‘Keep your head up. It is part of the growth of the game’.”
But this is what expanded opportunity looks like – four years after Fifa expanded the field for the Women’s World Cup from 16 to 24 teams in 2015, with an eye towards building more interest in the women’s game around the world.
Over the course of the tournament, an upstart team may shock an established power.
But chances are, most of the squads ranked outside the top 30 – such as Thailand in 34th – will walk off the field humbled, perhaps to the point of tears, although South Korea lost 2-0 to Nigeria on Wednesday.
It reflects the fine line Fifa walks in trying to grow the women’s game by welcoming more nations onto its biggest stage, while keeping the competition credible.
Among those crying the hardest was Thai forward Miranda Nild, who was born and raised in California, the same state as US striker Alex Morgan, who scored five goals.
Through her tears, she called it “an amazing experience” to be able to play against the US in a World Cup match.
Nild, whose parents and “an insane amount” of friends and relatives had travelled for the game, added: “They’re the reigning champions for a reason. It was a cool experience and I’m glad we came.”