Sunday, August 30, 2009

Girlie "S'Gelane" Nkosi, Eudy Simelane's teammate and a lesbian activist, murdered.

Please read John Turnbull's story about Eudy Simelane. Turnbull digs a little deeper into the crime reported in The Guardian's story about the wave of violent attacks on black lesbians in South Africa (these are often referred to as "corrective rapes"). [You can find LGBT writing on the case here.] Amplifying the sense that there is a link between lesbian visibility and football, Turnbull explains that a second woman from Simelane's local women's team died recently from injuries sustained in a similar attack. Girlie "S'Gelane" Nkosi was a gay and lesbian rights activist. Turnbull quotes from her memorial program: She "[transgressed] all social gender norms and openly confronted the ills posed by economic exclusion" and was "arguably the most visible lesbian of Kwa-Thema."

Their hometown, Turnbull also explains, had been a kind of queer haven for black men and women in the 1980s - and so these attacks have special importance as perhaps symptomatic of a larger reactionary and phobic shift in the culture of the country that was one of the first to allow for same sex marriages.

As I mentioned in my first post about Simelane's murder, reading from the U.S., it is tempting to see this kind of violence against women as a remote problem. Violence against queer men and women is, however, not as uncommon as people like to think. Butch women, lesbians, effeminate boys and men, drag queens and transgendered people do not have the luxury of imagining such violence as a far away problem. One sad example from my own local papers: Lawrence King, a remarkable 14 year old boy who had come out to his class and wore make up and girlie accessories to school, was shot and killed by a classmate in 2008.

Turnbull offers us a much needed perspective on Simelane and Nkosi's lives. There is still a lot more to be said about both of these women - about their lives and about the justice system that appears to be failing their communities. Judges, it seems, can't bear to acknowledge that the lesbianism of these women is relevant - in fact, Turnbull writes:
This past week, Circuit Court Judge Ratha Mokgoatlheng asked whether “lesbian” was an appropriate word to use in court.
This story leaves me with a sickening feeling of outrage, dread and sadness. It is an all-too familiar story - homosexuality so deeply criminalized that the mere mention of it is prohibited.

Imagine the impact that an openly anti-homophobic and queer positive WPS might have, globally. Imagine if the WPS, and other women's pro-leagues, say, held fundraising matches to support the fight against these forms of violence - used the visibility of its athletes to make a statement in support of women around the world?

Actually, why leave this to women?

What if, oh, say, FIFA saw these horrible attacks as crimes against their own athletes - and stepped in - especially as the World Cup will be hosted by South Africa this coming summer. Imagine if the footballing gods - no doubt worshiped by some of the men committing these attacks - publicly and loudly denounced all forms of homophobia? The English FA is trying to wrap its mind around such a thing. What about football's international governing body?

Imagine posters of Eto'o, C. Ronaldo, Lampard, or Henry declaring "Simelane was my sister."

Sadly, FIFA hasn't exactly been a pathfinder on this issue (frankly, I wouldn't call them leaders on the issue of women's football in general). Still, if gay English football supporters can get FIFA to pay attention to homophobic chants and graffitti in Belgrade, surely we can get FIFA to pay attention to, say, the murder of lesbian footballers?

That problem of scale in the comparison made by that sentence is ridiculous. That alone should make you get in touch with someone at, say, The US Soccer Federation: Phone: +1-312/808 1300. If you live outside the US, go to FIFA's associations site and click on your country's name. Contact information for your national FA should appear towards the bottom of the page on the right. Call them, and ask what they plan to do to raise awareness about homophobia in the game, and regarding the attacks on prominent lesbian footballers in South Africa. If they don't have any ideas, offer them a few, and suggest they pose this question to the Committee for Women's Football, the Bureau for the 2010 World Cup, and the Committee for Fair Play and Social Responsibility.

Thank you John Turnbull for once again offering some of the most solid journalism on issues that matter to international women's football.

Friday, August 28, 2009

England-Russia - from UEFA Women's Champions Tournament 2009

England fought their way back - are slugging their way through the tournament. Knowing a little about how shabbily they are treated by the English FA, I'm pulling for them. Kelly Smith has a crazy-good goal here. Enjoy. Commentary is in Russian. Their next game is against Sweden on Monday. Not sure what time yet - looks like 7:00pm in Finland? I think that's 9:00am Pacific.

video

[Update: August 31 - England are through to the quarterfinals after drawing against Sweden. UEFA match report here.]

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Notes from an alienated fan: Why I want a feminist, anti-homophobic WPS & a more progressive, anti-nationalist/pro-migrant MLS

OK. I know a lot of you read that headline and either rolled your eyes, or muttered "dream on, sister."

I've been involved in a discussion on Big Soccer about Dan Loney's article, "Endless Summer". He opens with a reference to my post about the Galaxy/Barça game. Some Big Soccer readers have been baffled by my overtly political (feminist, Marxist) approach to the game (expressed in comments about Loney's article). Two issues have come up which I thought I should address here: why the politics of sexuality matters to a conversation about the WPS, and what on earth I was suggesting when I wrote:
Is making a corporate success of the MLS - and lining the pockets of the dubious executives who run it - the lone measure of the game's success? Is rooting for the Galaxy, and giving our dollars to the creepy monster that is AEG the only way to express one's loyalty? Aren't there other ways to imagine what the passion of fútbol fans looks like?
and:
Why not imagine that one of the best things about soccer in the U.S. is that it isn't a "national" sport, and that it's most successful here where global capital hasn't quite figured out how to exploit us as either a market or a pool of labor?
And so - in the interest of building on the dialogue with Big Soccer readers (and doing so within the platform of this blog) - below is a riff on why I want an actively anti-homophobic WPS, followed by one hypothesis as to how the MLS managed to alienate a lot of this region's most passionate fans of the game.

