Tiffany Sornpao’s unique road to playing for Thailand in 2019 Women’s World Cup

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Some young players would be frustrated and discouraged to be sidelined at the world’s biggest soccer stage, but 21-year-old goalkeeper Tiffany Sornpao is not one of them. That’s because her road to becoming a member of Thailand’s women’s national team is a tad unusual.

“My dad took a gamble and sent my stats and highlights of my previous college season [to the Thailand team], he told them ‘hey, she’s half Thai, she is interested’,” Sornpao told NBC Sports. “Luckily they replied and ask me to come in and try out.”

So, Sornpao decided to seek her fortune in a foreign land.

“I was pretty nervous. I didn’t really know what to expect at the national level, but I really had nothing to lose,” she said. “I either made the team or had to come back and keep training.”

For Sornpao, who has experienced the rigors of playing NCAA Division I soccer at Kennesaw State University, the intensity of the national tryouts did not come as a surprise. It was the camaraderie and unity of the team during this competitive time that truly stood out to her.

“I was really shocked, coming in [to a team] there’s always competition even though it’s a team, but the first week I was there they just welcomed me and guided me [in the right direction].”

Shortly after tryouts, Sornpao was called up for international duty.

After the FIFA Women’s World Cup draw, the Thailand women’s national team was put in Group F along with Sweden, Chile and the United States. Thailand’s opening match was against the USWNT, which everyone knew would be daunting. Some even questioned if Thailand would have made it to the world stage if it wasn’t for North Korea’s troubles back in 2015, when the team was banned from the World Cup after five players tested positive for steroids.

Nevertheless, the Thai weren’t looking for a free pass, and this year, more than ever, they were prepared to face adversity.

“We knew from the start that the U.S. was going to be a challenging game because of their history. [We know] they’re a very good team. So, it was more about going in confident and taking everything we practice and try to perfect it within the game,” Sornpao said.

Even though Thailand was not competitive against the U.S., losing 13-0 in the biggest defeat in World Cup history, the loss gave the team a useful lesson.

“A big thing with us is that the Thai team doesn’t get much of a chance to explore and play many outside countries other than within Asia,” Sornpao said. “So, I think a big issue is the lack of experience against European teams and the U.S. I think a big issue was preparation.”

The lopsided score of the Group F opener in the 2019 Women’s World Cup became a controversial topic of discussion. Many people questioned the sportsmanship of the U.S. team after celebrating each one of their goals, but that wasn’t the case for the Thai.

“It was more comforting to have them appreciate every goal that they scored rather than just making it seem like it was an easy pass into the net,” she explained.

For Sornpao, this level of soccer was a reality check. “Being on Thailand’s team and coming from the States has opened my eyes to all the different advantages and disadvantages these countries go through,” she said.

More than anything, Sornpao now has a deeper appreciation for the resources and support that the United States has. “The Thai team has a disadvantage by not having these things [technology]. But even then, they’re still in the World Cup, so it is very comforting to see development,” Sornpao explained.

But the lack of proper investment was not the only challenge for the Thailand team. For the players, personal finances were another obstacle to overcome. Nualphan Lamsam, the team’s now former general manager, tried to take this issue into her own hands.

Lamsam, also the chief executive of one of Thailand’s largest insurance companies, resorted to employing players as sales representatives for the company, and continued to compensate them during the season, so they could concentrate on the game.

Lamsam and coach Nuengruethai Sathongwien resigned following Thailand’s disastrous showing at the world stage, but Sornpao still aims to make an impact with Thailand’s team down the line.

“I’m seeing how they build from this World Cup. They’ve gotten so much help and so much recognition that I think helping them develop and expand would be great,” she said.

As for what’s next for Sornpao, she is excited to bring what she learned from her World Cup experience back to her team at Kennesaw State, where she plans to play for the next two seasons, before trying to pursue her dreams of turning pro.

