Soccer’s Problem With Silver Medals

In all the photographs, there is one constant. In some of the images, Spain’s players stare at the ground, disconsolate, chewing over their loss to France in the final of the Nations League. In others, they give interviews, lead-faced and faintly forlorn. In one, Luis Enrique, their coach, offers respectful applause for his team’s conquerors.

But in all of them, Spain’s players have thin, navy blue ribbons draped around their necks. Each of the players had walked to the raised platform hastily constructed on the field after Sunday’s final at San Siro in Milan. Each of them had taken the medal offered to him. And each of them had carefully placed it around his neck.

That should not, of course, be especially noteworthy. In most sports, the athlete or the team that finishes second sees its silver medal as a source of pride. Occasionally, it might be with eyes glazed with tears. Sometimes, it is through gritted teeth. Often, it is with a lingering air of regret, a sense of what might have been. And it always takes the pain a little while to subside. Second — close, but no cigar — can hurt most of all.

Ferran Torres and Spain lost to France in Milan, 2-1.Credit…Franck Fife/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But only in soccer are silver medals treated as if they burn. Players and coaches frequently give the impression that they would rather not touch them at all. Last summer, the majority of England’s players made a point of refusing to wear the medals they had earned for finishing second in the European Championship.

A few weeks earlier, most of their counterparts at both Manchester City and Manchester United had conspicuously refused to don the tokens they had received after losing the Champions League and Europa League finals. José Mourinho has made a habit of disposing of any reminder he might have that he ever lost a major final.

This is, at a rough guess, a phenomenon that manifests very rarely outside soccer. The beaten finalist at a tennis major does not make a point, in front of the watching world, of handing whatever prize he or she has been awarded to a fan. Olympians do not regularly refuse to stand on the podium without their silver or bronze medals around their necks, nor do they hurl them into the crowd on their way out of the stadium/pool/velodrome/whatever the place where the horse disco takes place is called.

In fact, the scorn for silver medals is not even a feature of all soccer. In 2019, the Netherlands players who had just lost the Women’s World Cup final to the United States kept their medals. Many emerged from their locker room to speak to the news media, eyes still a little raw, with the bittersweet spoils of their wondrous, uplifting summer draped around their necks.

Even for teams used to winning it all, bronze can feel better than nothing.Credit…Andre Penner/Associated Press

Men’s soccer, though, seems to have embraced the idea that second is just first last and turned it into a dogma. Perhaps that is because of the message it sends: The act itself is, without question, somewhat performative, a little piece of theater, a flourish for the fans to demonstrate that nothing less than total victory will do.

Or perhaps it is because of the absolutism that drives so many of the defining characters in the men’s game. Plenty of the sport’s most successful managers have made a point of telling their players that they should not savor even their winners’ medals. Alex Ferguson, like Brian Clough and Bill Shankly before him, used to tell his squads that they should forget winning a league or a cup almost immediately, that it was to serve only as a springboard for further success. Soccer has long been consumed by a desire for dominion so intense that it is, when looked at in the cold light of day, just a little deranged.

And as much as Mourinho is too often, too easily blamed for all of modern soccer’s ills, it would not be desperately difficult to trace a line from some of his more public rejections of anything short of gold to a wider embrace of the practice, to believe that once he had made it clear that silver was not acceptable to him, it made it almost inevitable that others would follow. A coach who cherished second, after all, would seem somehow callow in comparison.

For José Mourinho, only finishing first will do.Credit…Peter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock

Why it came about, though, is perhaps less significant than what it implies.

It is curious how unrelated strands of loose narrative can coalesce. Last week, there was a minor commotion over Norwich City, the team rooted to the foot of the Premier League. A former player had wondered if Norwich added a vast amount to the league, what with the club’s insistence on being stable and sensible and cautious, all traits that act as synonyms for “boring” in the hyperbolic soap opera of England’s top flight. A couple of days later, Newcastle was bought by Saudi Arabia. Oh, no, sorry: by the sovereign investment fund of Saudi Arabia. The two are not linked. No, really.

Newcastle’s fans greeted the club’s new owners as its saviors. Their appeal lay not only in detaching Mike Ashley, the hated former proprietor, from the club, but in the promise of what the new owners might do: Lavish money on the team, propel it toward the summit of the Premier League, fulfill all of the ambitions and the dreams of the long-suffering — for a given value of suffering — fan base.