Part One: speaking as a fan of women's soccer

Some Big Soccer readers are puzzled as to why I insist on talking about the feminist politics of women's soccer, and they also want to know why I insist that homophobic attitudes ought to have no place in the management or ownership of WPS teams. (AEG owns 50% of the Sol, and itself owned by Philip Anschutz, a notorious backer of the anti-gay amendments that made Colorado infamous as the "hate state.")

One of most empowering moments for me, as a 40 something female sports spectator/casual player, came during the last FIFA Women's World Cup. I was in a bar in France, watching the Brazil/US Women's World Cup match. I didn't have access to a TV, so I went to "Le Bar Sportif" and asked them to put the match on (it was about 2pm in the afternoon). There were a dozen people there - a fair amount of grandpa-aged guys, a couple older women, some young guys. I knew Brazil was good (I was even rooting for them a little, because I thought they were the underdogs). Famously, they ran circles around the US.

It was on a major French cable t.v. channel (something akin to ESPN, I guess). It was being called by good broadcasters (far better than the MLS coverage, I'd say), one of those calling the match was a woman.

There is one moment from that match that stands out in my mind: Suddenly, in a fast, fluid, and masterful sequence of moves, Marta flicked the ball over and around the US defender, sending the ball one way, and going the other to scoop it safely to her feet and dribble it past another defender, and then slotted it past the goalie - the whole bar was on its feet.

The guys started shouting "Maradona! Maradona! Maradona!" And the French broadcasters were screaming - "If she were a man, she would be making millions." and "Ce n'est pas juste!" It was a "crise de guerre" - and everyone in the bar started talking about that, too - that it was wrong - criminal - that we couldn't watch her play every weekend.

Half of us were literally in tears - it took us all by surprise (like the US win over China at the Rosebowl). We were united, as any group of spectators is when a player transcends what we think is possible.

It also revealed how much of women's abilities we don't get to see. Because we don't get to see it, we think it doesn't exist at all. And when some series of accidents gets a woman like Marta out of her village in Brazil (to Sweden, then), and broadcasts her skill to millions of viewers - well, that has a huge effect on us all. Marta and her teammates play a "Latin" style of football that is deeply associated with masculinity (even as it involves lots of hip-swiveling!) It's very entertaining, and explosive. They trash-talk, they dive, they sometimes choose to hold the ball where you think they should pass it - and then weave it through the entire backline and score.

I didn't know women could play like that. And I'm a feminist, and fan of the international women's game.

Another revolutionary moment: In England, the WC final match between Brazil and Germany was THE MATCH OF THE DAY - it was broadcast on network television, in a place of tremendous importance to the rhythm of UK football culture. And England wasn't even playing.

My uncle, who normally occupied the living room during those afternoons, moved upstairs to the bedroom (to watch golf).

I sat down and watched it with my aunt - she is the sort of women who would probably have been an athlete had that opportunity been available to her. The two of us got quite emotional, talking about what it meant to us to see women on television, playing football at that level, at that time of day - normally reserved for the biggest Premiership matches.

I have never suggested we stage kiss-ins at WPS matches (though, now that I think about it, it sounds like fun!).

But I do not think anyone can really market women's sports successfully without being a feminist. I also do not think you can actually love this game if you don't appreciate, admire, and respect the people who play it at the highest levels. You can't appreciate, admire, and respect a person if you think that they are shameful - that who they love, who they build their lives with, is something that should be kept hidden as if it were a crime.

The WPS's biggest challenge is the global sexism and homophobia that shapes people's attitudes. There is always already a sense out there that people don't care about women's sports. You have to ask yourself where that attitude comes from. It doesn't come from nowhere. Women's matches are not boring to watch - unless they are played by athletes who have never had decent training or strong competition. (Those deprivations also don't come from nowhere.)

The spectacle of female athletes playing team sports challenges very basic concepts about women (we can handle individual women competing against each other in games like tennis because that is practically the only we way are supposed to relate to each other). Women were prohibited from playing baseball (they used to! Softball was invented to make "America's Pastime" just for men) - they still are, in fact. At some point, girls have to drop out of baseball and be segregated in softball. This is also why women play less sets in tennis than men. Women used to play the same amount of sets, but the tennis associations demanded they play less, so that people wouldn't think that women were as strong as men - players fighting for equal pay responded to the explanation that they get paid less because they play less by asking that they play the same as men, at which they were told "OK, we'll just give you the money." Better give them the money than blow peoples minds with the idea that women can battle each other for just as long as the men do.

The launch of a professional women's league in any sport must find ways to neutralize these attitudes. I agree, turning matches into Chucky-Cheese style outings is not the answer. Nor is turning a match into a political rally.

But geese - openly embracing gay fans doesn't mean you have to turn a match into a political rally (as many of the Big Soccer commentators have suggested)! But it does mean deciding that one would rather homophobes dealt with their fear, or stayed at home. And you know what, I actually don't think the audience for the WPS is dominated by people with those attitudes anyway. So it's really annoying to feel like the league, teams, and the media acquiesce to those anxieties.

I am perhaps an atypical sports fan. I came to women's soccer as a player through the queer feminist environment of the Hackney Women's Football Club. And through them, I learned that I'd rather in some ways see women's soccer flourish as an anti-homophobic, feminist space off the grid of mainstream culture, than see it whitewashed and constricted in order that it not scare off men.

My favorite attitude is Natasha Kai's - she outed herself very casually in an interview with NBC during the Olympics (!). Like it was no big deal. But of course it's a huge deal. It really matters - to every young queer girl who perhaps was feeling (as many, many gay and lesbian athletes do) that if her teammates found out she was gay then she'd have to quite the team. Maybe now she feels that in Kai she has a powerful ally. She has others potential role models - but she will only learn that when she reads the negatives - like: what player is NEVER pictured with a boyfriend/husband? What player do we know the LEAST about personally?