Vin Scully and Bill Russell: Essential voices lost


Over a duration of roughly 48 hours from Sunday evening until Tuesday evening, the voices of first, Bill Russell, and then Vin Scully, were stilled for eternity. This does not mean that we will never hear them again; we surely will. Search, click, listen. ‘Little roller up along first…‘ Search, click, listen. ‘I would kick your ass…’ But those voices will no longer evolve with the world around them, as they once did splendidly and importantly, though very differently – Scully’s mellifluously and comfortably, Russell’s stridently and relentlessly – across lives that lasted 182 years in total. They were voices that carried the weight of history in very different receptacles, but imprinted themselves on generations.

The swift unfolding and discarding of information in our time will quickly and efficiently hasten both men from concurrently celebrated and mourned to concurrently shuffled to the broad expanse of history, where the elegantly faded relevance of a long life shifts inexorably to the hazy equity of legacy. Because this is what the present does to the past, and always has, although more ruthlessly nowadays, where delivery systems pass today’s news into yesterday’s more efficiently than ever. (A process that will only become more efficient).

They were born seven years apart, Scully in 1927 – the peak year of the Ruth-Gehrig Murderers’ Row Yankees – in the Bronx; Russell in the Jim Crow South (Monroe, Louisiana) in 1934, before moving to Oakland at age nine. Their lives would in many ways be tethered to their beginnings (as are all of ours), likely in ways they didn’t comprehend until well into adulthood (same) but embraced both gently (Scully) and forcefully (Russell). They were products of their beginnings, their races, and their chosen professions. In this same way, Scully remained voluble longer, because his implement of choice was, literally, a microphone (and a camera, though not at the beginning). Russell’s was a basketball, and the expiration date comes much sooner, although Russell’s importance long outlived his playing and coaching careers.

In a way, they were polar opposites, and not just because one was a red-haired white man, and the other Black. (Although that distinction is fundamental and vital). In the wonderful remembrances that have poured forth for Scully (and which poured forth upon his retirement in 2016), the word comfortable is omnipresent. Those who listened to his voice while sitting, while driving, while falling asleep in distant times, found comfort in its dependably soothing tones. Russell was not about comfort, and while his dominance as the leader of the Celtics’ dynasty from 1957-’69 brought joy to many, including William Felton Russell himself, it was a different kind of joy, connected to the brutal duality of sports that Russell understood better than all but a few others (Jordan, Belichick, Curry, to start): One wins (usually me), one loses (usually you); the rest is just filler.

Their lives were mirror images: Scully rose to become an icon in a manner that other broadcasters and journalists of all kinds would respect and admire (we love nothing more than to shade our easy lives with tales of when it was much harder, and yes, I froze my sorry butt off at the Union College vs. Ithaca D3 playoff game in 1984, and don’t you forget it). Scully did college football, college basketball, boxing… everything, in the mid- and late 1940s after graduating from Fordham. He once broadcast a frigid football game from the roof of Fenway Park without a coat or gloves, because he had expected to work indoors. Respect.

By the 1950s he was doing Brooklyn Dodgers games with Red Barber and that was a springboard to everything else. In the 70s and 80s, he was everywhere. Not just baseball, where he called Hank Aaron and Kirk Gibson, and sprinkled his broadcast with gentlemanly expressiveness like describing Bob Gibson as pitching “like he’s double-parked,” but also the NFL, where in 1981, he called The Catch, on each occasion rising to meet the moment and then generously getting out of its way.

As a practical matter, the last quarter century of his career was spent mostly with the Dodgers, but something more: He became, almost coincidentally, a steward for something simpler. His measured pace, his delicate wordsmithing, even the cut of his sportcoats and the perfection in his hairstyle, were beloved as counterweights to the noisy world that grew at arm’s length around him, to the catchphrase craze, to hot takes and embracing debate, to the decline of interest in America’s Pastime. He was a time machine, yet at the same time, never more current. Where others shouted to be heard, Scully simply spoke as he always had and we listened. Another word associated with Scully: Treasure. It was a good word.

Few used that word for Russell, and not because he wasn’t, but because it would constitute sanding down his rough edges, and his rough edges were important.