The juxtaposition of the two was curious. It was Newcastle, a team now owned for nonsporting purposes by what is most definitely not the financial arm of a nation state, that was portrayed as living some sort of fantasy. It was Norwich, a team which is run with a long-term plan, a clear vision and no little affection, that was having to justify its existence in the Premier League.

These are, of course, the wrong way around. Norwich should be held up as the aspirational model — in conception, if not in results — rather than Newcastle. But then this is a sport that disdains silver medals. It is not an industry, an ecosystem, that is adept at gauging comparative success, at understanding that there is not only one winner, and lots and lots of losers, but that lots of teams can win or lose depending on their own horizons. It is not a place that fully grasps the idea that the journey matters — give or take — as much as the destination.

It may well have been easier for Spain to take some small pleasure in the mementos the team was handed in Milan because of the circumstances in which they had been attained: in the final of the Nations League, a tournament that is just a step above an exhibition tournament. All athletes are competitive, but it is unlikely that Luis Enrique and his squad were experiencing the same sort of sorrow as England’s players at Wembley this summer.

But even so, perhaps it hints at a subtle shift in the landscape, away from the brutal, zero-sum belief that victory can take only one form and that everything else is therefore necessarily failure, abject and shameful. Sometimes, coming in second is an achievement in itself. Grasping that, you sense, might make the sport just a little healthier, just a little happier, as a whole.

Memory Plays Tricks on You

Lionel Messi was, perhaps, trying to save his friend’s feelings. He has known Sergio Agüero for years, and so, when Agüero asked why he had never won a Ballon d’Or, Messi picked his path delicately. He did not, for example, say, “You have not won it because I exist, and so does Cristiano Ronaldo.” Instead, he was a little more diplomatic. You win the Ballon d’Or if you win the Champions League, Messi told Agüero, according to the latter. His failure was linked to that of his team.

By Messi’s logic — and Messi knows a thing or two about winning the Ballon d’Or — that leaves only one winner this year. Four members of last season’s Chelsea team have been nominated, but only one of them won the European Championship, too. This should, by extension, be Jorginho’s year. (The women’s honor could go to any of the five nominees from the all-conquering Barcelona team that won the Champions League, but Alexia Putellas, as captain, seems the consensus pick.)

It is interesting to consider how that will look in hindsight. A particular rabbit hole opened up on Twitter this week in which fans debated the merits of the 2003 winner of the award: Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved. (Quite what spawns these hellmouths of unreason, and quite what draws you in, remains a mystery to me, but no matter.) Nedved was, it was decreed, undeserving, particularly in a year in which Thierry Henry had scored 32 goals in 56 games for Arsenal.

Pavel Nedved, in his prime, was a worthy winner.Credit…Carlo Ferraro/European Pressphoto Agency

That parallel is irrelevant, of course — Nedved was a midfielder, not a forward, so was not really employed to match Henry’s numbers — and it leaves out the context: Nedved pulled Juventus to the Champions League final and won Serie A. That season, Henry’s brilliance did not earn Arsenal a trophy.

It was not a shock, at the time, that Henry had not won it; if there was any player who had a greater claim than Nedved — regarded as one of the finest players of his generation — it was Andriy Shevchenko, the A.C. Milan striker who scored the winning penalty to claim the Champions League.

That it seems unusual now is, of course, testament to the cultural primacy of the Premier League; to Henry’s more enduring greatness, in comparison to Nedved’s; and, perhaps, to the nature of how we remember. Assessing individual contributions to team sports can be difficult — where Messi and Ronaldo are not involved, certainly — and so what lasts, as time passes and memories fade, are the numbers. And yet the numbers, as Agüero and Henry can testify, do not tell the whole story.

Long Road, Short Journey

The picture, now, is starting to drift into focus. We have the first two confirmed qualifiers for next year’s World Cup; predictable but sincere congratulations to Germany, which always qualifies easily, and a respectful raise of the eyebrow to a Denmark team that, it would appear, is now invincible. The rest of the field, meanwhile, is starting to take shape.

In Asia, it is hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia — four games, four wins — will not qualify. In South America, Brazil and Argentina can almost be taken as a given, but the identity of the two countries that will join them as direct qualifiers is much more intriguing. In North America, just a glimmer of a gap has opened up between Mexico, the United States and Canada and everyone else.

