Friday, July 22, 2011

How I wound up being "special to Fox"

Finally, someone reading my articles on Fox Soccer asked the big question: RealMD posted the following comment yesterday:
Why Fox Sports would partner with the author of this essay is obvious.  Why she would partner with Fox Sports is the question.
Go up to the top masthead on this website and click on Fox Sports.  It brings you to their main web page.  Run your cursor across the subsections with their dropdown menus.  It goes something like this:  NFL, MLB, Nascar, etc. Pause on "Soccer", and one subsection says Women's World Cup.  Then keep going one by one, all the way to the last one, which says "More" Under More you will find the other two subsections that have anything to do with women,  NCAA WBK, and Babes. Professor Doyle, is this the right partner?
So, to reassure FaLW writers who might be concerned about the wild compromise implied by my being "special to Fox" (as the site declares), I thought I'd answer the question by telling the story of how I came to have this strange bedfellow.

Shortly before the start of the Women's World Cup, I was surprised by an email from Richard Farley, Fox Soccer's new website editor. We are familiar with each other's work, but had never met.

He asked if I would consider contributing to a section on the Women's World Cup. He frankly admitted that when he came in, there had been no plan at Fox Soccer to cover the tournament. Unlike a lot of newspapers and mainstream sports sites, he wanted to commit to detailed reporting on the tournament from the first game out.

I have been complaining for years about the lack of attention to the women's game and to the harder issues within it. Recently, in a personal effort to do my part, I have begun to project my perspectives into media spaces - I co-hosted  podcasts for KPFK throughout the men's World Cup, and have contributed one story on India's women's program to the New York Times Global Edition, and two sports-related "comments" to The Guardian.

I tried pitching a series of newspaper articles on the Women's World Cup in keeping with this work. All liberal papers. None were interested. This is partly because I do not have personal contacts in sports departments (the one editor I knew was laid off), and also because a pitch from a minnow like me - about women's sports, written from a feminist angle? Well, it doesn't fit any existing 'demand.' Most of the things I write about aren't 'stories' from a mainstream media perspective. (But a ponytail pull is??)

Sometimes I think that sports editors can't handle feminist or anti-homophobic writing about women's sports unless it's from a guy, with an established "guy" voice. Dave Zirin is one of the few sports writers able to make strong, even radical arguments about gender and sports - and I am not sure he'd have the visibility that he does if he were a woman, who wrote at least half her material about women's sports and always had. (I am guessing he would support this point, being the feminist that he is.)

Anyway, this is just to say that the more I've been writing about sports, the more I've noticed that the complex structures that maintain the sexism and homophobia in the sports world regulate not only what gets said, but who gets to say it - how, and where. And I've thought - I shouldn't assume the worst - until I try to put my own work out there, I won't know what is really possible, and what isn't.

As a tenured professor with a healthy and stable career (as much as that is possible in this economy), I feel a certain call - if I can't "risk" putting myself and my writing out there, who can?  Lead by example - I really believe that.

In any case, if it were Fox News, I would not have taken the request to write seriously - I would not have replied. It wasn't Fox News, but Fox Soccer - I actually watch that network, as do a lot of fans.

Jenna Pel and Jeff Kassouf were already board with Farley's WWC project: I respect both very much for their sustained, reasonable coverage of the women's game. All White Kit and The Equalizer are must-reads for people looking for concrete information and informed perspectives. If I'd been asked to compile a site featuring WWC coverage by my top bloggers, they'd be there - along with Cross Conference.

Given that Fox seemed to have so little invested in the women's game, I don't think any of us felt like there was a "Fox line" for us to tow.

I made no compromises vis a vis my politics - even more incredibly, I wasn't asked to do that, nor was I asked to simplify my writing. I was amazed at how prominently the women's game was featured on Fox Soccer's main page - from the start of the tournament to days beyond its finish. That is huge.

Anyway - to address RealMD's question regarding the "babes" section of the site. Never checked it out. All the "babes" I ever wanted to see were featured prominently in the match reports.

Monday, July 18, 2011

2011 Women's World Cup: Reflecting on the USWNT run

I write this from the train, on the return journey that marks the conclusion of my experience with the 2011 Women’s World Cup. There are sleeping Japanese fans scattered throughout the cars – I imagine they went directly from celebrations to the station. 

The USWNT players are flying home. We’ll be in our own beds tonight, back to normal.

It’s been an emotional ride.

It is hard to argue with the fact that the women’s game is more generous than the men’s. Remember last year’s final in South Africa? It was an awful, cynical display. Spain won not a football match but a bar fight. The world gathered in unison to watch that? All I felt at the end of that game was a faint disgust with myself for having spent so much time covering the tournament.

The USWNT and Japan, in contrast, gave us a game. I come away from that match – from the whole tournament – wanting more.

