Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 2, 2015

For Laura Bassett And England, The Other Outcome

Move over Vinko Bogataj, because after 45 years you’ve finally got company. It was in March 1970 that Bogataj, who had just turned 22, came down the ramp of a ski jump at an international event in Oberstdorf, Germany. It was his third jump on a day that featured steady snow, and halfway down the Slovenian realized that he was building up too much speed on the ice-slickened ramp. An attempt to stop failed spectacularly as he lost his balance and rocketed off the end of the ramp, tumbling and flipping wildly through the air with skis and arms akimbo as stunned spectators looked on in horror.

As awful as the accident appeared, Bogataj wound up suffering only a mild concussion after crashing through a retaining fence at the edge of the landing area. Given that good fortune, the incident would be long forgotten and a ski jumper whose career best finish was 57th place at an event one year earlier would have faded into obscurity but for the fact that a camera crew from the popular ABC television program Wide World of Sports was filming that day.

Sports fans of a certain age know the dramatic lines that opened every Wide World episode by heart. As a montage of sporting events flashed on the screen and to the accompaniment of a musical fanfare, host Jim McKay intoned “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat; the human drama of athletic competition. This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!” Over the show’s decades-long run numerous moments of triumph flashed on television screens as examples of victory; but after that snowy March day in Germany Vinko Bogataj’s ill-fated jump became the permanent symbol of the agony of defeat.

It was impossible not to think of that familiar line Wednesday evening while watching the tight Women’s World Cup semifinal match between Japan and England come to its heart-breaking conclusion. England’s Lionesses were not expected to still be playing by this point in the World Cup. Though 6th in the current FIFA women’s rankings, England had never won a Knockout Stage match in four previous World Cup appearances. In contrast Japan, ranked 4th in the world, is the defending champion from 2011. Germany and the United States, the other two semifinalists, are ranked 1st and 2nd respectively and each has claimed two of the prior six championships.

But the English women finished second in Group F behind France to advance, and then defeated Norway and host Canada to move to the semifinals. After their initial Group Stage loss by a score of 1-0 to France, the Lionesses had won four straight matches by identical 2-1 scores. On the pitch in Edmonton, England was unable to match the fluid passing offense of Japan; but while the favorites dominated possession, they could not break through a tight and well-organized English defense.

Japan scored first midway through the first half, as Aya Miyama converted a penalty kick after Saori Ariyoshi was pushed from behind by Claire Rafferty. But just seven minutes later England was awarded a penalty kick of its own, and Fara Williams’s shot found an opening between Japan’s diving goaltender and the left post. The 1-1 tie remained throughout the second half, and when the officials put up the sign announcing three minutes of stoppage time as regulation ended, the match seemed destined for at least overtime and very possibly penalty kicks to achieve a resolution.

Then with less than 90 seconds to play Japan broke out of its own end and Nahomi Kawasumi sent a crossing pass from the right flank into the box toward Yuki Ogimi. Two strides behind Ogimi, 31-year old Laura Bassett extended her right foot in a desperate attempt to deflect the pass away from the streaking attacker. Instead she caught the ball flush, and it flew into the air and straight toward the top of the goal, out of reach of English goaltender Karen Bardsley.

Had the trajectory been a foot higher the ball would have sailed over the goal and out-of-bounds. Even a few inches of greater loft and it would have bounced off the crossbar and back into the field of play, where Bardsley might well have been able to corral it. But Bassett and England were not fated to escape with such a near miss. On this day devastation was their doom. The ball struck the underside of the crossbar and bounced down into the goal, landing a clean yard past the line. Bassett had scored an own goal, giving Japan a 2-1 lead.

The 32,000 in the stands and fans around in the world watching on television were still trying to absorb the shock of the moment when final time was called. As Japan’s players began to celebrate the improbable victory that had been gifted to them, Bassett collapsed face down on the turf as her teammates stood in disbelief at the vicious turn of events. Then came the tears, and for Bassett especially they would not stop. Long minutes after the match ended she stood hunched over, still wracked by sobs even as coaches and other players made heartfelt but utterly futile efforts to console her. Eventually she was helped off the field, her shirt pulled over her head, for in that awful moment surely she did not want to see the light of day ever again.

Bassett has been playing in England’s top women’s professional league since the age of 14, and with the national team since 2003. In England’s opening match against France at this year’s World Cup she sustained a black eye after being elbowed in the face. Her French opponent wasn’t penalized, and Bassett inspired her teammates by playing on, later saying “If you are not hurt you don’t stay down.” In the wake of Wednesday’s shocking denouement, her teammates and other soccer players both male and female rallied to support her. Even the English tabloids, famously capable of ugly stuff, were sympathetic.

But the reality is that the tragic moment is one that she will have to live with forever. It need not, and certainly should not, define her. But it will never disappear. In a sudden sad moment on a soccer pitch out in western Canada, sports fans were reminded of the reality that Jim McKay told us about every Saturday afternoon for so many years. We praise our heroes and honor our legends. We salute our champions and glorify victory. But in every one of our games, there is always the other outcome.

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Responses

  1. I saw the replay of the ending. What a horrible way to end a championship run. I do feel bad for her, and for the Brits in general.
    Wonderfully empathetic and evocative writing.
    -Bill

    • Thanks very much Bill. I was watching it live, and it was gut wrenching. We are all used to seeing dramatic finishes, but normally even if there is a goat there is also a hero. It was staggering stuff.

      Thanks again,

      Mike

  2. ouch —the agony of defeat — great piece, Michael

    • Thanks Burt. Great show last night.

      M-


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