But his beginning: Because he was Black man in America, it would be ludicrous to suggest that Russell’s life wasn’t hard. Of course it was. As my former Sports Illustrated colleague Jack McCallum wrote in his eloquent obituary, “Russell was just 9 when his parents arrived in Oakland, and so he had only a minor sense of the Jim Crow indignities that his parents had suffered in Louisiana. Charles Russell had a shotgun stuck in his face at a gas station, and Katie was told by a policeman to go home and change because she was wearing `white women’s clothing.’ But the son came to know heartache and hard times on his own (his mother died when he was 12), and he would come to know virulent racism, too, especially after he arrived in 1950s Boston, a city that in some ways was not unlike Monroe…”

But athletically, after gawky beginnings, Russell rushed to greatness by dint of raw talent refined and tireless work, the tools of the transcendent. He was fantastically athletic, and applied that athleticism disproportionately to defense and team play throughout his career. He led the University of San Francisco to consecutive national championships in 1955-’56 (and a 55-game winning streak that lasted until John Wooden’s UCLA teams broke it), and was one of the best high jumpers in the world, despite poor technique and little practice. As a professional, he owned both Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West in the column that mattered most to him: Championships.

Through it all, racism followed. As Russell would write in his autobiography, his USF team was hounded on the road and barred from hotels. In Boston, even as he helped build the dynasty, his home in the nice suburb of Reading was vandalized, and the vandals defecated in his bed. He never forgot those moments (nor should he have been expected to): When his jersey was raised to the rafters of the old Boston Garden in 1972, he insisted that only his teammates were present. He didn’t attend his Hall of Fame induction three years later, although later in life he was pulled affectionately back in the NBA world.

What he did was immerse himself among the first generation of activist Black athletes , including Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Harry Edwards and a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others. In 2015, I interviewed Brown at his Los Angeles home, and he recalled the summer of 1968, when Russell lived with him in L.A., as their collective activism roiled and grew. “Bill was a serious man,” said Brown, who at that time had been retired for three years, and was himself a serious man, in the extreme. “We talked about the state of the world as Black men in America. A lot of people came to this house.”

If Scully was an every day, every night reminder of a simpler time, Russell was just as much a reminder that times were not so simple, and for some Americans, never had been. He could laugh, a paint-peeling cackle that can’t be forgotten, but it was that seriousness that defined him more explicitly. He understood his reputation: When he was hospitalized in 2018, and then released, he Tweeted: “Thank you everyone for the kind thoughts, yes I was taken to the hospital last night & as my wife likes to remind me I don’t drink enough. On my way home & as most my friends know I don’t have a heart to give me trouble.”

He was also quick to remind any inquisitor that however you choose to frame his legacy (that word), he was the greatest winner ever. Maybe. He’s on the shortest of lists in that debate. It’s not Wilt or West, that much is certain.

His perspective was always essential. As was Scully’s. It’s trite to say that they will both be missed terribly. But it’s irresponsible to leave it unsaid.

Sports have haltingly survived the pandemic, and highlighted it

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Late on the night of Monday, Jan. 11, the college football season ended with Alabama winning another national championship game. It is an accident of chronological symmetry – but a convenient one – that this game took place 10 months to the day after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19, compelling the NBA to pause its 2019-20 season. Within days, that pause had become a shutdown and nearly every sports entity in the United States – and many around the world – had done likewise. The Olympic Games had been postponed. This is a story you already know, and that you have lived.

You lived this part, too: Not long after the widespread shutdowns, sports haltingly resumed. At one end of the spectrum, horse racing barely stopped at all; NASCAR only briefly. Then there was an oddball trickle of filler material: Celebrity golf with football players and PGA Tour pros. Korean baseball. The Last Dance, about games played long ago. Soon came larger discussions about NHL and NBA resumptions and a delayed start to the Major League Baseball season. Off in the distance: The behemoths of college football and the NFL lay in wait. As May turned to June, every passing day seemed to bring the jarring cognitive dissonance created by dueling stories about unchecked illness, death, and mass graves in New York City existing alongside stories outlining how sports could resume. (Not for everybody, because the pandemic was, and remains, a trigger for aggressive disagreement over science and the combustible concept of personal freedom). This dissonance was because we need sports.