Sure, there is room for criticism of both team’s performances. But the domain of that criticism is pure football: Strategy, technique. Who doesn’t love to talk about these things?

Fans in the stands were furious with Japan’s tendency to delay the game – they were slow with their goal kicks in particular, and were often content to pass the ball around the back. Quite a few of us found it alarming for what it implied: they were waiting for us to tire ourselves out.

Yes, the USWNT needs a more clinical finish, especially under the kind of pressure applied by the Japanese National Team last night. Wambach in particular seemed to play much of the game in the middle of an accordion, opening and closing around her. She got space in the midfield, but the more she closed in on the goal, the tighter the Japanese grip. 

It was thrilling to see how Wambach responded to this. She cut and ran, she charged and bullied, she took players on, and she shot. It was an erie reproduction of Necib’s performance against the US, though frankly Wambach played with much more gusto, aggression and creativity and didn’t flag though I can only imagine she had wrung every bit of energy out of herself by the game’s end.

But as was the case with Necib and Bompastor (who is probably Wambach's closest international analog in terms of bad-ass prowess), the more energy the US strikers poured into the game, the more this energy sent shots too high, too far. 

Sometimes, the harder you try the harder it gets. 

But to focus on this would be to miss the two wonderful goals the USWNT did score. Morgan and Wambach, both, by doing exactly what they do best – powering in front of the back line and beating the goalie one-on-one (Morgan), and by throwing herself to meet the ball in the air (Wambach) with a clinical finish no one can dispute, never mind touch.  

Rapinoe was as exciting to watch as Wambach: She reads the game brilliantly. Again and again, “Pinoe” (pronounced like the wine) pulled the ball away from Japan and turned the run of play around. She is quite literally a game-changer.

The first of Japan’s goals was a gift from the US defense. An exceptional moment, as through most of the game, the back line really worked. Buehler, in particular, was tough as nails.  

I don’t want to think about that first goal from Japan – it was a lowlight for the USWNT, and Miyama showed great control by capitalizing on it. (The US had these chances, too, but did not profit from them.)

Those goals are the opposite of set-pieces. They are struck by players who have no right to imagine that ball would be in front of them. They take composure, and the ability to think very quickly and act as if by reflex. Japan watches for these kinds of openings, these cracks in the wall and slips right through them. 

Japan’s second goal from Sawa was class. It was the kind of goal that makes one sigh with the elegance and strength of it. She wings into the danger zone as if called down by the gods to sort things out. This is what sent us into penalties.

The rest is history. Again, it was not the USWNT’s finest moment. We had all come to expect better.
And here is where I felt the arc of the tournament narrative most. 

This was the World Cup championship match, and it was a great game. We had everything but refereeing scandals (we even saw a red card issued in the closing minutes of play). We had great goals and opportunistic goals. Terrific saves from both goalkeepers, and shots that by all rights should have gone in (Wambach, in particular, was robbed of a goal by an unlucky bounce off the crossbar.) 

The US played a ferocious game against Brazil, and unlike some fans, I really liked the game they played against France. They played the best team in the tournament and lost to them – but they weren’t walloped, they weren’t dominated. Far from it. For long stretches, the players played the best game they’ve played all year. It really looked like they could win it all.

But throughout the year, we watched the USWNT squeak through. Losing to an increasingly strong Mexican side, they forced themselves into a playoff with Italy (not exactly a women’s football powerhouse). Then they scared us in the first leg of that exchange with an underwhelming match rescued by an impossibly late goal from Alex Morgan who scored in injury time. They won at home in a solid game, played before a small crowd. They lost a friendly to England.

They struggled, and at times it seemed like few cared. Sometimes I wondered if the USSF was relieved – as if the strength of the USWNT were not as a source of pride, but an embarrassment.

The match that would decide if the no. 1 ranked team in the world would go to Germany was not even broadcast on television. ESPN webcast the game, but only to its subscribers. Fans were worried about the team, and about the USWNT program more broadly. 

The women’s national team program has seemed moribund – plagued by the same problems that hold the men back: US athletes grow up playing a very regimented game, one that can stifle creativity. They only play against people their own age, and so don’t develop the improvisational guile that one hones in situations when outmatched. And so on. 

We spent a lot of time lowering our expectations.

Why does Alex Morgan always come on so late? Why doesn’t Pia mix up her starting 11? Why is LePeilbet playing out of position? The physical game isn’t enough! Defense isn’t enough when that defense isn’t perfect! Just about the only person we never complained about was Hope Solo. Even Wambach took flack.  

Alexi Lalas loves the USWNT (photo from his twitter feed)
Add to this the USSF’s horrific publicity campaign for the team – forever holding on to 1999, anxious about the “attractiveness” of the team (the WWC player video portraits used at the start of matches show all the players with their hair down, ‘blown out’ into gentle waves), unsure of how to redress the team’s visibility problem (e.g. 2007’s Nike slogan for the USWNT: ‘the best team you’ve never heard of’), totally ignorant regarding the team’s fan base. The USSF commissioned a kit designed to be “feminine but not cutesy” (their words) - and produced nothing whatsoever that a male fan might wear to identify himself as a fan of the women’s team. 