You just can't underestimate the positive impact of the sport on girls and women. For all sorts of reason. And I don't see why that shouldn't be enough - why any WPS team should turn itself inside out wondering how to make men who don't care about the game come to watch a match. Women make up half the population (slightly more, in fact). They earn money, they spend money. They spend their family's money. Why on earth should the business model for the "success" of the women's game be at all organized by the fear of alienating men?

Lest you think I'm a separatist, I ask: Why don't we have more faith in the men in our lives? (We seem to trust them enough to coach the vast majority of teams.) I see lots of guys at matches, of all sorts of ages. They are often more romantic about the women's game than women are! (e.g. "This is how the men used to play - as a team - before it became all about money and militaristic defense.") I don't think they care either way about the sexuality of the players - and we don't need to keep them in the closet to hold their attention.

Part Two: speaking as a fan of fútbol Angelino

To bring this all finally around the the MLS. I think a lot of soccer fans feel like MLS has an ambivalent relationship to the association of soccer with immigrant communities.

It's part of the romance, the mythology of the sport (e.g. the 1950 NT that upset England in the World Cup, the movie "Goal"). But at the same time, many Latinos/as living in the US (be they Mexican, Mexican American, from El Salvador, born here but from Honduras, etc.) feel ignored, undervalued by the MLS.

This is a very large percentage of the population in this part of the country and it is also a heterogeneous community very actively interested in soccer. These are not people who go to one Barça game and never think about soccer otherwise. These are people who can tell you everything about Barça's last couple seasons, sigh over the disaster of Ronaldinho's last few months there, and then rant about the Mexico NT and its managerial antics, and they also have a lot to say about the USNT, and MLS players. These are the television viewers to whom the region's stations cater with Spanish-speaking operators and cable packages Anglos never hear about. They are the readers keeping La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily newspaper, in the black (La Opinión thrives financially where the LA Times struggles because the former is the only place you can read up on international leagues, as well as get reports on the MLS and even local independent leagues).

This is the community to which I was referring in my article. They are a huge market, and have been hard for big corporations to master. Sure, these fans may go to one Barça match for $25, and they may also check out a Chivas or Galaxy match when they can, but lots are skeptical of the efforts of MLS teams to "support" the community (by, for example, asking you to sell discounted tickets to your friends). They don't identify with the MLS teams in the way many wish they would. They are promiscuous fans - of an MLS side, of a team in Mexico, a team in Italy or Spain. They may root one day for the USNT and another for El Salvador, and another for France. They may spend more time in a year watching friends play in Balboa Park then they do at Carson. They may have both a Chivas and a Galaxy shirt - and those shirts are probably knock-offs.

I know that the MLS has figured out that many of the most ardent fans of the game feel alienated from the MLS (I was just talking with folks at Chivas USA about this issue, and they are well aware of the magnitude of task before them).

Here's my cross - the link between gay fans of women's soccer & Latino/a fans of the men's game: I think fútbol fans feel this way because they have been kept in the closet. Chivas & the Galaxy both are working on finding the players that are left out by the US development systems (namely, the poor and/or first generation kids who go to crap schools with no decent athletic program and can't afford club soccer). And they are trying to figure out how to build links to the independent leagues through which much soccer life is organized in this region as a way to appeal to adult fans of the game. This is new to them - and it shouldn't be. This fact - that soccer is more popular, on average, with immigrant communities than with communities that don't identify as such - has nearly ALWAYS been true of the sport.

In the conflicted, paradoxical place of Latino/a soccer fans in the US we get a glimpse of the very powerful contradictions that structure not just soccer culture, but indeed, American cultural identity itself. And guess what, it isn't such a pleasant place to find yourself. Both hyper-visible (as the source of nearly all romance about the sport) and invisible (your community doesn't have enough wealth to be worth the trouble). You are welcome as an idea, unwelcome as a reality.

To suggest that folks are "casual" and not "real" fans of the American game because they don't consistently support the MLS or because they might root for Mexico against the USNT is not only unfair, it unintentionally comes awfully close to suggesting that the largely Latino/a audience of which we are speaking isn't really "American."

Now - again, for the Big Soccer fans - this was the context for my article. My ongoing writing about soccer in this region - and the uneasy relations between the Latin/local scene and the Anglo/national/global-corporation circuit - was left out because Loney's discussion is about something else (the relationship between fans culture of the MLS, and US fans of European clubs who want nothing to do with the MLS).

If the MLS wanted the fans about whom I am writing, perhaps it would have fought a lot harder for a stadium in downtown LA. Some die-hard, long-lived Galaxy fans still bemoan the move from the Rose Bowl to Carson, and speculate that the Galaxy's exile was to appease folks in Pasadena who didn't like having their neighborhood taken over weekend after weekend by the folks that mow their lawns and take care of their kids on the weekdays. That theory for the move was offered to me by a middle-class professional Latina, who is as passionate a fan as I've ever met. And it is pretty representative of the level of trust between some Latino/a fans and the MLS.

With her, I root for something better.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Real Players of New Jersey: Sky Blue FC wins WPS championship!

Walking into Carson stadium for the WPS final, I found myself thinking that a win for Sky Blue would be good for the league, and perhaps even good for the Sol. The WPS needs to get rid of the impression that there is one team that is far and away better than the rest. The playoff structure, which guaranteed a place in the finals for the regular season champs, did that by clearing a path to the final for the Sol, as if they deserved a free pass. I don't know a single Sol fan who thought this was good for the team.

The Sol have been a bit complacent - sure, they won the regular season, but they petered out toward the end [and only won one of their last four matches]. Given the talent on the roster, I've often thought they could be even more spectacular to watch - but they need a reason to up their game.

