From the 12th minute of its World Cup opener against the defending champion United States on Tuesday, Thailand played one goal down. Then two. Then three. The match wasn’t even half over, and the deficit more than doubled in the catastrophic first 11 minutes of the second half.
Soon, it was double digits, the proceedings looking not so much like a match but some spliced-together video compilation of goal-scoring highlights that had taken human form at Stade Auguste-Delaune
in this historic city northeast of Paris, where a wildly partisan capacity crowd of 18,591 sang, chanted, cheered and waved U.S. flags.
When time mercifully expired, Thailand had suffered a 13-0 defeat to the world No. 1 United States, whose players jumped in one another’s arms, spun around in circles, slid across the pitch and did conga-line dances en route to setting a World Cup record for margin of victory.
And the Thai players wept.
This is what expanded opportunity looks like.
Or, at least, it was one of the many faces of expanded opportunity four years after FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, expanded the field for the Women’s World Cup from 16 to 24 teams in 2015, with an eye toward building more interest in the women’s game around the world.
Over the course of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, which concludes July 7 in Lyon, an upstart team from a nation that only recently started financing its women’s national squad may shock an established power, touching off a soccer-crazed celebration at home.
But odds are, most of the squads ranked outside the top 30 — such as Thailand, currently 34th — will walk off the field humbled, perhaps to the point of tears.
It reflects the fine line FIFA walks in trying to encourage growth and investment in the women’s game by welcoming more nations onto its biggest stage, while keeping the competition credible.
After Tuesday’s record defeat, among those crying hardest was forward Miranda Nild, who was born and reared in Castro Valley, Calif., and was a standout for the University of California — as was U.S. striker Alex Morgan, who scored five of the Americans’ 13 goals.
Through her tears, Nild called it “an amazing experience” to be able to play against the United States in a World Cup.
“They’re the reigning champions for a reason,” said Nild, whose parents and “an insane amount” of friends and relatives had traveled from California for the match. “It was a cool experience, and I’m glad we came.”
In the exchange of handshakes and congratulations that followed the match, Morgan sought out Nild and put an arm around her — not to console, but to encourage.
“I told her that it’s a dream of all of ours to play in a World Cup,” Morgan recounted. “She has at least three games, and this is Game 1. She still has two games to showcase herself, get some goals. She is living out a dream that most girls and women don’t get to. I hope she took that and is able to turn it around for the next game.”
Thailand’s coach said her team would learn from the experience.
“Playing the United States is not easy, and we know that we have to improve in every aspect and improve in our mentality,” Nuengrutai Srathongvian said. “We know that all [our] players’ experience cannot be compared with them.
The 24-team field in this year’s Women’s World Cup includes seven teams ranked outside the top 30. Among those seven, three nations are making their World Cup debut: Chile (39th), South Africa (49th) and Jamaica (53rd), and all face a tough slog to advance beyond the group stage.
Thailand is making its second appearance in a World Cup and narrowly missed advancing in 2015. It was the only team to win a game during the group stage (defeating Ivory Coast) yet not advance. Its downfall was goal differential after suffering 4-0 losses to Germany and Norway.
Thailand’s goal at this World Cup is to show improvement — ideally, to advance to the round of 16 and, regardless, build interest in soccer among the kingdom’s youth.
Thailand’s national men’s soccer team, the War Elephants, has never qualified for the World Cup.
Its women’s team, however, was met by enthusiastic supporters at the airport last year after its fourth-place finish in the Asian Cup in Amman, Jordan
, clinched a berth in the 2019 World Cup.
Explained Sutthiporn Boonyapuganna, the Thai team’s press officer: “The female team brings the power and the pride to the fans.”
The priority of Thailand’s football association, Boonyapuganna said, is to develop soccer at the grass-roots level, through its under-10 and under-12 youth leagues. The association also recently opened a high-performance center in Bangkok and is developing women for leadership jobs in the association.
And although Thailand’s chief Olympic success had come in boxing and women’s weightlifting, much of the nation was expected to tune in at 2 a.m. to watch Tuesday’s World Cup opener against the defending champions.
Thailand wasn’t expected to fare well.
The team had lost 11 of its 12 previous matches, its past five defeats by a combined score of 17-4.
Its coach acknowledged a considerable disadvantage in size the day before the match, adding that she expected Thailand’s speed to compensate.
No amount of speed could help Thailand’s overwhelmed, 5-foot-5, 31-year-old goalkeeper against the American’s offensive barrage. And the speed of the other players — seven of whom were 5-3½ or shorter — wasn’t a factor against a U.S. squad that controlled the ball 76 percent of the first half and, in the second half, swapped out one multi-goal scorer for another.
U.S. Coach Jill Ellis offered no apology afterward for the margin of victory and seemed puzzled by the line of questioning, noting that goal differential is among the criteria in World Cup advancement, as are such factors as confidence, camaraderie and getting off to a strong start.
“To be respectful to an opponent is to play hard against an opponent,” Ellis 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.’ ”