The USSF and Nike put far more energy into the men’s team’s Gold Cup campaign than into the women’s World Cup appearances. Far more.

These administrative problems sting. They are insulting to fans, to the athletes and to the communities who have damned well heard of the team. We find in the USSF’s desire to feminize the team’s image the kind of thinking which, taken to an extreme, leads to environments from which gender non-conformity itself is banned, as is the case with the Nigerian squad. 

For what is that “feminine but not cutesy” design mandate if not some sort of apology for Wambach’s power and her broad shouldered, confident swagger? You can imagine the boardroom conversations. The sighs of relief that express not gratitude for Solo and Morgan’s talent, but rather for their physiques and long flowing locks. (Which is insulting to them.)

US fans are over it. We really and truly are.

And if the USSF thinks that the team’s image needs feminization more than it needs, say, grassroots outreach – well, it makes me anxious for the sport’s future. 

Last night, I was reminded of how effectively a great match can blow that bullshit out of the water.  The love for the game (in all its elegance and cruelty) was on full display. 

And I was part of a crowd celebrating that: 48,000 people all focused on the actions of twenty-two women. No distractions. Just game, and the pulse of all the people who love it. 

Scarcely anyone left the stadium before the players – we couldn't stand to be parted from either team. It was mesmerizing.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

2011 Women's World Cup: Quick Thoughts on USWNT and Japan

Japan turned the narrative tables: This time it was not the USWNT winning against the run of play. They attacked relentlessly for much of the match, and came awfully close to scoring over and over again.  Japan forced the USWNT to bring the game to them. Every now and again, they let up their breaks. They exploited a defensive mistake, and scored a fantastic goal from a corner. And got more of their penalty shots than did the US.

It was a hard fought game. Abby Wambach was tireless. That must have been one of her best performances in this tournament. It was inspiring to watch. She is just a flat out heroic athlete. The full range of her skill was on display, which is incredible given how intensely she was being marked.

Rapinoe was also a star - she had some million dollar moves in this game, and many of them were defensive. She scooped passes off the ground, swept in to intercept passes, and plucked balls out of the air with her toes. Buehler was fantastic - her determination on the back line stopped more attacks than I could count. I could run down the roster, so many players turned themselves inside out tonight.

Sawa. What can you say about her? She is a very smart and skillful player. She has a sixth sense about where to be on the field and is so fast, it often seems as if she can teleport herself from one end of the pitch to the other.

The penalties were hard to watch. The last ten minutes of play were so chaotic, so frantic. It was plain to see that the US players were rattled, and their performance in front of the goal showed it. Japan were more steady, just.

My heart breaks for the USWNT players. That is a hard way to lose a match. Because they came so damned close. But it was a noble loss to a deserving team.

The stadium atmosphere was outstanding. Except for the sixty-plus VIP seats that sat empty from start to finish.

Today I was told (anecdotally) by a Fifa official that 80% of Fifa staff had never seen a women's match. I believe it, because if those assholes can't be bothered to attend a World Cup final, what women's match will they go to, exactly?

Let me conclude these thoughts on a positive note: Sepp Blatter was booed mercilessly during the closing ceremony.

Seriously, though, the US players threw their whole being into this match - I've never been more proud to be a USWNT fan. And if we had to lose to anyone, at least it was to the best team in the tournament!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Against the Run of Play: on USA's win over France

From some perspectives (including that of players on the field), it looks like France outplayed the USWNT in the World Cup semifinal. But France lost. [Necib, in today's edition of L'Equipe: "The worst is that we were better than them." 14 June]
It has been said, too, of France’s game against England, that they dominated possession, played the better game. But they only won on penalties. Many felt that Brazil played a better game against the US in the Olympics, some might say they played a better game (in a few ways at least) than the USWNT last week – but Brazil lost the Olympic and the World Cup matches.
Defensive work from the whole team provided the architecture of the USWNT’s recent wins - from Solo, Sauerbrunn, LePeilbet, Rampone, Rapinoe, Lloyd, Kreiger, and more. Even pressure from Alex Morgan contributes to this side of the USWNT game: I never understood why the striker was brought on so late in match after march until I saw her entry into the game with my own eyes.
The minute she took to the field, she began harassing the keeper and France’s back line – when they had the ball.
For long stretches against a ‘technical’ opponent like Brazil or France, it looks like the USWNT isn’t playing pretty football. Those teams love to hold the ball. They play a possession game.
The media trains us to look at the game through the logic of attack. When we do so, we act as if a team only plays when they have the ball. But of course this is just not true.  
Be wary of sports talk about possession and the “run of play.” Possession is not nine-tenths of the law in the game.
Think of Italy. The team’s style polarizes the football world for its ungenerous play, but the record speaks for itself. That kind of team is expert in weathering attack. It’s siege-mentality football, in which one lets the opponent do a certain kind of work – in which one lets them spend and spend and spend energy and imagination. Eventually, they pass a tipping point. One pass too many, one moment of hesitation, and you can see frustration settle in. Attack that much over an hour without success and the last thirty minutes become desperate. 
Flashes of counterattack exploit the cracks that have developed under the dynamic stress of the possession game. [That is when Morgon comes in.]
The USWNT isn’t playing as cynically as Italy at its most notorious. But some of the same principals are clearly in play, and have worked.
I still don’t understand Japan’s game. They look more “total” – end-to-end, there is something jaw-droppingly complete about the way the team plays. Personally, I am thrilled they beat Sweden and are in the final. They are the most exciting team in the tournament, and lord knows, there is a global sense of good will for the team.
Whatever happens, Sunday’s match is going to be fantastic.

