Tuesday 20 August 2019

Poster girl refusing to back down

Morgan stands by much-criticised celebration in United States' thumping victory over Thailand

US star Alex Morgan came under fire for her exuberant celebrations against a hapless Thailand outfit. Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
US star Alex Morgan came under fire for her exuberant celebrations against a hapless Thailand outfit. Photo: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Jim White

The women footballers of the United States have long, in their quest for equal treatment, sought to be scrutinised. Nothing is more patronising, they have maintained, than not being scrupulously criticised about their shortcomings.

Well, last week in France the US players have had their wish fulfilled. The team have been caught up in a row which has nothing to do with pay, or the cut of their shorts, or crowd figures. But 'Celebrationgate' has been a proper World Cup ruckus, a controversy that has filled the airwaves with foam and fury.

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After their players got a touch overexcited during the 13-0 thrashing of Thailand on Tuesday, the criticism was more than a little scrupulous.

Several commentators, most of them by coincidence Canadian, called the Americans classless, clueless and lacking in decency. After all, they were playing a side whose goalkeeper was so short she would have trouble reaching the crossbar of a five-a-side goal. Syncopated dance celebrations for the 13th goal were widely dismissed as more than a touch disrespectful.

But what has surprised many of those who keep a close eye on the American women's team has been the identity of the player at the epicentre of the teacup storm: Alex Morgan. Because Morgan does not do controversy. At her peak at 29, already a World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist, Morgan is the poster girl for American women's football. Sleek, photogenic, invariably polite and helpful, she is a walking message of the positive outcomes available from playing the sport. Not least the financial ones: in addition to her $450,000 annual playing salary for the national team and Orlando Pride, she earns an estimated $3m from commercial tie-ins with sizeable corporations such as Nike, Coca Cola and Panasonic. This is a player promoting the dream.

Brought up in California, she preferred to concentrate on athletics and gymnastics. But a local football club coach sensed her potential and, within three years, she had won a soccer scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley.

The first UC graduate to be the top draft into the women's professional game, she made her international debut in 2010. And with that elevation came real opportunity: American women's football was looking for a symbolic figure to help replace the golden generation who had won the 1999 World Cup on home soil.

Within two years of turning pro, she had published a series of story books for preteen girls extolling the virtues of football. Called Kicks, they featured on The New York Times bestsellers list for the top teenage books.

Her only previous step into controversy was when, in 2016, she and four other players launched wage discrimination action against the US Soccer Federation. Her complaint was that women were being paid a quarter of the men's salaries, despite bringing in $20m more in commercial revenue every year. When the court ruled in her favour and a new deal was signed, Morgan was typically emollient.

"It felt very empowering because there is a whole issue going on in the country as far as equal pay and the fight for the gender pay gap," she said. "And I felt really happy with the agreement that we reached and the fact that we can now do what we came for and play soccer."

Everything about Morgan projects wholesome, all-American values. She trains hard, eats well, smiles for the camera. When she appeared in the annual Sports Illustrated swimwear edition, it was wearing a star-spangled banner arrangement, spray painted on to her torso.

There is no hint of impropriety in her life. Rather, married to long-time boyfriend Servando Carrasco, the Mexican footballer who plays for LA Galaxy, hers is one dedicated to the requirements of being a top sportswoman.

Which is why finding her in controversial circumstances is so unexpected.

Though the reason it happened is, in part, a corollary of her wholehearted approach. Against a hopelessly outclassed Thailand team last week she scored five goals. The third, in the speed and power of her shot and the dexterity of the drag-back that proceeded it, was revealing of her quality.

And she celebrated the fifth with gusto because she equalled the record of compatriot Michelle Akers for goals scored in a World Cup tie. Typically, Morgan did not hide after the controversy exploded. She made herself available to the press, speaking gushingly of why she had got so excited.

"For the celebrations - these are goals that we have dreamt of our entire life," Morgan said. "I couldn't have dreamt of scoring five goals for my country in a World Cup."

Not that she wanted to get embroiled in any row with those who had criticised her: "I'm happy just ignoring those comments."

As it happens, at the final whistle, Morgan made a point of consoling each of the Thai players, particularly the keeper Sukanya Chor Charoenying. The Thailand coach, Nuengrutai Srathongvian, was grateful that she took the time. "Her words will mean a lot," he said.

As a consequence of her goals, there will be a fascinating subplot in today's game with Chile. How will Morgan react to scoring, especially if she gets another hatful? It would be the most reckless of punters who would bet against her doing so. Thailand are 34th in the FIFA rankings, five places above Chile. One thing we can be sure of: however thin the opposition, when representing her country, Alex Morgan will not hold back.


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