The archetypal fan’s position in all of this was that amid a pandemic that had pushed citizens into fearful, masked isolation – again, not everybody; not by a long shot – the reliable entertainment provided by televised sports could offer a soothing balm. Fair enough. The most common word employed was distraction. This was a comfortable linguistic  choice, because it attached to the resumption of sports an innocuous description that conjured up a feet-on-the-footstool, Coors Light-in-the-fist energy that could be cast as something valuable and harmless in the face of a deadly and relentless enemy. It was also a convenient framing for sports leagues (and broadcasters), who needed games not as a distraction, but as a means to recoup potentially devastating financial losses. Businesses across the nation were trying to do the same thing in other ways. (Outdoor dining, curbside groceries and other goods, etc.; which are not analogous to sports, but share an economic underpinning).

Alabama’s decisive victory over Ohio State Monday night in South Florida brought the sports world closer to the completion of something resembling a full calendar year of pandemic competition. Eight NFL teams remain alive in the playoffs and by early February the league will award the Lombardi Trophy to the Kansas City Chiefs I mean to whomever wins the Super Bowl. When that game ends, we will have seen the completion of the NBA, NHL, MLB and NASCAR seasons, college football and the NFL, three of the four golf majors, three of the four tennis majors, and horse racing’s Triple Crown, among many others. March Madness did not happen, but might happen this year. The Olympics are scheduled for this summer.

In broad strokes, it’s unfair to cast this as anything but a remarkable success. (Drilling deeper, this is more debatable; keep reading). In the midst of a public health emergency unlike anything most living Americans had experienced (and with daily social and political unrest), champions were crowned, historical lines of succession have been maintained, Coors Lights have been consumed with feet up on those footstools. (Not by me, personally, but that’s a matter of taste). Distraction was ostensibly provided.  But was it really provided?

This is where it gets more complicated. The working theory was that sports would divert America’s attention from the pandemic, that it would put COVID-19 on our collective back burner while LeBron won his title, while Bryson DeChambeau swallowed Winged Foot and Dustin Johnson won the Masters, while Patrick Mahomes worked his magic. That has both happened, and not happened.

In reality, sports did not hide the pandemic; sports highlighted the pandemic. Telecasts were not an escape from the pandemic, they were a constant reminder of its existence, of its presence in our lives. Like a trip to the grocery store or a hike in the local park meant – and still means, for many people – seeing friends and neighbors in masks and standing an awkward distance from other humans, consuming sports meant accepting images that accentuated the virus’s hold. The NHL and NBA summer bubbles unfolded against a backdrop of a manufactured physical environment and strange, digital sound; MLB to the striking images of giant, empty stadiums. Golf courses that looked eerily like actual golf courses rather than jury-rigged outdoors arenas. This was a distraction that came at a price. (Not necessarily a bad thing).

And even for those fans who were able to compartmentalize the action, there were more abject reminders that sports would not be the toy department. In late August, after the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police officers, NBA teams boycotted a night’s worth of playoff games, and nearly every major professional league followed suit in some form. This, while NBA and WNBA teams had woven support for social justice causes into the fabric of their restarted season.

The summer was also only the beginning. In the autumn, sports moved more fully outside their bubble and into a more complex ethical space, with the launch of the college football and NFL seasons. These are the two most avidly consumed sports in America. College campuses lay quiet while football teams played games in partially empty stadiums; two major conferences (the Pac-12 and Big Ten) shut down and then hurriedly restarted. Dozens of games were cancelled and one participant in the national championship game – Ohio State – played only eight games. The myth of college football as an amateur enterprise was finished off, with ramifications that will shift and linger, changing the face and the economy of that sport. Financial losses were cut and entertainment provided, but there was nothing normal about it. And at the end, there was the uncomfortable image of hundreds of Alabama fans (probably students, but probably not all of them), streaming into the street in Tuscaloosa to celebrate the Tide’s title, an image of potential virus-spreading that seemed to either undercut or ignore the measures that football had implemented for safety.

The NFL has reached its Final Eight without a single game cancelled, but that broad statistic – of which the league is justifiably proud – is at least somewhat misleading. The Denver Broncos played a game with no quarterbacks, the New Orleans Saints with almost no running backs, the Cleveland Browns with almost no wide receivers and, in a playoff game, no head coach. Competitive balance has been shredded, and not just by Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. There is an argument that football in a pandemic is just going to be different, much as life in a pandemic is just going to be different. Your willingness to accept this rationale is directly proportional to your nebulous belief that – back to this phrase – we need sports, because we definitely need life.