A View from the Stands: On USA v France

After the pathos of the win over Brazil, today’s match was a relief.
My sense of relief pales, however, compared with that of the people watching the semifinal with me. 
I write this from the “family bus” – as luck would have it, I attended the France-USA match with the family of Lori Lindsey. The USSF has a “family program” – a package tour that allows a player’s friends and family to spend game day together and sit en masse - many in full USA regalia. 
I can see the attraction of it. Fans have one relationship to the game, players another. A player’s circle has yet another way of relating to things.
The morning ride from Frankfurt to Monchengladbach was subdued. Lunch was quiet, mellow. Families of substitutes (like Lindsey) hoped their player would get time, they worried about the day’s result – but hardly dared speak about it. We tended to talk about other things - anything, really, but what was staring us in the face.
As much as they want their player to play, everyone wants the team to win, more. 
Spending game day with moms, dads, partners and friends of the team was grounding.
Pundits and fans talk a lot about what they think is going to happen. What we present as givens are usually enormous assumptions. Until a few days ago, a lot of us talked as if the teams were competing for a chance to lose to Germany.
The only people who probably didn’t think like this were those around the team itself. Partners and brothers, dads and aunts. Moms. They thought more about what they hoped would happen, and avoided thoughts that made any of presumption of victory. Superstition.
Back to the match itself
Although this was destined to be one of the most lively matches of the tournament (in strictly footballing terms), attendance topped out at 25,000. (The stadium holds 40,000.) Our side of the stadium was pretty full. Opposite us were rows of empty VIP seats. This was probably most of what the televisual audience saw of the crowd.
US fans were present in numbers, however. You have to credit American soccer fans – they (we!) were visible, and loud. The best were a large mysterious tribe of girls in handmade t-shirts, painted faces – painted bodies in fact. They wore not one scrap of FIFA or Nike produced regalia. Everything was improvised with the sloppy enthusiasm of a real fan. They ruled their section of the stadium – and fed a steady drip of hysteria into the somewhat anemic stadium.
French soccer fans really missed something – and frankly, their team needed them.  I’d say I was surprised by how few of them were there, but having spent the past three weeks in France I know there is very little awareness, very little outreach on behalf of Les Bleues. Photo-spreads in Sunday magazines do not put warm bodies in the seats. The FFF has to work a lot harder.
Les Bleues needed just a little bit more wind in their sails. Their skill on the ball is incredible; their passing is elegant; they exploit their opponent’s errors ruthlessly. For most of the match, we were just plain anxious.  But Les Bleues also appeared to be seized by waves of nervousness. Every now and again they’d hesitate with a shot, make one pass too many – a chance would come and go. But as soon as that fear was beaten back, they seemed invincible.
But they weren't. The last thirty minutes of the match were so incredible. I am not sure the USWNT has played a better game this tournament. You all will have to tell me what it looked like on TV. 
All I know, is the view from the stands, where I sat surrounded by the people who love the team the most.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bon Courage! a note on Les Bleues

This week's cover of France Football is a first for the squad - the headline "On Vous Aime!" has a lovely double resonance. It means "We love you!" and it's used by football fans - I have a Marseille scarf with this exact thing written on it. (Who writes that on a football scarf but the French!)

Used with regard the women's team it has a special meaning to at least this reader. It's a formal "we love you." I've been told that this can be very seductive when used in the right setting. The "vous" between people who would normally use "tu" with each other is a sign of affection and respect. Being on the receiving end of that statement is a real pleasure.

Of course, this love may be fleeting - I am not sure what national press pays sustained attention to its women's national football team outside of the World Cup. But this week, Les Bleues are basking in an attention they have never received, ever. And some of that attention is even going to they way they play.

