Every good story needs a good villain, and the Women’s World Cup in France may just have discovered its very own.
There has already been plenty to cheer and celebrate around this tournament with unprecedented levels of coverage, ticket sales of close to a million and booming TV viewing figures.
But without a proper villain, heroes and heroines don’t get a chance to shine.
Step forward the all-conquering, swag-tastic US Women’s National Team.
The reigning champions and No.1 side in the world got straight down to business in its opener against Thailand – ranked 34 — with a record-breaking 13-0 win.
But it wasn’t so much the thumping score as the nature of celebrations that really caught the eye and lit up social media, TV panels and online commentary.
Alex Morgan, who bagged five goals in the mauling, was seen counting her goals on her fingers as she rattled them in.
Megan Rapinoe, playing her 154th game for USWNT and scoring her 45th goal, sprinted to the sidelines and indulged in a pre-planned celebration set piece as she scored the USA’s ninth against the Thai part-timers.
Wilder celebrations followed — but so did accusations across the globe of classlessness, lack of sportsmanship and disrespect, most notably from USA’s northern rivals, ex-Canadian national team stars Clare Rustad and Kaylyn Kyle.
“This was disgraceful for the United States,” Rustad said. “I would have hoped they could have won with humility and grace, but celebrating goals eight, nine, 10 like they were doing was really unnecessary.”
Kyle added: “I’m all about passion, but as a Canadian we would just never ever think of doing something like that.
“For me it’s disrespectful, it’s disgraceful. Hats off to Thailand for holding their head high on their first time on a World Cup stage.”
USWNT captain Rapinoe was unapologetic for the celebratory scenes, telling Fox Soccer: “I think our only crime was an explosion of joy last night. We’ve been pretty pent up, as well. We’ve had kind of a heavy lead-up, obviously everything off the field. … So, if our crime is joy, then we’ll take that.”
A wider conversation around equality and whether these accusations would’ve been leveled at a men’s team celebrating wildly followed, which were quickly countered by many pointing to the 2014 Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico where Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirtless flexing at 4-1 was widely ridiculed.
But whatever side of the debate you land on, what’s undoubted is the attention and – most importantly — passion this has stirred up around the Women’s World Cup.
Yes, the coverage and focus has been markedly improved on previous years, but you can’t force hype — and that’s exactly what this USWNT has generated.
Whether it’s cast as the swaggering all-stars crushing all in their path, or the crass American bullies, what’s important is that they have now created a narrative which drives all top-level sport, and the heat surrounding the team can only serve to heighten interest in this competition.
As England star Toni Duggan points out, a lack of real atmosphere around the women’s game is one of the crucial hurdles it needs to overcome if it’s going to complete at the same level as the men’s.
Recalling her experience in Spain where her Barcelona side traveled to Atletico Madrid for a league fixture, she told The Guardian: “There’s a picture of me celebrating and behind me there’s actually a man putting one finger up.
“I’m not promoting that or saying it’s a good thing but it kind of showed what it meant. You could feel the passion in the stadium that day. It was a real atmosphere, it was a massive game and it was only a league game.
“In Spain there’s a lot more publicity … when we’re successful we’re front page of the newspaper – every newspaper and the big ones, Marca and others – but then also when we lose we’re slated. That’s the level the game is at. It’s the same as the men’s — that’s how we’re treated there.”
The USWNT have put themselves front and center of soccer panel shows, social media debate, and a simple Google search puts the match as the most written about fixture in the World Cup so far after just one day, surpassing England vs. Scotland.
Team USA may have won themselves few fans with their antics on Tuesday, but what they did for the narrative of the tournament has proven to be the biggest PR generator the women’s game could have hoped for.
After all, everybody loves a good villain.