EletiofeThe soccer players who must lose to sustain their...

The soccer players who must lose to sustain their Olympic hopes

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England's Lauren Hemp (left) and Scotland's Erin Cuthbert battle for the ball during the UEFA Women's Nations League Group A1 match at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland. Picture date: Friday September 22, 2023. (Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images)

England and Scotland players are foes in the Nations League but potential teammates on Team GB at the 2024 Olympics. (Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images)

If Erin Cuthbert would like to be a 2024 Olympian, her only hope is to go to Hampden Park on Tuesday and lose.

She is one of Britain’s best women’s soccer players, a midfield mainstay at Chelsea, the champions of England. She could snag a spot on Team Great Britain for the Paris Games — if, that is, the Brits can qualify. Their chosen national team enters the final day of its qualification group level on points with the Netherlands, but behind on goal differential. They will likely have to win, and win big, to top the group and reach a decisive semifinal.

And Cuthbert? She plays for their opponent, Scotland.

She and her Scottish teammates are at the center of an Olympic soccer quirk that has produced a ludicrous scenario. In all non-Olympic soccer competitions, the four “Home Nations” — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — compete independently, under separate football associations. At the Olympics, however, in all sports, they compete as one, under Team GB.

So, when they entered a new European soccer competition called the Nations League, which doubles as the Olympic qualification tournament, they were told to nominate one of their four teams to carry the Team GB flag and earn a place in Paris. They chose the top-ranked team, a recent World Cup finalist: England.

It was an obvious choice, and a relatively uncontroversial one — until the Nations League draw, which, in May, paired England in Group A1 with the Netherlands, Belgium and … Scotland.

UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, could have precluded this scenario. It already hand-makes rules to separate political rivals, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan. It could have introduced permutations to funnel England, Wales and Scotland into different groups. But it didn’t.

And so, over five fall games, Group A1 unfolded into a nightmare. England’s rousing comeback to beat the Netherlands on Friday left the Lionesses tied on points and the first three tiebreakers, but down by three on goal differential, with only two routes to a win-and-in Olympic playoff:

  1. Beat Scotland on Tuesday (2:45 p.m. ET) and hope the Dutch don’t beat Belgium (in a simultaneous game)

  2. Beat Scotland by at least four goals — three more than the Dutch margin of victory against Belgium

(England would then have to win its semifinal to clinch an Olympic berth. If it lost, but France won, England could also qualify Team GB by winning the third-place game — because France has automatically qualified. Europe gets two more slots.)

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - DECEMBER 04: Sam Kerr during a Scotland MD-1 training session at Hampden Park, on December 04, 2023, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Sam Kerr during a Scotland MD-1 training session at Hampden Park, on Dec. 4, 2023, in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Craig Foy/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Scotland, meanwhile, has already been eliminated and relegated. It is stuck in last place, with nothing to play for — except, perversely, the Olympics. Its only tangible incentive is to lose by as many goals as possible.

There are, of course, intangible incentives that counteract the awkwardness. There is sporting animosity between the two British neighbors. Many Scots would love nothing more than to undermine Team GB, which they rightly view as predominantly English.

The Scottish Football Association, in fact, has long opposed the entire “principle of Team GB.” Great Britain had never entered a modern Olympic soccer competition until London 2012. It pulled out amid controversy in 2016. When it sent a women’s team to Tokyo 2020, 19 of 22 rostered players were English; and they were led by the England coach.

Two of the 22, however, were Scottish. Though the premise remained controversial, Scottish officials realized they shouldn’t deny loyal athletes the chance to be Olympians. So Kim Little and Caroline Weir joined Team GB in Tokyo.

Weir recently tore her ACL, and might not recover in time for Paris. The team’s demographic composition in 2024, though, would likely be similar. Cuthbert would contend for a roster spot at a shallow position. Bayern Munich’s Sam Kerr might, too.

But first, they must lose. If they win or draw Tuesday, there’ll be no roster at all.

They almost surely won’t throw the game. Suggestions that they should or might are “so disrespectful,” Scotland captain Rachel Corsie said Monday. “It’s absolutely outrageous to question anyone’s integrity and it’s a huge insult to us.”

England coach Sarina Wiegman also downplayed the possibility. “I understand the conversations about it,” she said. “But if you have seen our group, and if you have seen Scotland, and if you know the history of Scotland and England, then there is no way that they are going to give away this game. They really want to beat England and we really want to beat them.”

Dutch coach Andries Jonker also sounded confident there’d be no unscrupulous behavior. “For whatever Scottish sportsperson, it’s an honor to beat the English,” he said Friday. “In women’s [soccer], it’s the same, in spite of the fact that a player like Erin Cuthbert would participate in a Great Britain team.”

He added, though, that this scenario “shouldn’t be possible.”

UEFA, responding to criticism, defended its apparent negligence in a Saturday statement that read, in part: “To prevent [British nations] from being drawn into the same group would fundamentally challenge established sporting draw principles and therefore impact the results of all other teams.”

That impact, though, is trivial. The real impact could be on Belgium and the Netherlands. At best, as Jonker said, the situation is “strange.”

But his message has been the same since the problematic draw in May: “I said to the players: ‘The only thing we can do is keep this in our hands.’ Straight away, it was annoying. But it wasn’t going to change.”

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