But a lot of that attention is going to how they give French football fans a way to enjoy watching the national team, after last year's awful World Cup and subsequent months unpacking the racist, anti-immigrant attitudes of FFF executives. This team, as many women's teams do, represents a more wholesome and honest game.

It's a great year for Les Bleues, and the women really deserve it.

I haven't written much about them on this blog - but I've probably seen half the squad play (more?) attending Montpellier matches (including two against Lyon), and also at WPS games: Camille Abily is one of the smartest and most interesting players in the world. She is intense on the pitch. When she played for the LA Sol, she was as effective as Marta in putting points on the board.

Soon I'm jumping on the bandwagon to Monchengladbach to see them take on the USWNT, and when I'm there, I'll be thinking of the first time I saw many of them play, in Villeneuve-les-Maguelones, at Montpellier's wind-swept practice stadium not a mile in from the Mediterranean coast. Women's matches there are free, and the little stadium usually has a small but enthusiastic crowd. Teens, families and lots of old men sick of the men's game. They'll say things like, "Les nanas, elles savent jouer" and then launch into tirades about the crappy refereeing.

It's a really nice scene, and it is a world away from where these players are today.

I'm proud of the way the USWNT played against Brazil, and I'm really excited to see them take on Les Bleues. Beware!

Si on les aime, c'est parce-qu'elles aiment jouer!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beauty and the Beast: on USA v Brazil

Brazilian scholars Sebastião Votre and Ludmilla Mourão observe that there are “two faces” to media representations of the women’s game, “skill and sensuality.”  These two qualities are divided, as the media uses one player to represent beauty, another to represent skill – and pits the two against each other, as bitter rivals. In sports media, being beautiful and skillful are understood as at odds with each other. It’s a displacement of the larger problem, in which being a woman is understood as at odds with being an athlete.
The relationship between the USWNT and Brazil is at risk of being cast in these terms. I open with the above academic point as a caution against playing into such narratives.
That said, tonight’s match absolutely was beauty and the beast. The game was both, at once – a tornado of the awful and the amazing.
Take the first goal: It was a pretty play but an own goal. A forced error. The second, more ugliness: Buehler with a professional foul in the box (from what I'm seeing, the red card was not controversial outside the US). But then Solo blocked a penalty from Cristiane. It was beautiful. A real stunner of a save. 
And it was waved off. Do over. 
A defender (I hear) came into the box early. But at the time, announcers said the referee called Solo for coming off her line (she hadn't). I still don't know why the referee awarded the do-over. Or the yellow to Solo, for that matter.
Marta took that second try. (How is that allowable?) And that was that. 
Beautiful shot, shitty goal.
The USWNT looked very organized and brutal through much of the game. By brutal, I mean physical, powerful, aggressive.
But Brazil was throwing red flags in front of the bull. Again and again players would attempt to take the ball through a defensive hive, looking as much for the foul as the pass. Fouls came (and were or were not called), but so did passes – including a marvelous one from Maurine tipped into the goal with a freakishly acrobatic strike from Marta. Maybe Maurine was offside – journalists tweeted the photo and it’s a close call. So Brazil went up. Either way, the goal was pure genius.
After this point, everything is a haze. The refereeing was atrocious. Monstrous.
Brazil did everything it could to wind down the clock, hoping to guard its lead by lying down on the field. Ericka, in fact, did just that. After some minor scrap, the play moved away from her – she moved from near to far post, looked around to see who was watching her – and just lay down in front of the goal. Ugly.
The USWNT  did not lose their focus. In the last minutes of the game, they seemed to get back a strange rhythm – as if they’d been playing on a really shitty field and suddenly knew all its kinks.
Ericka’s acting most certainly contributed to the awarding of three minutes of injury time. This is about when Rapinoe delivered an incredible ball into the danger zone and one of the world’s most dangerous players ran in for it. Abby Wambach scored a beautiful goal – the game’s first, really, and it was the equalizer.
Penalties – again. Karmic law dictated that Solo would save another penalty kick –that it would be off the foot of Daiane, who’d scored Brazil’s own goal earlier, and any doubts about what Solo might have saved in 2007 were laid to rest by what she saved in 2011.
Once again, the team with possession somehow did not dominate the game. Which is, of course, what happens to Brazil, over and over again. Which is why so many of us want to see them break though. But not by lying down on the field!
The USWNT played a woman down for the last 20 minutes of regulation time, and another 30 minutes on top of that. Marta and company get under the team’s skin – it was clear. But the USWNT was never completely rattled. They’ve seen it before. 
The US women squared their shoulders to the contradictions within the game, and kept playing – it was a terrific performance under extremely trying conditions. A hard earned, classic USA win. 
All that stuff about women not diving, not engaging in cynical gamesmanship? It’s complete bullshit, and everyone who has actually played with women knows it. Can we put that myth to rest? We play beautiful football, we play beastly football. And as the level of the game improves, it will only create more torque as one force pulls on the other. Often within the same team, and the same player. Marta.
Fortunately, Hope Solo seems to keep her beast confined to her tweets.

 ref: "Women's Football in Brazil: Progress and Problems" in Soccer and Society, volume 4, issue 2-3 (2003), pp. 254-267.

