Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kelly Smith: It's Always the Quiet Ones

Kelly Smith celebrates a goal, her magic foot and the shoe it was in.
When you teach you learn pretty quickly that the very smartest and most interesting students are often quiet. Some are painfully shy and intense listeners. Some only talk when they think they have something valuable to contribute and have a very the bar high when it comes to their sense of value. Some feel like their own interests are so out of step with everyone else they just keep their mouths shut. Some keep their mouths shut because they don't want to stand out.

When you teach, you meet these students in their writing. It's one of the profession's real pleasures. These students teach me to never accept the surface. To expect deep waters, but also to never assume that I know where those deep waters lie.

Kelly Smith's memoir is the absolute opposite of Hope Solo's. Some of these differences can be chalked up to those of a keeper and a striker, and others can be read as the differences of American and English attitudes towards self-disclosure. (One is abundant with it, the other refuses it.) But the differences between their books don't end there.

Hope Solo barely touches on her game in her memoir. The book's focus is on her family, and on the challenging social dynamics of a team living under the spotlight. We know the name of her boyfriend and are given the outline of the development of their relationship. Her friends and the coaches who have supported her get shout-outs. We do get a peek into the USWNT run in the 2011 World Cup, and Solo outlines the physical struggle of her recovery from a shoulder injury that was far worse than most of us realized. But these things are not really at the heart of the narrative. A Memoir of Hope is personality driven. If Solo's memoir is a good read it is because it mirrors the outspoken wild card public persona we already know.

The title of Footballer: My Story pretty much says it all. Smith's book is 100% centered on her relationship to the sport. Where Solo's book opens with a broad portrait of her home town, her parents, with the landscape in which she grows up, Smith's book opens with an image of one of the world's greatest players as a kid with a ball at her feet. We learn that she would imitate moves that she saw on Match of the Day, and practice them using video tapes of the week's highlights.  The narrative sticks with this tight focus of Smith on the ball right to the end. 

Footballer: My Story does chronicle Smith's personal struggles, and they are significant:

  • When she grew up there was no real women's football culture to speak of in England. This is the source of her often cited complaint that the women's game in England in the 1990s "was a joke."
  • Like many of the great international players, she played with boys until she was kicked off the team. She grew up being welcomed into the game (invited to play with the boys) and exiled from it.
  • Like most international players, she had no future in the sport to imagine for herself - she wanted to be a professional footballer, but for English girls this dream was a delusion. The vast majority of English women players lose access to training before they turn 18. Even now the Women's Super League is more semi-pro than pro. And it is significantly more professional than anything anyone had ever heard of just ten years ago. 
  • She was scouted and recruited to play in the US. This was dumb luck. With relatively little awareness of what it would mean, she enrolled at Seton Hall in New Jersey and plunged into deep culture shock. 
  • She suffered from crippling social anxiety which she self-medicated, becoming a full-blown alcoholic in her twenties. 
  • She suffered one serious injury after another. Torn ACL, broken leg, fractured leg - and has come back from each. 
  • Unlike the USWNT, England has been a serious underdog in international competition for years. Under Hope Powell's leadership the team has been climbing a serious mountain. They've suffered some agonizing, cruel defeats on the world stage. When it comes to trophies and medals, they are far more familiar with failure than they are with success. 
In short, Kelly Smith has worked hard, suffered, and gotten through it and over it. In spite of the list I've given above, the book is not a litany of complaints. Far from it. Smith is clearly a person with an enormous reservoir of strength. If she shares one quality with Solo, it is a certain stubbornness. A refusal to hear "no." An obstacle is not a roadblock. It's something to be hurdled. 

Her narrative is also not sappy, or sentimental. It's remarkably reticent. We never learn, for example, why Smith was so afraid of speaking in front of people, or why she felt so intensely alone and isolated that she crawled up inside a bottle. This book is no confessional. On this point, it feels remarkably English - she makes absolutely no excuses for herself. Even as we learn of relationships that have sustained her, she never tells their story - Smith comes off as very private. This leaves her somewhat of a mystery as a person.

