Why a total “thrashing” on the football pitch isn’t a defeat but a work of cruelty

The proper record for getting thrashed in an official match is held by Bon Accord of Scotland, who were stuffed 36-0 by Arbroath in 1885. 

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Result just in from Italy’s Serie C: Cuneo, 20; Pro Piacenza, 0. I haven’t had the chance to review the tapes yet, but I’m guessing Pro Piacenza will be disappointed with that. They may even be struggling to “take away the positives”. It was 16-0 at half time, apparently. No doubt, as he headed to the dressing room for what was set be to one of the more challenging mid-match team-talks of his career, Pro Piacenza’s manager was rehearsing the standard lost-cause battle cry: “Listen, lads, let’s go out and win the second half.” But they didn’t. They lost that as well.

Hang on a second, though, because Pro Piacenza don’t actually have a manager right now. Nor, according to the BBC website, do they have any money (the club reportedly hasn’t paid its staff since August). And they appear to be a bit light on players, too, having been abandoned during this downturn by most of the senior squad. Just a typical, heartwarming story of Italian football folk, in other words.

Still, 20-0. That’s quite a thrashing, even for a club in an evident state of emergency. At the same time, if it’s any consolation, 20-0 falls well short of the world record for a thrashing in professional football. And here we must move swiftly to strike out the claim of AS Adema, 149; SO l’Emyrne, 0 in Madagascar in 2002, because the defeated team on that occasion were in a bad mood about some previous refereeing decisions and spent the game kicking the ball into their own net, and that isn’t a football match. It’s a protest, or even a cry for help.

No, the proper record for getting thrashed in an official match in which one team (in so far as one can tell) hasn’t entirely capitulated is held by Bon Accord of Scotland, who were somehow stuffed 36-0 by Arbroath in the Scottish Cup in 1885 – less a defeat, more a carpet-bombing, with goals being conceded, on average, every two and a half minutes. Curiously, that very day, in the same competition and not far away, Aberdeen Rovers were contriving to lose 35-0 to Dundee Harp – a terrible, men-against-bollards-style hammering, no question, yet (double bummer) not quite terrible enough to win a place in the record books.

All of which brings Manchester City’s recent widely lauded 6-0 pummelling of Chelsea into perspective – although, actually, not that much perspective. Though 21 goals shy of a record, a 6-0 loss is still a thrashing, producing all of the concomitant effects. In that sense, the difference between 36-0 and 6-0 is actually quite marginal – a trivial matter of maths. Certainly, as he left the pitch, David Luiz, the Chelsea defender, looked like someone who had just spent an hour and a half being comprehensively hollowed out with a spoon. One hadn’t seen an expression so mortified on a footballer’s face since… well, since David Luiz left the pitch after Germany had unfeelingly reduced to rubble the Brazil team that he was playing for in the World Cup semi-final of 2014.

That match finished 7-1, again illustrating how a thrashing stops being football after a certain point and becomes instead a work of cruelty paving the way, in due course, only for therapy. On that theme, I can still recall, with almost 4K Ultra HD clarity, details from the worst clattering I was party to in my own admittedly relatively short career as a footballer: the merciless 10-1 annihilation dished out to Lexden County Primary by Kingsford County Primary in Essex in the 1970s. A dark day at the football club.

Then again, I can also blushingly report that the provider of Lexden’s solitary reply that Saturday morning was this writer (a speculative long-ranger that the goalkeeper sort of caught but then somehow spilled into his own net).

So when I say it was crushing in Essex, I can also report, at least at a personal level, being able to “take away the positives” – an ability to ignore the wider perspective that didn’t just have to do with being ten years old at the time. Indeed, my strong instinct is that if, during that recent match against Cuneo, Pro Piacenza’s striker had managed to scuff in a consolation goal in the dying seconds, making it 20-1 at the final whistle, he would have left the ground feeling quietly pleased with the way his afternoon had panned out. As people are fond of saying, there is no “I” in “team”. However, the word “me” is always in there, if you’re prepared to look hard enough.

Anyway, Gabriele Gravina, the president of the Italian Football Federation, has denounced Pro Piacenza’s 20-0 defeat as “an insult to the sport”, and that’s clearly the case. In football, the value of goals arises from the fact that they happen rarely, if at all. Accordingly, anything wider than a two-goal margin between the two teams and you feel that something essential in the sport has been violated.

And this is true, not just for one-sided humiliations, but for high-scoring games that are won only narrowly, thereby implying 360 degrees of incompetence – humiliation at both ends. By which we mean those matches that end 4-3 or 5-4, which are highly beloved of casual fans and television producers but are acknowledged by purists with some skin in the game to be the clown car of football results.

One recalls at this point how José Mourinho – back when he was still plausibly a figure of wit and authority – high-mindedly dismissed a 5-4 outcome in a game between Arsenal and Spurs as “a hockey score, not a football score”. Mourinho explained, “In a three-against-three training match, if the score reaches 5-4, I send the players back to the dressing room because they are not defending properly. So to get a result like that in a game of 11 against 11 is disgraceful.”

He’s right. And losing 20-0 isn’t much better. 

Giles Smith is a New Statesman columnist and previously wrote for the Times.

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State