Marta, before "that goal"

On the eve of the showdown between Brazil and the US, I thought readers might enjoy looking at a couple early profiles of Marta - material produced before "that goal" (scored against the US in the 2007 World Cup). 

John Turnbull's 2006 profile of the player is one of the best out there:

'Tis the season for tears: The extraordinary, untold story of Marta Viera da Silva (The Global Game)

Almost everything on Marta tells the same story and was no doubt shaped by her press kit.  Leave it to Turnbull to do something meaningful, years before the American press paid her any attention. (I'd forgotten about the problems with Umeå not releasing her to play in the 2006 U20 World Cup finals - after she'd scored 14 goals helping Brazil qualify.)

In his article Turnbull refers to Marta - Pelé's Cousin, a 2005 Swedish television profile. This is also worth looking at, even if you don't understand Portuguese or Swedish. Watching Marta play, horse around with teammates in Sweden and visit her home town is rewarding enough - but it also includes footage of her scoring for Umeå and glimpses of her playing as a young girl. It's thoroughly enjoyable, especially when you remembers how young she was when this profile was filmed.

Already my heart is in my throat, waiting for today's game.

(This is the first of three parts on Youtube.)

Marta & Hope Solo (Two Photos)

[For my report on the incredible Brazil-USA match, read Beauty and the Beast.]

Two of my favorite off-the-field photos:

Totally used w/o permission: Joao Kehl / CIA DE FOTO for Newsweek
Again - pulled without asking first from Jason Nocito (thanks you Patrick Romero for the tip)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Well, scratch that last headline: Japan beats Germany at its own game.

What can I say about this match that hasn't already been said? Japan defeats the home team, and forces all of us to throw away the basic structure of our narratives about this world cup, in which everyone was supposed to be fighting for the chance to lose to Germany.

Japan played a perfect defensive game. Where most teams challenging Germany seem to do so by breaking up Germany's play, somehow Japan figured out how to play Germany's game, better. And they scored, with about twelve minutes of extra-time left. Japan played smart and physical, smashing all narratives about Germany's height advantage.

Sawa's pass to Miruyama (who'd subbed in) was perfect, Miruyama's goal itself was extraordinary - a sly shot from a very tight angle slipped over a tackling defender and Nadine Angerer's reach. It was a flash in which everything came together.

Japan's keeper Aymu Kaihori had a great match tonight.  What can I say but this is just great. Probably awful for ratings. But very exciting news for us fans!

La Vie en Rose: England and France play match of the tournament

It’s not the possession. It’s what you do with it.
France had the ball for so much of this match that its players seemed to forget what to do when they didn’t. In minute 59, Jill Scott slipped past a sleeping back line with a nonchalant fake, a turn and a cracker of a shot. Les Bleues went from dream to nightmare.
Although France still dominated possession, they began to do so without dominating the game.  
France tried again and again. Over 30 shots on goal by the end of the match. Different players, from different parts of the field. They tried the same play over and over again. Thomis must have taken the ball down the right wing, and tried the same shot across the goal a dozen times. The match callers were despondent. Frappe! Frappe! Frappe! C’est pas possible!  Strike after strike wound up in the hands of Karen Bardsley.
One carefully constructed series of plays after another.
Alex Kingston, as Iceni warrior Queen Boudicca
In the end, an ugly jumbled defensive scrum brought the French their equalizer. The ball popped out to the top of the box in minute 87, where it met Bussaglia’s right foot. Bang – the ball hit the top corner and ricocheted hard across and into the goal. Boudicca, finally defeated. Nothing she could have done - it was a terrific goal. And so we went into extra-time.
Thomis was still cursed: shots blocked, shots wide or high, or she just made no shot at all, held the ball until someone kindly took it away from her. Play seemed hesitant: The stupor of extra-time started to settle in – a kind of death-rattle, in which the intensity of our fear of the penalty shoot-out conjures it into the world. 
Players fell to the ground, turning ankles, cramping, just falling apart. Bompastore blew a corner at the last second.
As the women gather the last scrap of their energy and dignity together, one of the Eurosport commentators says, “Chez les filles, one doesn’t like penalty shoot outs.” Because chez les hommes – we just love having the game resolved with this horrible ritual, in which all that had been accomplished in the previous 120 minutes of play is sacrificed, one player at a time. 
When Camille Abily stepped up to the spot to take the first shot, I swear she looked like she was going to cry. It seemed to take ages for the ref to blow her whistle. Bardsley saved it. Kelly Smith stepped up to whistles and jeers from the stadium and NAILED it, and raised her arms to the crowd. I hate to put the rest of it in words. Rafferty and Faye White missed their shots. France won.
The Eurosport commentators had the nerve to say “c’est merité.” I'm sorry. I don't care if the team had the ball for most of the game. England played out of their socks. But I'm biased: I felt it as soon as I saw them take the field. I just love the Lionesses, I really do. This game killed me.
I cried. 
Karen Bardsley is my player of the match.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

2011 Women's World Cup: looking back to THAT game (USA/Brazil, 2007)

As much as the USWNT 1999 World Cup win over China meant to me, as a fan of the sport I was more impacted by the team's loss to Brazil four years ago.