In Europe, there is a confected air to the fretting over whether France, Belgium and England will not qualify — they all will; stop worrying — but several of the other favorites face moderately stressful Novembers: Portugal, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands are by no means guaranteed automatic slots.

That leaves Africa — where the structure of qualifying makes the whole process unsatisfactorily arbitrary, but undeniably dramatic — and Oceania, where barely more than a year out from the tournament, qualifying has not even started.

It has already been pushed back twice because of the logistical challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic; the latest plan is to stage a qualifying tournament in Qatar next spring, though what format that will take — and whether clubs will release players to compete in it — has yet to be settled.

New Zealand, the regional heavyweight, had not played a game in almost two years before a pair of friendly victories against Bahrain and Curaçao in this international window. Quite how Danny Hay, the country’s coach, is supposed to forge a team capable not only of seeing off the rest of Oceania but then winning a playoff against a team from another confederation, scheduled for June next year, is not entirely clear. Hay has not lost hope. The last window’s friendlies, he said, were the “start of the road to the World Cup” for his team. Given the circumstances, it is hard to believe that is a road that will end in Qatar.


The traditional mix of the serious and the trivial in the emails this week, as this newsletter is careful to curate its shades of light and dark. We had dozens of communiqués regarding Newcastle United’s new ownership, including one from Bob Lovinger, who wondered if “England is worse than other countries when it comes to the characters bankrolling its sports teams?”

Worse — as it applies to the moral worth of ownership groups — is a value judgment, and not one that it would be fair to make. But in one sense, the word most definitely applies to England: The Premier League, in particular, has always made it clear that it is “ownership neutral,” and has taken great pride in it.

The league basically does not care who invests in its clubs, as long as they haven’t committed any particularly obvious recent crimes and have pockets bulging with money. That does not strike me as the best policy if you are even vaguely concerned about safeguarding what are — and what we are told are — precious social institutions.

In Newcastle, any new owner was good enough. A deep-pocketed one was better.Credit…Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

K.L. enticed me, meanwhile, with an articulate and perceptive opening statement on the “vital idea that sport is less about actually winning than creating an infrastructure that allows hope to flourish, no matter how improbable silverware might be. You may be creating a fiction, but if it is a fiction your fans can believe in, you’ve done your job.”

But K.L. lost me, just a touch, with the assertion that followed, regarding Newcastle’s abrogation of ambition under Mike Ashley. “Finishing 15th in the Premier League is objectively more important than winning England’s domestic cups, if the alternative to not finishing 15th is getting relegated.”

That is indisputable, of course, and it was very much the logic adopted by Ashley, but it has always struck me as a false parallel. There is no conclusive proof, as far as I am aware, of teams that take the domestic cups seriously being relegated more frequently. There is not even a compelling body of proof that it necessarily makes the difference between finishing 15th and 16th.

And an intriguing point from Paul Bauer: “I suspect the Premier League was going to find a way around the controversy of Saudi ownership, thinking if they did not allow it, the Saudis would likely go to other leagues with their money.”

This idea has been raised elsewhere, not least by one of the lawyers involved with the takeover, but I’m not sure it is reflective of how the Premier League thinks. The major leagues in the United States seem — at least from the outside — to think strategically and collectively much more naturally, and much more frequently, than the major soccer leagues of Europe. Plenty of the Premier League’s members have an unfortunate tendency to conflate the best interests of the league and their own best interests.

That was the serious stuff; the trivial comes in the form of the many enquiries as to the correct pronunciation of my name. It’s Roar-Ee — spelling it that way might actually be better — but just get as close as you can.

There were a couple of suggestions that perhaps this was not the best parallel — my name is apparently reasonably common, though I’m not sure children in Leeds in the 1980s saw it that way — and that using it was indicative of my own privilege. First off: It wasn’t necessarily a serious example. But, having thought about it, I’m not sure I buy the idea of privilege on this one.

Some names are hard for some people to say. That is universal; it cuts across creed and color and nationality and everything else. And I would have thought that accepting that is also universal. We should all make an effort, of course; I take great pride in putting my accents in the right places. But we should also make an effort to understand if people sometimes fall short.

The final word, this week, goes to Joe Bellavance. “I was prepared to fall out of my chair, laughing, when you signed off as ‘Greg,’” he wrote, reminding us all of another universal truth: that the best jokes are the ones you forget to make.

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