Another angle: The return of sports in the summer and into the fall and winter, presented an opportunity for pandemic behavior modeling for a very wide and attentive audience. Cynics called this pandemic theater, but the image of Andy Reid in a shield or Nick Saban in a mask is powerful (and yeah, probably annoying to some). As is the image of college students dancing and hugging in the stands on a Saturday night, which occurred almost every weekend, and in the extreme, with scenes like Notre Dame fans (again, presumably mostly, but not entirely, students) rushing the field to celebrate a November upset of Clemson. Once again, sports did not distract from the pandemic, they highlighted it in high-definition, for better and worse.

This viewpoint isn’t universal. There is a whole ecosystem of content built around underscoring the lesser – although not negligible – effects of COVID-19 on young, healthy athletes as supporting evidence for playing games. This is a microcosm of larger arguments that exist outside the sports world, as to how we should function in the pandemic; it’s likely that history will not judge America kindly in this regard, but that is a job for historians. This also rises a more ethically vexing point – To what extent did the insistence on playing non-bubbled sports inhibit control of the pandemic, writ large? It seems naïve to suggest that COVID-19 wasn’t spread outside football world by those inside it, with unknown consequences. One example: The vaccine distribution facility at Hard Rock Stadium was closed early on Monday, to free up space for the football game. Hence, some non-zero number of senior citizens and frontline caregivers postponed their inoculations.

Calendar pages have flipped, but the sports-and-virus dance continues: The NBA is a few weeks into a bubble-free, 72-game regular season, with predictable results. Games have been postponed, and several have been played by teams dressing the minimum of eight players. Most of the absences have been related to aggressive contact tracing, for which the league should be commended. The NHL opened this week with divisional alignments reconfigured to minimize travel, but it seems likely the league will encounter the same issues that have presented to the NFL and NBA. Bubbles are binary; you are in one or you are not. College basketball has lurched forward, day by day; in mid-January, some teams had played as few as four games. Plans now call for staging the entire NCAA Tournament in and around Indianapolis, which could be a bubble if done aggressively.

It’s an interesting example. Sports have suffered to varying degrees from bubbling and reduced attendance, and few events thrive more on atmosphere than the NCAA Tournament (except at noon on Thursday, when you can sometimes hear sneaker squeaks). Bubbled Madness feels like an oxymoron. Sports at their best are joyful, with moments of joylessness mixed in (injuries, scandal). At times, pandemic sports have veered dangerously close to becoming the inverse: Joyless endeavors with moments of joy mixed in.

Someday sports – and life – will return to a new normal. New, because the effects of 2020-21 will leave scars on the culture. But long after that normal is attained, images will remain behind. NFL Films versions of the 2020 season will capture a (mostly) masked spectacle; the story of Saban’s record seventh national title will have a chapter on his masking, and his infections (one false positive, the other accurate). The record will be permanent, no less than the grainy pictures we’ve all seen from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. What happened, happened.

On Tuesday night on a snowy mountainside in Flachau, Austria, there was a women’s World Cup slalom ski race. It’s a storybook place, a cinematographer’s version of a ski village; I spent time there in 1997, reporting on the great skier Hermann Maier, who was raised in Flachau. (I would love to get back there, but you know….). On Tuesday night, snowflakes fell from the night ski as American Mikaela Shiffrin tore down the piste on her second run to win the race. There were no spectators on the side of the course or at the bottom, when in different times there would have been hundreds or thousands, waving banners and clanging cowbells. There was only the sound of sharpened ski edges screeching through turns.

Shiffrin finished, looked at the scoreboard and then screamed in joy, an unusual reaction from her. But it was her first slalom victory in more than a year, and the first since her father, Jeff, died suddenly last February. So maybe unusual, after all. As Shiffrin moved about the finish corral, smiling, she was approached by third-place finisher Wendy Holdener of Switzerland, who spread her arms to hug. Shiffrin pulled back, yanked a gaiter up over her face and only then hugged Holdener. It did not look like theater, it looked like reality.

An empty hillside, a sudden, dutiful masking and a quiet hug. You could call it a window into pandemic sports, but really it was a mirror.