I watched that match from a bar in France - the same way I've been watching the games this tournament. That afternoon, I can't say as I was that excited. The US had been doing so well, it just didn't seem possible that they would lose. I dutifully went to the bar to bear witness to another victory.

That match completely changed my relationship to the women's game. It drew me closer to the sport, and closer to the USWNT than I had ever been - even as it made me also love Brazil.

There were very few people at the bar that day. Two bartenders. Two women, and a table of four old men. This bar had a medium-sized television up in a back corner. They graciously turned up the sound.

We all know the story. The absolutely bizarre decision to bench Solo, who'd been playing brilliantly all tournament. There was an own goal.  A foul - well, really, a dive from Cristiane (biased memory?) - and a second yellow card to Shannon Boxx at the tail end of the first half. The US played with ten women through the entire second half.  Marta did samba moves. Not samba-like moves, but the most deliberate taunting of a defender I've ever seen. Everyone on Brazil's team was having a good time. They were beautiful, and nasty. I loved watching them play like that, but I couldn't stop thinking how much I would have hated playing them.

And then Marta scored that goal. By that point all of the nine or so people in the bar were on their feet. The men shouted "Maradona! Maradona! Maradona!" over and over again. The woman on TV calling the match broke out into a cry - I never head anything like it before, or since: "C'est pas juste!" and "If she were a man, she would be making millions and everyone would know her name."

I cried. It was only the second time a soccer match did that to me - the first was 1999, when I turned on the TV and saw the crowd.

In both cases, they were tears of unexpected joy.

Sure, I was totally demoralized by what was happening to the US women. It was so unfair. Solo seething from the bench (quite rightly), Scurry trying to do her best in a ridiculous situation. That own-goal. The totally ludicrous card.

But the way Brazil played...

Until then, I had such a narrow view of the women's game. I'd only ever seen women play a "European" game. The way Brazil manipulated the ball, mind and soul of that game was incredible. And typically Brazilian. Brazil made me want to see more than what the media gives us. It made me look for Latin women's leagues in LA, women's football in Spain, England, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. It opened my eyes to something. Until then, in my heart of hearts, I found much women's soccer kind of boring.  I realized, however, that I had seen only a small slice of the way the game is practiced. If I wasn't floored, entranced, in awe - it was because I hadn't really been watching in the first place. So, now I watch the game more carefully, at home and abroad.

I write this blog because when I felt the earth move when I saw Marta score that last goal. So, now, I do usually root for Brazil. The way Marta, Cristiane, Formiga and Rosana play impacts so many women around the world - more, I think, than any team right now.

Brazil plays the USWNT this weekend - this will be the biggest game of the tournament, in terms of the emotional stakes. I want Brazil to win, and I want the USWNT to win. I can't choose.

I want a different game than that we had in 2007: one not marred by terrible coaching decisions, one free from freak goals and irresponsible refereeing decisions. I want a beautiful game from both squads - so we can see who, at least on that day, is the better team.

Most of the people I know who follow the game closely feel the US has the edge. They just have better support, better experience. You can see the team work, figure the game out. They are "all in."

Brazil has looked disorganized for significant periods of time during their matches.  But Brazil also plays like Brazil. Doing a certain kind of minimum sometimes, where you don't think they've showed up to the game, and then suddenly their opponent is up against it. Done for.

Don't believe anyone who tells you that they know how this game is going to go.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

2011 Women's World Cup: File under "More Crap Marketing"

So, this morning I wanted to read "tout sur les Bleues," in preparation for this much anticipated match against Germany. 

I was so absorbed in the football, it took me a few minutes before I noticed the leg action on the right and left margins. This appears to be part of a publicity campaign for the team - "These legs know how evade one's marker." Or, as we would say in English, "These legs know how to stay open."

The double entendre in English is the opposite of what it means in French. In French, it means more properly how to avoid being trapped or cornered. Anyway, just one more detail in the weird FFF marketing of "les desmoiselles de Clairefontaine" - cartoony lady legs in high heels. Legs - not players, mind you, but legs are the "queen of the pitch." Sigh.