Now they have it (game highlights here).

Sky Blue came into today's game as the league underdogs. They started off poorly and fired their coach Ian Sawyers in only the third week of the season. His assistant Kelley Lindsey took over but resigned on July 30th (see "Sky Blue Coach Quits Abruptly"). Behind this is a messy story - her assistant coach (brought on board by Sawyers) was the subject of some controversy (the details of which are obscure). Lindsey's resignation was a response to how management handled the problem with her assistant. It all sounds like a right mess. Making matters even more dramatic, USNT captain and Sky Blue defender Christie Rampone basically turned up on the field for practice before a match against FC Gold Pride and found herself in charge - Lindsey had quit that afternoon. Someone needed to run practice before this important game - as a very experienced player she was a natural choice. Next thing she knew, she was asked to coach out the season.

Whatever drama was unfolding behind the scenes was upstaged by this afternoon's gutsy performance against the much heralded Sol. (See Goal.com's match report.)

There was no question as to who wanted it more - while the Sol showed sparks of life, players seemed to drift in and out of the game. They seemed surprised by the fight they had on their hands. Shortly after O'Reilly's neatly placed goal in the game's 17th minute, Faulk drew a red card for bringing Natasha Kai to the ground after Kai had beaten three defenders and was making her way into the box. Goal.com questions the call, but from my seat, Kai was certain to take a shot. She was in front of the defenders and gaining speed. And she is Natasha Kai. Even if Faulk clipped her heel, as Goal.com says, she did so because she was trying to run Kai down, but couldn't get in front of her.

This was a rough blow for the Sol, as we were barely through a third of the game when this happened. They still played a strong second half, given this fact (the mid-day August heat couldn't have made being a player down any easier - why oh why are WPS matches at Carson so often played under midday sun???).

Miyama was her usual astonishing self, and Shannon Boxx, too. Marta reminded us of why she is so highly regarded, and so aggressively marked. Her frustration was clear: she spent good stretches of the match being marked by three - even four - defenders. She nevertheless more often than not squeezed a pass through the forest of legs. In one instance, she sent a brilliant cross in front of the goal mouth - but there was no one there to finish for her. Abily, as well as Sky Blue's Anita Asante and Karen Bardsley are representing their countries in the UEFA Euro cup tournament. I'm convinced that Abily was very much the missing link - not only because she's a fantastic finisher, but because when she and Marta (and Miyama and Duan) are on the pitch, even the best defenders are outclassed. Today, the Sol attack seemed nervous and disconnected.

Meanwhile, Rosana, Kai, O'Reilly and Francielli played like they'd been on the same team since they were five. They carried themselves with confidence, and seemed to know not just where their teammates were, but where they would be. All in all, Sky Blue played an aggressive and very smart game. Kudos to Rampone for converting all that Real-Housewives-of-NJ drama into something positive.

Watching them play, I found myself thinking about the fact that most of these players - women from Hawaii, London, Texas, Australia, California and Brazil are living in f'ing Piscataway, in a hotel near their home field at Rutgers University. I was thinking about how shitty it must have been to have all that back-room drama going on in an alien environment - playing for a fledgling league for not so much money and even less security. Kai shacked up with Rampone when she agreed to play for Sky Blue, so she'd have some immediate sense of community. Rampone - a New Jersey native - was apparently the architect behind social outings designed to make her teammates get to know each other as well as their new surroundings.

They are a good story, no matter how you slice it.

Now - I just wish the WPS would get real and stop referring to the Sky Blue as the New York team [at least in the team's url: http://www.womensprosoccer.com/ny]. When they drive that trophy home from the airport, they'll be taking the fabled NJ Turnpike. They'll get off not at the Holland Tunnel, but at exit number 9. At least three of these players know the route well: Yael Averbuch is from Upper Montclair, Heather O'Reilly is from East Brunswick (this is her natural exit in fact), and Rampone is from Point Pleasant (aka - "the shore").

As I picture their ride home - elated and exhausted - sleepy heads leaning against the window as industrial monuments slip past - I hear the paradoxically soft and hard voice of Queen Latifah, taking us all on a New Jersey Drive. The basic message: when it comes this place, the road "out" or "up" is always a rough one - but that ride is the thing that makes you tougher. It's the twists and turns that make you faster, and smarter. That rough ride - past people who don't think you have a chance of going anywhere - is the thing that makes each victory taste all the sweeter.

Sisters, Welcome to the Garden State!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why police the border between men's and women's sports? (repost w/ comments about Caster Semenya)

The topic of gender testing in sports has become a headline again. South African sprinter Caster Semenya became a news story when she went to Berlin and claimed the world championship in the 800, crossing the line at 1:55.45, two seconds faster than her nearest rival. She announced herself to the global press only a few weeks earlier at the African junior championships with what had been (until her race in Berlin) the fastest time in the world this year (1:56.72).

A number of athletes and commentators have cried "foul" and demanded that Semenya prove her sex for the IAAF. Rising above the phobic and cruel rhetoric of the press, her competitors and the track authorities, her family and supporters speak frankly of her boyish body and express anger at the way questions about Semenya's gender have been handled. In this interview posted on The Guardian's website, her father quite proudly defies the narrow minded to assert that his daughter looks "just like me" and "is a woman." She grew up playing football with the boys, being teased for being a "tomboy," etc. And, her family and friends chime in together, she is a woman. She is, quite clearly, a gender warrior. I've re-posted my previous article as a sign of support for her and other athletes like her.

The case of Caster Semenya raises the question of what it is we are looking for when we segregate men's and women's sports.

In 2004, Mexican National Women's Team superstriker Maríbel Dominguez was signed to a two-year contract with Celaya FC, a second division men's team. FIFA stepped in with an official prohibition and the assertion "There must be a clear separation between men's and women's football." The memo furthermore forbid her from playing in exhibition games with the men's squad. (See Jo Tuckman's 2005 Guardian story.)

