Abby Wambach: Is the U.S. Women's World Cup star a jerk, or not?

World Cup Jerkwatch: Is Abby Wambach the Greatest Jerk in American Soccer History?

World Cup Jerkwatch: Is Abby Wambach the Greatest Jerk in American Soccer History?

The Spot
Slate's soccer blog.
June 25 2015 6:01 PM

World Cup Jerkwatch: Is Abby Wambach the Greatest Jerk in American Soccer History?

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Abby Wambach doing her thing against Colombia in the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Name: Abby Wambach

Justin Peters Justin Peters

Home country: USA

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Known for: Captaining, complaining, being hard-headed

Why she might be a jerk: The U.S. women’s national team won a tough round of 16 World Cup match on Monday, defeating Colombia 2–0 in a game that saw team captain Abby Wambach botch a penalty kick against a third-string goalkeeper and get caught in an offside position for what might have been an easy goal. Instead of being happy to walk away victorious from a game her team could conceivably have lost due to her ineptitude, Wambach publicly theorized that a French referee may have been conspiring against the USWNT when she awarded yellow cards that will force two other U.S. stars to sit in Friday’s quarterfinals (the French team is in the same half of the bracket as the Americans):

I don't know if they were yellows. It seemed like [French referee Stephanie Frappart] was purposefully giving those yellows to maybe players that she knew were sitting on yellows. I don't know if that was just a psychological thing, who knows. Who knows.

The only thing worse than a sore loser is a sore winner. And the only thing worse than a sore winner is a sore winner who blames externalities for dragging down the team while failing to realize that she’s actually the one doing the dragging. Wambach has been slow and bad during this year’s World Cup, and while you can’t blame an athlete for getting old, you can blame her for not realizing it, especially when her self-denial works to the detriment of a team built offensively around her.

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Sportsmanship aside, the claim that the ref was out to get the Americans is bogus—the U.S. was awarded two penalty kicks in the game and Colombia had a goalkeeper sent off. Also, it wasn’t the first time at this tournament that Wambach had blamed external factors in a way that distracted from her own poor performance: After missing multiple headers in the team’s first two games, Wambach said she would have scored, but she didn’t want to lay out her body on the artificial turf. (The turf problem is a legitimate issue, and one that arugably indicates sexism at FIFA, given that the men’s World Cup is played on real grass. But when Wambach mentioned it, the time for using it as an excuse had already passed.) Anyway, not only were her conspiratorial comments inartful and lacking self-awareness, they also placed her at risk of her own suspension ahead of the crucial game against China.

Wambach had already left her club team in the lurch earlier this year when she abruptly announced during training camp that she was going to skip the season in order to train for the World Cup. That’s a pretty jerky move, but it would’ve been understandable if Wambach planned to devote all her time to some intense training regimen involving, like, hyperbaric tents and ultramarathoning. Instead, according to the New York Times, Wambach’s World Cup preparation apparently consisted of running around her neighborhood, playing pickup games at the Nike complex in Oregon, and playing golf. This is the training routine of a retired person, and is somewhat comparable to the pre-World Cup activities that saw men’s star Landon Donovan left off of the U.S. men’s World Cup team in 2014.

Wambach has been open about how her “emotional devotion” to soccer declined after her marriage to girlfriend Sarah Huffman. It’s admirable to admit that you’re not as committed to something as you once were. It’s sort of jerky to then keep on doing that same thing anyway, only in a less-capable, more half-assed manner, especially when there are plenty of other qualified players out there who would love an opportunity to play on the world’s biggest stage.

In that same Times article, Wambach portrayed herself as the only player on her team willing to take the big risks needed to be great. “Why do you think I score?” she asked Jeré Longman:

“Because people are a little bit scared,” she said, referring to the pressure. “They’re like: ‘I’m going to pump that ball up to Wambach, see what happens. I don’t want to play this little 5-yard ball, because if I pass it and it gets picked off and we get scored on, then it’s my fault.’ The nerves and stress make people play a little more direct, make them play a little ‘Let’s just pump the ball in there; this is a safer play.’ And I just make stuff happen.”

On Monday, Wambach shanked a penalty kick that she should have made after having blown an earlier scoring opportunity. Sure, Wambach is an all-time great, and sure she scored one goal at this tournament. But these days she most resembles that really loud, annoying, over-the-hill superstar whose mouth writes checks that her abilities can’t cash.

Why she might not be a jerk: If Wambach is a jerk—and I’m not convinced that she is—it’s in a very different manner than the other jerks I’ve featured. When Hope Solo acts like a jerk, she is basically just saying “I am a mess.” When Edwin Okon does it, he’s saying “I am overmatched.” Abby Wambach’s purportedly jerky behavior is basically just her saying “I am an intense competitor who wants to win.” And there are a lot of professional athletes who fit that mold. Perhaps the famous sports jerk she most resembles is the notoriously aggro Kobe Bryant, who, like Wambach, is also getting old and bad and isn’t dealing with it particularly well. The line between “competitor” and “jerk” is thin, and if Wambach’s demeanor seems more annoying now that she’s not as good as she once was, well, at least she’s not going around calling her teammates “Charmin Soft” and gratuitously yelling at Jeremy Lin. Also, to Wambach’s credit, she later apologized for questioning the referee’s integrity, saying “that is something I take ownership of and apologize for because I don't know what the referee is thinking.” Finally, I’d just like to point out that Wambach is responsible for the classic YouTube video “Abby Wambach Hits Guy Carrying Hot Dog.” That might actually be evidence that she is a jerk, but I like to think that Guy Carrying Hot Dog had it coming. Take that, Guy Carrying Hot Dog!

Jerk score: I’ll give her 2 out of 3 for style, based on her teammates' descriptions of her intensely awkward pregame motivational speeches. 1 out of 3 for technique, because no conspiracy theory these days is truly complete without a reference to WTC7. 1 out of 3 for consistency, because a true jerk would have also eaten the guy’s hot dog. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “Did I train for the Women’s World Cup by playing golf?” 5 out of 10 for Abby Wambach.