The carving up of the female body into parts is a foundation of advertising, turning those female body parts into product hardly discernible from that being sold to you. You want not the shoes, but the legs. French photographer Guy Bourdin pushed that practice to its limit - I leave you with one of his older photographs (1970s?) advertising pantyhose? Shoes? Who can tell!?
Guy Bourdin - provocative French fashion photographer (known largely for his work with Charles Jourdan shoes).

Friday, July 1, 2011

Nigeria's Game

I fell in love with the Super Falcons during the 2008 Olympics, watching them slug out the ultimate group-of-death: Germany, Brazil, Nigeria and North Korea. None of the games in that tournament were as exciting as those Nigeria played in this group.

Nevertheless, Nigeria didn't make it past that stage. Similarly, last night's performance against Germany will likely go down as one of the best in the tournament. It had everything: skill, stamina, speed and controversy.

Basically, the Super Falcons have so much pace, and play so aggressively that it was as if Germany's formation had been put though a blender. Nigeria is that fearsome team which does not allow others to play their game. The first twenty minutes in Nigeria's game are particularly chaotic. This does not mean they are without tactic: quite the opposite. It's the mobile, fluid tactic of a game constantly adjusting itself to the other team's strategies.

It was hard to reconcile last night's performance with the match against France: It seems likely they underestimated les Bleus, or is it that France read Nigeria better than did Germany?

It might also be possible that unlike last night's game, the match with France was actually refereed. Poor refereeing absolutely favors Nigeria - thus some the match's controversy.

In spite of their tremendous effort, Nigeria had scarcely any shots at goal. I asked former FC Indiana coach Shek Borkowsky (via Twitter) why Germany won, even though it was clearly a brutal game for them. (His comments are edited, to translate tweets into sentences.)
The way Nigeria performed yesterday no other team in this competition would beat them. Nigeria's aggression and commitment level was three times of that they showed against France. Still, Germany limited Nigeria to one shot on goal.  It was the most combative match, ever.
I asked him why, given the intensity of Nigeria's performance which genuinely seemed to rattle Germany, the host team still came out on top. His reply:
Because Laudher and Kulig are so good at what they do. Nigeria's strikers rarely have midfield support, and with limited options available for them, Bartusiak and Krahn's job is easier. The only time Germany had problems in their 3rd is when they gave away the ball. 
Despite poor passing and strong Nigeria performance, Germany was never going to lose that match. That's how strong they are.  You can kick Germany, you can foul them, you can take them off their game and still they win. Frightening!     [FF @ShekBorkowsky]
Call me an optimist, but the USWNT has some of Germany's mental toughness - the ability to keep it together under pressure, which comes from experience. (But do we have the depth of talent - I mean, Alexandra Popp and Inka Grings - two of the world's best players - came off Germany's bench!)

I am really excited to see France and Germany play each other: Olympique Lyon beat Potsdam in this year's European club championship, and there are ten of these club champions on France's squad (Germany's squad is more diverse than this). France are playing like a finely tuned unit (is someone trying to create a Barça-like synergy with the national team for Lyon?). We'll see that organization and talent tested as these two go head to head, playing for placement. Not exactly the highest stakes, but hopefully it will be enough for us to take the full measure of France's depth and mettle.

I've held my comments regarding the mess in the Super Falcons camp for last. It's important to foreground the players in all this, to divorce (as much as is possible) these women from the Nigerian FA, and their homophobic coach. It was awful hearing boos and whistles - at the start of the match this was clearly directed at the Nigerian officials. It is hard imagine how these athletes felt, taking to the field in that atmosphere. It didn't feel like support to me.

How do we properly support these women? Because to single out Uche as if she alone were the problem is just wrong. She was hired by the FA, and thrown on the front line to represent a "new look" for the team. It is also wrong to single out her homophobia as somehow an anomaly: - as if it looked nothing like, say the German FA's behavior - according to a story published in The Local,
In 1995, the DFB prohibited national team players from participating inthe European Gay and Lesbian Sport Championships in Frankfurt. Several players had expressed interest in participating, but none wanted to risk being dropped from the national squad before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.("Women's Football Confronts Gay Taboos")
What I dread about the way the Nigeria story is being handled: it is too easy for this turn into a smug celebration of European liberalism as if Europe's own attitudes, histories and practices had nothing to do with any of this.  Let's remember - the original ban against women's involvement in football (which was adopted in Germany) came from the English FA, and was very much a response to the (accurate) perception that there were a lot of "unladylike" women on the pitch, having a great time together, in front of large crowds of people who thought this was a great thing. If a game like last night's - an epic match played before a packed stadium of people deeply involved with the drama unfolding before them - if something like that feels rare, it's not because of anything the Nigerian FA did a few months ago, but because of the systemic suppression of women's involvement with such spectacles since at least 1921.

We'd do well to keep this long view in mind, otherwise it's as if the Super Falcon's elimination from the World Cup has somehow solved the problem. Which, of course, it hasn't.
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