My question today is why "must" the separation between men's and women's football be "clear"?

Dominguez played for years with boys - successfully disguising her gender and enjoying a level of play not available to girls of her generation. Nicknamed "Marigol," in 2004 she was a highly ranked international player who went on to play for the Atlanta Beat, FC Indiana, FC Barcelona, and the Girona team EU L'Estartit.

Nearly every feature story on Marta makes a big deal out of how she grew up playing with boys as if this were unusual. (See Michael Sokolove's 2009 NYT profile, for example). Of course it's fun to read about Marta's childhood years fighting macho attitudes on dusty pitches and in the street - but just once I would like to see it acknowledged that her experience is not extraordinary. It is in fact absolutely typical for female players - especially (but not only) those living in places where women's sports is not accepted. In the U.S., girls play with boys, by the way, and many also find themselves combating patriarchal attitudes about sports when they lace up their boots. Brazil hardly has a monopoly on machismo.

Playing with boys as you grow up is totally ordinary, in other words. Where girls don't have to sneak into boys games, they start off playing organized youth soccer together. There is much debate about at what age girls and boys should separate. As girls mature earlier it can be to their advantage to play with boys through much of adolescence - in Germany, they play together until they are 17 (I am not sure if this is true for the highest level of U-17 teams - I suspect the rule is that girls are only forced off boys teams at 17). Clearly this hasn't hindered the development of the men's or the women's game. Germany's NWT holds the World Cup, and are consistently ranked in the top three.

All of this is to say that Marta is unique not because she played with boys, but because she was one of the very best players on every boys team on which she played.

To return to FIFA's intervention against Celaya's inclusion of Dominguez on their roster: If a female player can handle herself in a men's professional league, why shouldn't she be allowed to play? What would be the harm?

I don't buy that FIFA is interested in protecting the development of the women's game in Mexico - not that I would endorse such an explanation (in which an organization dominated by old, white patriarchs is working to "protect" women against their own desires).

If Maribel Dominguez had played for Celaya FC, and held her own (never mind excelled) she would have profoundly unsettled notions about the difference between men and women.

The difference between men and women's football must be clear because the difference between men and women themselves must be absolute. Gender difference, however, is not absolute, and it doesn't take much research to find soccer stories which raise interesting questions about our investment in gender segregation in sport.

The South African National Team player Noko Matlou had her gender questioned by Ghana's National Team in 2007, who sent a match official into the dressing room to establish that she wasn't a man. Matlou was named Africa's female player of the year in February 2009.

The 2008 Africa Women's Cup was marred by a lot of things (bad referring, overt attempts to undermine press coverage of the games, last minute changes in scheduling of training sessions for visiting teams, etc). It was also packed with major upsets (see FIFA report here). Floating around the blogosphere has been a very interesting story: Two teams (Cameroon and Nigeria) filed complains with the Confederation of African Football accusing the eventual champions (and host team) Equatorial Guinea of fielding two men.

What little information I've found on this is not very helpful - limited by homophobia or ignorance. To this day, a lot of Nigerian players are insistent that they were MEN (one article reports that a Nigerian forward in essence felt a player up on the field). That doesn't necessarily explain the 1-0 loss, though. They'd played the same line-up previously and won and didn't file a complaint then. Their credibility is undermined by this fact.

While the Nigerian players say the two defenders were men, over time the language of the story as it has been reported in African newsletters has shifted to suggest the players are intersex - meaning, born with sexual characteristics that do not conform to traditional definitions of male/female gender.

Sadly, if the players are indeed intersex, they would be banned from the game for having for a physiology that challenges the notion that gender difference is immutable. And, as it happens, one of Nigeria's own players was recently "outed" as intersexed, and banned from the game. She was the second in the national squad's history to be so exiled - talk is that she may undergo surgery in order to become eligible to play women's football again. But should her body be medically altered so she can play football? Does women's football really need her to do so? Medical management of intersexuality is a frightening story of institutions deciding to force a body to conform to its ideas about sex/gender at great cost to the person on whose interests doctors pretend to be acting. Such surgeries are about managing the anxiety of parents and doctors - not about enhancing the life and happiness of the intersexed person.

In response to the scandal caused by the complaints about Equitorial Guinea, the Confederation of African Football will institute a "gender test" - naming a body that menstruates female. This test is notoriously unreliable, as is any other test grounded on a single factor (see "The Gender Trap"). The institution of this test in African Women's Football is a step in the wrong direction.

The policing of these borders creates problems for especially female athletes. The Journal of the American Medical Association explains:
Gender verification has long been criticized by geneticistist, endocrinologists and others in the medical community. One major problem [is] unfairly excluding women who had a birth defect involving gonads and external genitalia (i.e., male psuedohermaphrodism)...A second problem is that only women, not men, [are] stigmatized by gender verification testing. Systematic follow-up [is] rarely available for female athletes "failing" the test, which often [is] performed under very public circumstances. Follow-up [is] crucial because the problem is not male impostors, but rather confusion caused by misunderstanding of male pseudohermaphroditism. (Simpson et al., "Gender Verification in the Olympics", JAMA vol.284, pp. 1568-1569, 2000 - cited in Wikipedia's Gender Verification in Sports)
These cases ask us to consider what it is that we actually want from the gender division in sports. What is it we are looking for in a women's game? Surely not a confirmation of the "femininity" of the people on the pitch. It must be something else - like how the women's game allows us to escape from narrow ideas about who and what women are. Why shouldn't women's football be exactly the game to welcome gender-bending warriors like the intersex athlete, and the transgender warrior? And why should the women's game be the only one to do so? Let's make the borders more porous. Better yet, let's imagine that it is possible to play across them - because the truth of the matter is, people do, every day, and it's not that big a deal.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Jersey Girls pull off a shocker: Sky Blue FC defeat St. Louis Athletica, take on SOL in WPS Final on Saturday

Sky Blue's presence in the final is a bit of a surprise as they just barely qualified for the playoffs. Of course, in a league of seven teams playing a fairly short season I'm not sure the standings mean all that much. They had a rocky season - they fired their coach at the start, and the next to take the job quit just a few weeks ago. They are now managed by US National Team captain Christine Rampone, who also plays defense for the team. In spite of the managerial upheaval, they seem to be hitting their stride just when it counts.

