In her book entitled Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune, the author and academic Dr Tiffany Watt Smith argues that it is “part of how we cope with inferiority or our own failures”. She and others view it as a natural reaction. A study by the psychologist Mirella Manfredi from the University of Milano-Bicocca illustrated that your brain has decided you are going to laugh at, say, someone tripping over or even scoring three own goals in a football match whether you like it or not.
The latter happened to the New Zealand Women’s centre-back Meikayla Moore in the first half of their game with the United States in the SheBelieves Cup this week. A perfect hat-trick. As it turns out only one of them – the third – approached anything close to Jamie Pollock levels of hilarity. The others were just a bit unlucky – but nevertheless it is quite the achievement.
“A hat-trick of own goals. This is tremendous.” I tweeted. It didn’t go viral, I was a little behind. I didn’t come up with anything clever – such as Adam Hurrey’s “Does the match ball get to put her on its mantelpiece?”
Not everyone, however, found it funny. One correspondent quote-tweeted my post with the response: “Imagine suffering what is probably the worst day of your career and having people tweet about how tremendous it is for clicks. Expected better from you @maxrushden that player might well be in a dark place today. #BeKind #DoBetter”
My instant reaction to this was scorn. No one likes being told they’re wrong or unkind. No one likes being patronised to hashtag do better. Elite sport is brutal. There is no place to hide. People choose to do it. And it’s only a game. But did he have a point?
Clearly it wasn’t “tremendous” for the player. I hadn’t even considered her feelings in my haste to join to the latest viral moment – she looked distraught as she was substituted before half-time. And it’s quite hard to argue that any tweet is doing anything other than looking for clicks.
The first thing to address is the obsession with social media – and quite possibly my low-level addiction. What is my actual aim in posting this, or anything? The dopamine of retweets, a desire to be part of a conversation, a need to be ‘relevant’? I find myself in the baking aisle in the supermarket unable to remember what my wife has asked me to get seconds before because my mind is taken up wondering whether I am a bad person and whether/how I should respond to someone who expects better from me.
Second, is the reaction different because it’s a woman making a mistake (or three mistakes) on a football pitch? Had Harry Maguire done it – it’s always Harry Maguire in these hypothetical situations – would the response be the same? Lucy Bronze said after the last World Cup the increased scrutiny on the women’s game had come as a bit of a shock to the players. More eyeballs means more praise for England’s excellent showing in the Arnold Clark Cup, for the predatory instincts of Ellen White, and the unlikely goalscoring exploits of Millie Bright. But it surely also means we laugh when it’s funny.
That said, I haven’t been watching the SheBelieves Cup at all. So do I have the right to laugh about one moment from it? The difficulty here is that alongside the reasonable and considered responses on Twitter coming to my defence came those tedious and depressingly expected ones: seeing this clip as conclusive “proof” that the women’s game isn’t any good and that “you can’t laugh at anything any more”, while yelling snowflake in permanent caps lock at my correspondent. I don’t want to be the mouthpiece for that crowd. I don’t want to be on the Joe Rogan side of this culture war.
The question then remains whether it’s ever OK to laugh at own goals and gaffes. Maybe Danny Baker and Nick Hancock spent the 90s causing untold, unknown damage to Wayne Hatswell, Chris Brass and Peter Devine. Was You’ve Been Framed a hate crime? Should I stop watching that video of the gameshow contestant catapulting a watermelon into their own face from point-blank range?
We should consider the role social media plays in catapulting anything – not just watermelons – around the world so quickly. Even if Moore hasn’t turned on her phone or logged into Twitter or Instagram in the past few days she’ll know that the football world has seen the footage. She is known for that, and not for her previous 49 caps or her club career in Germany and now Liverpool, or her advocacy for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport.
On countless occasions, I’ve trotted out the cliche that footballers are human beings too – with emotions and feelings just like the rest of us – because, well, it’s true. And being human means footballers will act differently to this kind of thing – some will laugh it off, some won’t. You imagine that the mental fortitude to make it at this level helps. You hope Moore is surrounded by a supportive squad. I hope she gets promoted to the WSL with Liverpool and shines next season.
As Thomas Tuchel said of Romelu Lukaku: “It’s not the time to laugh about him and make jokes about him. He’s in the spotlight of course but we will protect him.” Yet I laughed heartily at his seven touches against Crystal Palace. If he starts on Sunday in the Carabao Cup final, you’d imagine Liverpool fans will count every touch he makes quite loudly.
I want to be kind, I want to do better, but I still want to laugh at own goals. Maybe it’s enough to just say my brain made me do it against my will. I resolve – again – to spend less time on Twitter. I reach for the banana bread cake mix, put it in my basket and head for the checkout.