Thursday, June 30, 2011

2011 Women's World Cup: perspective on Equatorial Guinea's "controversies"

When sports journalists describe Equatorial Guinea as an unknown quantity, I wonder if that's just their way of saying they haven't wanted to look too closely at the team and the country's football association.

Since they upset Nigeria in the 2008 African Women's Championship, they haven't been much of a mystery to followers of African women's football. Everyone who follows African soccer knows they are on the rise - if they are underdogs, it is not for lack of talent but experience.

Equatorial Guinea is a controversial team, though, there's no two ways about that. It has a large number of naturalized players (like the team's coach, who is Brazilian): The team has been accused of "buying" players (the country has the resources to do so) but team's manager has defended his selection. The Associated Press reports:   
Among Equatorial Guinea's half dozen players with Brazilian ancestry are standout goalkeeper Miriam and defender Carolina. Frigerio said buying players from other nations reflects the realities of a small country in a big world, and money is not a problem in a land rich in oil and gas. 
"The players all have roots in Equatorial Guinea," he said. "Either their parents or grandparents come from there."  (AP, "West Africans Making Headlines at the World Cup")
Jade Boho (in red) at the 2010 AWC
Jade Boho, the team's top striker was disqualified from competition for not having changed her FIFA affiliation when she should have (she was born and plays in Spain; she played for the Spanish U19 squad). So far, it looks like the FA mishandled the process.

That the team scouts in Spain or Brazil should be no more controversial than the fact that Mexico scouts in California's Central Valley.

[The story ought to be not why Jade Boho was playing for Equatorial Guinea, but why she isn't playing for Spain - she plays in the Spanish Super Liga, and played for Spain's U19 squad, who were European champions. Spain's senior squad is in such shambles that its best players steer clear of it. Now, that's a scandal, and the subject of a rant that should be up on Fox Soccer any day now.]

African teams have complained about Equatorial Guinea since at least the 2008 Africa Women’s Championship. They won the title in a terrific upset when they took the crown from the Super Falcons. According to a 2008 editorial in the Nigerian Observer, visiting teams complained about a lot of things.The tournament had been hosted by Equatorial Guinea, and in the wake of the big upset, Nigerian press accused the hosts of not only poor hospitality and organization, but outright cheating. Visiting teams complained about scandalously poor officiating (e.g. a referee allowed a player in one match to retake a penalty she had originally sent wide). Journalists complained about the absence of media centers and the refusal accredit journalists until the tournament was half over. Coaches complained about abusively noisy hotels and the lack of water given to teams during practice sessions. Of course, from what I can tell, tournaments can be full of this sort of shade - its why when teams show up to a World Cup and are treated well, they often express pleasant surprise.

The real problem, many argued, was the Confederation of African Football’s poor stewardship. To whom can one turn to resolve such complaints? CAF has a long history of ignoring complaints regarding corruption and mismanagement in the game, a situation as true of the women's game as it is of the men's. This hardly makes the regional governing body different from any other. 

High on the list of complaints made regarding Equatorial Guinea in 2008 was the accusation that the squad had fielded as many as three men.  The more sensitive journalists have translated these kinds of accusations into the only slightly less awful charge, in which the players are “accused” not of being men, but of being hermaphrodites. Three players on Equatorial Guinea squad were tagged with this accusation, and two have been removed from the roster prior to their World Cup games. (A third, who plays in Germany, defended herself against these absurd claims, with the full support of her club.) 

Equatorial Guinea is not the only country to field players who are accused of not being women. One African Female Player of the year (from another country) was accused of being a man, and Nigeria has lost a couple players over the years when they were disqualified for hermaphrodism, after their gender had been questioned. As Nigeria has been at the forefront of the complaints about Equatorian Guinea, plenty of fans of the latter team saw this turn regarding the disqualification of intersexed Nigerian players as karmic.

This is not only an African problem. Spanish and Indian track athletes have been (wrongly) stripped of medals, by officials who hardly know that they are doing. Can you imagine? And we all know more about Caster Semenya than we have any right to. Heck, I've heard women on my own teams wonder about opposing players, never seriously. But just casual whinging about the mannishness of a player makes me queasy.

Even given the fact of the intersexed athlete, this kind of charge floats around in women’s sports as a haunt, embodying the sports world's most intense conflicts regarding gender and it impacts all of us. For what does it mean to say a team is fielding men? It means the press gets an interesting headline, and it means that one body gets to be vehicle through the sports world conducts an exorcism, in the service of the maintenance of the fantasy that gender difference is absolute. 

It means that a team is fielding women who challenge received notions about femininity. It can be a player with broad shoulders, a flat chest and short hair. It can be a player with those attributes, who is also strong, fast, and plays aggressively. In the past, these accusations have led to horrifying groping sessions as referees sort them out in the locker room.

That the most public of these accusations fall again and again on African women athletes should be a red flag signaling the violence with which the body of the African athlete is policed. 

SO, note to journalists reporting on the team: the charge of being men hasn't only been leveled against Equatorial Guinea - it's been around in the women's game - indeed, women's sports - for years, and is used as a horrifying form of gender policing. It is casually used to 'out' women as lesbians, as not 'real women,' as 'unnatural' 'freaks' etc.

Because the effects of these accusations can be so devastating, people involved with the game have been asking FIFA to take the issue up, at least to prevent the reckless charges that teams have made against each other on this point.

At the end of May, FIFA instituted its first “Gender Verification Regulations.” This was surely done in advance of the 2011 World Cup with the hopes of warding off trouble regarding the complaints made against Equatorial Guinea. 

Basically, FIFA asserts that each national association is responsible for providing documentation regarding a player’s gender:
It lies with each participating member association to prior to the nomination of its national team ensure the correct gender of all players by actively investigating any perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics and keeping complete documentation of the findings. Should a player’s gender be called into question, then, the FA has the responsibility of demonstrating that this player is, indeed, female. 
There are now strict procedures regulating who can call for a test (the individual concerned, an FA, or appointed FIFA medical officers), and there is also the possibility that “unfounded or irresponsible” accusations will bring on disciplinary action. Sanctions regarding gender-non-conforming players can only be imposed by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee – and, interestingly, the 2011 World Cup has its own specialist, hired to consult on these matters. A first.

On the surface, all of this looks enlightened – and it certainly is a step forward from what was in place before this – which was nothing, which produced intensely humiliating scenes as referees resorted to groping and looking into an accused player’s shorts.

But how will national associations "ensure the correct gender of all players"? What does "actively investigating any perceived deviation in secondary sex characteristics" mean? One might imagine a lot of the football associations in the world just going for feminine looking athletes, so they don't have to bother with this mess. Frankly, more than a few of them already do.

So today, the two players most frequently invoked in these complaints have been dropped from the roster. FIFA can pat itself on the back, no?

This is not a happy outcome: at minimum, we have two players exiled from the game and no explanation as to why, and no sense that we haven't just witnessed a very stark act of discrimination, in which mannish women are chased out the game so that we can maintain the illusion that the line between male and female is absolute.

How, I ask, is that any better than, any different from Nigeria's homophobic "witch hunt"?  

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