Sky Blue are billed as the NY team but they are from freakin' Jersey. They play in New Brunswick. I'm of course pleased as punch to have a Los Angeles/New Jersey showdown. The team features the dynamic USNT superstar Natasha Kai, former Arsenal ladies standout Anita Asante, Brazilian playmaker Rosana, and the above mentioned Rampone. Kai is one of the U.S. National Team's more interesting personalities - she's aggressive and fast on the field, covered in tattoos, and casually outed herself in an interview with NBC Sports during the 2008 Olympics.

But their win tonight over second-ranked St. Louis Athletica was secured by Keeley Dowling, a defender (pictured above). Her first goal of the season was perhaps the team's most important.

The LA SOL's roster is a real dream team: Marta - three time FIFA world female player of the year; Chinese striker Han Duan; midfielder Aya Miyama, a Japanese NT player with fantastic footskills and who is perhaps the hardest working woman in show business, USNT players Shannon Boxx and Aly Wagner, and the great keeper Karina LeBlanc. Sadly, striker Camille Abily (who scored 8 goals this season and was a real revelation for those who don't follow European women's soccer) will be playing for the French National Team. I just asked her to be my facebook friend. Fingers crossed.

I can't wait for the game. For those of you who've never been to a WPS match, it isn't the screaming-13 year old Jonas brother crowd the press would have you think it is. It's a great combination of sports nuts - girl-jocks, old guys who wax romantic about how women play the game as it should be played (minimal diving, for example), and plenty of dykes & tykes. You really can't beat it. There is a near total lack of cynicism. You sure can't say that about the MLS games these days.

In their three meetings, the best Sky Blue could do was a draw. But Kai & crew are looking pretty fantastic. And Abily has been a key figure in the Sol's campaign this season - she will be sorely missed.

That said, the real story behind the Sol's success may be their defense - they lead the league in shut-outs, LeBlanc is top of the tables in terms of having had the least amount of goals scored against her, and the Sol defenders lead in having the lowest average of "goals against." If there is a defensive team that can shut down Kai, Rosana and Francielli, it's Brittany Bock, Stephanie Cox, and Allison Faulk.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Honorable Losses

Some teams are fun to play whether you win or lose. In June, I was lucky enough to play in a women's 5 aside tournament outside of Barcelona, hosted by F.C. Anguera Femení. Players came from the first and second divisions of the region's womens football leagues, some sides even featured players from Barça's women's program. We played seven fifteen minute games and scored only one goal, on a penalty. (The poster to your right is of course not from that tournament, but from the Catalan championship.)

You'd think we'd have been miserable - we never controlled possession and our opponents neutralized all of our strengths as a team. We were Man U playing Barcelona in the Champions League final - except we didn't even have those promising first few minutes which might have given us at least the illusion of having a chance. Given that we didn't get to play "our" game, you would think we'd have been miserable. But we were totally happy to be there. The tournament was incredibly well run, the teams were all super friendly and, in the end, all of us felt lucky to have had a chance to take the field against women who were just that much better than any women players we'd ever seen. (I am dying to know why the hell we never hear anything about the Spanish Women's National Team.)

They were so skilled they never needed to touch us - none of us were bruised or battered because we couldn't get that close to the ball. Nevertheless, at the end of the day our egos were intact. No one could say that our losses were due to anything but the difference in skill and organization. We felt like we learned a lot - about skill, about playing smaller games (5 & 7 aside are totally different beasts from a full field game), and about the ethos of Catalan futbol femení.

Our opponents enjoyed themselves immensely, but not at our expense. They were ferocious and unforgiving, but also welcoming and respectful. Model sportswomen. Even the thirteen year-old (seriously) who captained one of the best teams in the tournament impressed us with her graciousness.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I played on the losing side of an entirely different match. It was a hard game - we started two players down and never had more than ten on the field. But I've had a lot of fun playing outnumbered with the same group of women - being down a player or two can really pull you together.

The problem was our opponents. They fouled hard and talked trash afterward. They gave elbows when the ball was nowhere to be seen, and got angry if you touched them. One woman shoved our striker to the ground after the referee had blown his whistle (calling our striker for a foul). Where our player's foul had been unintentional, there was no mistaking the defender's two-handed shove to the ground.

Now, I like the physical and the psychological aspects of the game - I know that a certain amount of theatrics is a part of the game. I once tracked an opposing striker all over the field - she was determined to get a shot off even if I was marking her. I knew this, and stuck to her - I wanted to engage her ego so she wouldn't do the right thing and pass to her teammates. She lost possession, the ball went out, and she turned around and shoved me by the shoulders, nearly knocking me over. The ref didn't see it, and I was furious. I was quite rightly subbed out after that because I was distracted by my anger. On the sidelines, a veteran Hackney player gave me the best advice for a situation in which a player deliberately lays her hands on you in a match - just give her a cool smile and say "come on love, give us a kiss." If your opponent can't handle a line like that, she's likely to pull a Zidane & draw a red card for her team.

I try to keep that in mind when things get heated. You are always better off not taking your opponent's theatrics too seriously. If they are mad at you, it's because you are frustrating them. Staying cool will only make them more frustrated. And you have to keep your cool if you are going to stay focused.

