The whistle blows to start the match in the Valorio stadium in Zamora, northwestern Spain. The Amor de Dios team opens some space down the wing and a forward hanging in the middle of the area bangs the ball into the goal. The game is not yet a minute old. The second minute comes and the second goal hits the back of opponent C. D. B. Virgen de La Concha’s net. The under-sevens soccer group has yet to win a single game in its league, and neither does it triumph in this encounter, going down either 1-26 (according to this journalist’s count) or 1-21 (according to the referee).
Many people see such thrashings as cruel and humiliating at a level where the key thing is for children to have fun
What have the players from both sides learned from this experience? What lessons have they received from their parents, many of whom spent the whole time making jokes or having a go at the referee over an offside decision when their sons were already winning by 11 goals?
Spanish soccer is so far resisting introducing rules, already common in other sports, to try to prevent such extreme results. Many people see such thrashings as cruel, humiliating and out of place at a level where the important thing is for children to “develop basic motor skills, have fun and spend time with their friends,” according to Wade Gilbert, an expert in junior sports at California State University, Fresno. In the United States so-called mercy or slaughter rules are common in most junior sports, even in high-school leagues and, in the case of baseball, up to college level.
How to keep the score down
- Stop the match. In many junior sports, matches end when the scoreline reaches an extreme margin. For example, 10 runs in baseball or 10 goals in US soccer matches.
- Stop counting. After a certain margin is reached, the clock is stopped and the score is no longer counted, but the match continues.
- Do not record the results. A similar method is to omit huge goal margins from league tables. This is currently applied in junior matches in Asturias and Cádiz, and may be extended to the rest of Andalusia and Cantabria.
- Add an extra player. In junior soccer games in Shanghai, if a team starts winning by more than five goals, the other can ask the referee to freeze the score and to play with an extra player. Further goals are not added to the scoreboard but do go towards a player's end-of-season tally.
- Special scoring. Spanish Handball Federation rules establish that junior matches are divided into two halves. The team that scores the most goals in the first half earns one point, as does the team that scores the most goals in the second, thus games can only end 0-0, 1-0, 1-1 or 2-0.
- Punishments. In some cases sports federations have introduced fines. The Northern California Federation Youth Football League hands out $200 fines and two-week suspensions to coaches of American football teams that win by more than 35 points in its seven-to-13-year-olds' league.
In Spain such rules exist in junior handball and basketball leagues – in under-13 basketball games, points are no longer added to the scoreboard once a team gets more than 50 ahead – but are much less common and far reaching in soccer. In Asturias and Valencia, for example, wins of a margin greater than 10 goals are not recorded in league tables; Catalonia once had a similar rule, but withdrew it at the request of the clubs. In most regions, however, no such regulations are in place.
Goal averages serve to sort out ties at the end of each season and children like battling it out to be top scorer, explains a spokesman from the Castilla y León Soccer Federation. “Any sportsperson has to be hungry to compete, to win,” he notes.
“Soccer is the sport of kings in Spain and what we like is competition,” adds Cantabria Soccer Federation President José Ángel Peláez. “The problem is the parents don’t want to watch sport; they want to win.”
Peláez has proposed introducing rules for the youngest players in the region, such as splitting up groups to make competitions more equal, placing limits on the number of goals scored in published results, and removing goal averages as a way of deciding between teams tied on points at the end of a season.
“You have to stop the kids from getting downhearted and hating sport. It’s not about preventing these kinds of result, because they are going to happen; there are a lot of inequalities between teams,” he adds.
Mercy rules have always had their opponents, even in the US, where they are firmly established. Many parents and coaches consider them counterproductive because they discourage effort, distort the essence of competition, send children the wrong message about the harsh realities of life, and can even be humiliating for the losing team.
In California the controversy hit the headlines in 2013 when the Northern California Federation Youth Football League decided to start dishing out $200 fines and two-week suspensions to coaches of American football teams that won by more than 35 points in the seven- to 13-year-olds’ league.
Many parents were furious, as were some coaches, who defended the importance of the integrity of the game and the vital lessons taught by knowing how to lose, even when it came in the form of a thrashing. Nevertheless, federation chief Bill Fox defended the mercy rules: “Bottom line, this is about players having fun,” he argued, adding that many youngsters give up sport when they suffer such massive defeats.
But there is a point midway between the two, explains Wade Gilbert, who argues that coaches are in the best position to handle unequal games to stop them descending into cruelty, without the need for mercy rules. This is the approach several regional Spanish federations, such as Castilla-La Mancha and Catalonia, are considering.
Such an approach was once taken as a given, believes educationalist Juan Antonio Planas, but changing attitudes means he now thinks it ought to be set down in writing. “The norm used to be that [such rules] were implied and did not need to be regulated. But given that excessive competitiveness and, sometimes, contempt for the opponent are on the rise, regulation is required.”