A “clean sheet” occurs when a sporting team manages to prevent its opponents from scoring any goals or points during a game. With a no-score-draw, it is possible for both teams involved to keep a clean sheet. The idea is more commonly expressed as a “shutout” in American English, a term not used in countries such as Britain. Shutouts are more likely in some sports than others.
The exact origin is unknown, but is thought to have come from a time when scores were written on pieces of paper. If one team failed to score, then its piece of paper would be blank. As the paper is rectangular and white, it would resemble a freshly-washed or clean sheet.
The likelihood of such a non-score occurring varies from sport to sport and from skill level to skill level. Professional teams in high-scoring sports such as rugby and basketball are extremely unlikely to go a game without scoring. In low-scoring sports such as ice hockey and especially football, it is more likely. This is because teams can cancel one another out defensively.
Nil-nil draws and games where only one team scores are a regular occurrence in soccer. This includes games at the highest levels, including World Cup finals. In 1994 in America, Italy and Brazil drew 0-0 before the game was decided on penalties. Spain won the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and Brazil the 2002 World Cup in Korea while keeping clean sheets.
The level of achievement in keeping a soccer clean sheet depends on the nature of the game and the two sides. It is possible for a team to be rarely challenged defensively, yet still concede a goal while another team spends most of the game defending, but somehow keeps its opponents out. A “clean sheet” is a mark of distinction for a goalkeeper, but is rarely applied, as a statistic, to defenders who are measured on passes and tackles.
A “clean sheet” is less likely in rugby and American football. There have been shutouts in rugby, including a few rare 0-0 draws. An example occurred in the 2010 premiership in England when the eventual champions, the Saracens, beat Leeds 39-0. The longest run of shutouts in American football stands at 52, set between 1942 and 1949 by the Bedford County Training School Fighting Tigers of Shelbyville in Tennessee.
Earning a this distinction is almost impossible in basketball, but it has been done. Most shutouts have happened in girls’ high school games. In one example, a team from Texas beat a local rival 100-0. Instead of celebrating, the victorious school sacked its coach for being un-Christian in allowing the game to be so one-sided. In this case, keeping a “clean sheet” is not always a good thing.