Yesterday's opponents spewed endless insults from the field and from the sidelines. They yelled at each other, at the referees, and at us. They seemed to play a rather joyless game.

Given that we only fielded ten players and didn't have a single sub on a very hot and sunny afternoon, we should have lost that game by miles. They might have played a relaxed game, knowing it would be just a matter of time before they would break us. They had a lot of individual skill on their side, but somehow didn't quite gel as a team. I think it's because they were so focused on hating us. We didn't score (our poor striker faced their back line solo), but we kept them to nil until the last ten minutes. By that point, I know I just couldn't make the runs that I needed to. We didn't let those goals get us down, though, and played optimistically - if breathlessly - right until the end. It was an honorable loss.

But I don't think theirs was an honorable win. In fact, quite a few of their players couldn't be bothered to shake our hands at the end of the match.

As I left the field, my mind went back to the Catalan tournament. Teams not on the field applauded my team from the stands. The team on the field didn't give us an inch of room, and it felt like a sign of respect. We felt everyone rooting for us, because they wanted to see what we could do. I'd lose again to those women in a heartbeat. They kicked our asses, and totally won us over.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Afterthoughts on Mexico vs US


The photo above was taken during Mun2's pre-game show. This NBC Universal channel (which also broadcasts some WPS matches) is sortof a shadow-station (they never seem to be identified in the digital TV's guide). They advertise themselves as "uniquely American" and, like several channels in the Los Angeles area, Mun2 broadcasts bilingually (commercials may be in either language, commentators for music video and sports programs will move between Spanish and English). In this case, however, Mun2 broadcast the match in English, using a visual feed from Telemundo. Going into the match, the guys pictured above said "It's time to choose!" - meaning, among our audience, it's not a given you'll be supporting one team or the other. Kindof fabulous. The commentary was really lame, though - typical American sports chatter in which they talk endlessly about nothing, especially when the US doesn't have the ball (which was most of the time). We started to wonder if they knew the names of Mexico's players.

So we switched to Telemundo, and lo and behold - you could hear the stadium. The announcers had to shout over the crowd's roar, the volume of which had most certainly been turned down for the English language broadcast. And you could hear 100,000 people shout "Puto" every time Howard took a goal kick.

It was a great game, and there is much to say (like: where was Donovan?). But I am most fascinated by the boy-drama of the second half: the Mexican players were totally out of line in trying to force Davies to his feet - three gathered around his prone body, and seemed to yank him up by his neck. (Davies had been hurt on a free kick and was subbed out shortly afterward.) There was nearly a full-on brawl between the two teams. (No cards issued.) Davies scored the US's only goal - quite dramatically threading himself past one defender, then another, then another.... He made genuine trouble for Mexico's back line through most of match. I was really sad to see him leave the pitch, and the fact this drama was centered on him didn't seem accidental.

Shortly afterward the weirdness around Davies, Castello tried to yank the ball (clearly a goal kick and not a corner) away from stalwart defender "Gooch" (Oguchi Onyewu). Those two moments reminded me a lot of our adult league. Every now and again, certain teams love to generate this sort of drama. And they often seem to win. It's as if they stir up the other team's emotions (and distract them), and then focus their own passion on scoring. Sure enough, Mexico scored right after all this. It's a form of psycho-emotional warfare, and it works more often than you'd think it would.

ESPN, by the way, did a pre-game show - the first they've ever done for a game they weren't broadcasting themselves. So much for "Americans don't care about soccer."

I close with this random question - should Brian Ching - born in Hawaii - be playing for the USNT, given this?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mexico vs USA - Preview of Conversation with Gustavo Arellano (KPFK 90.7 FM Tues 8/11 @ 4:00pm)

[Gustavo Arellano had me on his show to talk about Wednesday's showdown between Mexico and the US - listen here.]

The stakes are high, particularly for Mexico. At home, El Tri are unbeaten against the US. In the past decade, however, they've had a losing record in matches played away from home. Mexico's scandalous 5-0 thrashing of the USMNT the other week was therefore hugely important. Not incidental to this victory is the fact that it was played just outside of New York City, before nearly 80,000 cheering fans - Giant Stadium's largest crowd for a soccer match. Mexican fans dominated the stands, and this clearly inspired the team. (Check out this highlight clip.)

I was at my league matches that afternoon, and could hear cheering erupting from apartments in the neighborhood - over and over and over again. It seemed that the pleasure of beating the US was not diminished by the number of goals. No goal differential would have been large enough - there is a lot of pent-up frustration between the two sides (Mexico hadn't won an away game against the US since 1999, and until the tide turned in the 1990s, the US went nearly forty years without winning a single game against their neighbors, and has yet to win in Mexico).

On Wednesday, the US will be fielding an entirely different line up - namely, the one that beat Spain last month. Nevertheless, Mexico pretty much beats everybody at Azteca. And in World Cup qualifying matches played there, Mexico has only lost once, to Costa Rica. Costa Rica is in the top spot in the World Cup qualifying region. After them, it's the US, then it's Honduras, and after that right now, it's Mexico. They really need to win this one, in other words.

The idea of Mexico not qualifying for the World Cup is too much for me to bear. Let's remember their stunning performance against Argentina in the last World Cup (good highlights here) - arguably one of the best matches of the tournament. They took the game to the second period of extra-time and lost in only the last few minutes, when Maxí Rodriguez chested a perfect cross and volleyed it into the net. The drama of that game was excruciating, and it showed us what Mexico are capable of as a team. They are one of those squads that should be a lot better than they are - and their fecklessness is making their fans (and the Mexican press) insane.

And then we have the phenomenon of Donovan-hate. His goal knocked Mexico out of the World Cup in 2002. The US's leading goal scorer pissed on the field at Estadio Jalisco during a training session before a U23 game against Mexico in 2004. (The official story is that the bathrooms were locked.) This incident was recorded by a television crew and broadcast - leading to the casting of Donovan as the most hated man in Mexico, where he's had bags urine thrown at him on the field. (The US team lost that match, by the way, and thereby failed to qualify for that summer's Olympics.) More recently, Récord (the Mexican sports newspaper) gave out coupons to readers that they could redeem at Radio Shack - not for batteries (which have also been thrown at US players), but voodoo dolls (Donovan is being shown one here). All of this of course makes the whole thing between Beckham and the Riot Squad look pathetic.

(Donovan, by the way, grew up in Redlands, CA and speaks Spanish well enough to give interviews in the language of his rivals. Somehow I suspect this makes him even more irritating for Mexicans.)

Add to all of this the complexity of national identity in the US when it comes to this sport. Be it club or country, teams from Mexico draw huge numbers of fans to games played in the states.

Where the global game is concerned, it is not a given that the US national team enjoys support at home. World Cup qualifying matches played in the US are scheduled in locations that minimize the presence of Latino supports of other teams - later this fall the US plays El Salvador not in Los Angeles (you could fill the Rose Bowl with supporters of both teams) but in Utah (there will still be tons of Salvadorean fans at that game). February's game against Mexico was played in Ohio. The US played Trinidad and Tobago in Tenessee, and Honduras in Chicago.

Over 79,000 people turned out to watch July's Gold Cup final, and by all reports the stadium offered thunderous support for the Mexican side. As Andrew Das wrote for The New York Times soccer blog,
Do not expect Giants Stadium to host any important World Cup qualifiers in your lifetime.
Landon Donovan explains:
Against Honduras in 2001, there were 55,000 people in RFK Stadium (in Washington DC). My guess is 40,000 were Hondurans. We lost. Selling tickets and making money is fine, but our priority is for South Africa. And to have the best chance, we need to play in places that make it harder for our opponents. One time we played Mexico in Columbus, and the temperature was below freezing. Now, that was a big advantage.
However you slice it, this stuff makes a great story - and if there is any place in the world where you can feel the tension in the overstretched fabric of American nationalism, it's in the complexity and intensity of this rivalry.

So, that's the sort of thing Gustavo and I will be talking about. Can't wait!

[In the interview, I mentioned the semifinal match between Turkey and Germany in Euro 2008 as an interesting point of comparison - see this New York Times article for an introduction to the topic. Even if you speak don't German, Turkish, or the Turkish-German version of Spanglish, it's worth watching Tiger Berlin's SUPER-EM-STÜDIO series of reports on the tournament in which he often acts out highlights of the match - this episode previews the Turkey - Germany match, and this one drops you right in the aftermath - note his awesome bi-national jersey, and how in this wrap up episode, puts on the USA sweatshirt which seems to be his uniform of choice. ]

Sunday, August 2, 2009

In Praise of Fair Weather Fans (afterthoughts on Galaxy/Barcelona)

Some Galaxy fans think a lot of us Angelinos are not really committed to soccer. While we turn out by the tens of thousands to see Barça, Chelsea, AC Milan and Inter, the fact is, most of us take a pass on making the drive to Carson and few of us really care that much about the whole Beckham/Riot Squad thing.

A number of MLS fans find this annoying. On the morning of the Galaxy/Barcelona match, I spent a good fifteen minutes in a heated discussion about this with one such fan. (We were both getting coffee at the local farmer's market, and he was wearing a souvenir cap from the Galaxy/AC Milan match - I couldn't resist asking him about it.)

He wanted to know where all these people are during MLS games. Some MLS fans call those of us who come out for these exhibition matches suckers (for paying for expensive tickets for off-season friendlies), and question the sincerity of our interest in the sport. The more extreme MLS advocates turn to a nativist logic - arguing that if you are in the U.S., and if you care about soccer, then you should support the U.S. pro league - and your local team - above all others.

This is, for many, the eternal problem - there is something intractably foreign about the game here. Even though it's been played in the U.S. for nearly as long as the game has been played anywhere, its fans, the teams, and the players seem eternally alien - the whole enterprise feels like it comes from somewhere else. The attempt to Americanize the men's game is as fraught as any assimilationist project.

I was one of the nearly 93,000 at the Rose Bowl last night. Barça's blue and red seemed to outnumber the Galaxy's white and black by five to one. This was especially the case among tailgaters - hundreds of camps celebrated the club that is més que un club. Folks brought tents, grills, lawn chairs, tiny pop-up goals - cars were outfitted with Catalan flags, Barça chants boomed from their speakers. I wouldn't say that these were casual fans of either the team or the sport.

This atmosphere had as much to do with the evening's pleasure as did the well-played game. It had me mulling over the morning's conversation about the MLS and its attempt to sell us soccer as a national pastime.

I found myself asking: "What do we want, really, for and from this sport?"

Is making a corporate success of the MLS - and lining the pockets of the dubious executives who run it - the lone measure of the game's success? Is rooting for the Galaxy, and giving our dollars to the creepy monster that is AEG the only way to express one's loyalty? Aren't there other ways to imagine what the passion of fútbol fans looks like?

Perhaps it looks like tens of thousands of people playing the game on nights and weekends in pick-up games, and youth and adult leagues. Maybe it's people congregating in local cantinas to cheer and jeer mythological giants on bootlegged broadcasts. Maybe it's the conversations it lets you strike up with the guy sitting next to you on a bus ride.

Perhaps the game practiced here is migratory and local, massive and low-fi.

Why not imagine that one of the best things about soccer in the U.S. is that it isn't a "national" sport, and that it's most successful here where global capital hasn't quite figured out how to exploit us as either a market or a pool of labor?

Maybe we should work on making the submission of our pleasure to the machinery of corporate greed harder, and not easier.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...