Smith's discretion compares interestingly with Solo's openness, as do her struggles with social anxiety.  Solo is what the corporate world diagnoses  as "non-joiner" - a person not so good at small talk, who prefers time alone to team-building exercises, prefers the company of a handful of people she trusts than that of people she doesn't know and who don't know her. Solo does not lack for confidence - in fact her  confidence perhaps grounds her decisions about how she socializes.  The Solo we meet in her memoir knows what she needs.

Footballer: My Story suggests a very different kind of isolation. Smith struggled with profound loneliness and depression. Real despair - and it seems that for a long time this was kept hidden from the people around her. Fortunately, it wasn't hidden for too long: Powell, her teammates and her family helped her get on solid ground. Where Solo and co-author Ann Killian give us detail about her background in order that we understand Solo's lone wolf, controversy-provoking style, Smith and her co-author Lance Hardy draw a careful line around Smith's private life.

The refusal to disclose much about herself off the pitch makes room in Smith's autobiography for lots of writing about her development as a player and a teammate. This book will teach readers a lot about the England women's team. It will also introduce readers to the basic state of European women's football. You'll also get a fantastic glimpse of Hope Powell's coaching, which is no small thing in and of itself. Smith devotes a full chapter to Powell - the whole book might just be a long thank you to the woman that Smith credits with saving not just her career, but her very soul.

The book starts of slowly and awkwardly - somehow its writing seems to mirror Smith's battles with social awkwardness, picking up pace as she gets deeper into her career and maturity. The book is most comfortable inside the game: the chapter on England's loss to France in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals is as heart breaking as the match itself.

When you watch the game as much as some of  us do, you really want to know what it feels like to play at that level. Sometimes it is a joyful experience and sometimes it is absolute physical and emotional agony. The game started off with a "bright start" but soon France put the pressure on them and then kept it up. Smith's team scored a goal against the run of play at 58 minutes. The French really piled it on then. "We knew we were in a match," Smith writes. Her ankle had been sore from the start, and the pain mounted with each passing minute.
The longer the game went on, the more pressure the French put on our goal. The pain in my ankle, too, was mounting as time passed. 
At one stage I remember looking up at the clock on the scoreboard - I think we were about seventy or seventy-five minutes into the game, and we had the lead - and I thought to myself 'Just get through this.' 
We were keeping them at bay. We were playing so well defensively that I thought they couldn't score. Our backs were against the wall, admittedly, but I felt so confident in our back line and goalkeeper. But the clock seemed to be going very slowly and as a result our place in the semi-finals seemed so near and yet so far away. The second half seemed to be lasting forever.
Powell made the last of her substitutions. Smith didn't have a chance to signal how much pain she was in. Powell subbed in for defenders on the basis of a miscommunication. With three minutes left France broke through the back line and the game went into extra-time. By this point Smith could scarcely put weight on her foot.
As the French ran around, screaming heir heads off in delight, it struck me there and then that I would now have to play on for another half an hour. 
France kept up their attack, dominating possession. England held on for dear life. Smith writes, "I couldn't see us getting a goal. So, without thinking about it, I started to will the game to end. I wanted penalties."

Penalties they got. Smith took the first and scored. But they went out anyway. This is the kind of story that fans want: How was Smith feeling in the middle of that firestorm? What happened with the penalties? (Few players volunteered, this because a major talking point in the press.) What happened with that substitution?

Many people wrote after that match that England's women are like the men - and that English players need to practice penalties more than they do.  Smith's recollections and thoughts on this whole episode are frank and sobering:
I would like to take this opportunity to say that we practiced penalties after virtually every training session in Germany. I would also like to this: you can practice penalties all day long and it makes no difference to what will happen on the day when it matters.
You can't prepare for the stadium, the crowd, the pressure. How can you plan for who is going to be on the pitch after ninety minutes, or who is going to be fit or injured? It's impossible....
Regarding the comparison with the men's side:
Of course the England men's time have had a torrid time of it in the past, going out of the 1990 World Cup, the 1996 European Championship, the 1998 World Cup, the 2004 European Championship, and the 2006 World Cup on penalties. That is quite a list. By contrast, England's women's team have gone out of tournaments at that stage against Sweden in the European Championship final in 1984, when the team was still not officially recognized by the Football Association, and against China in a competition that didn't really matter to us, the Algarve Cup in 2005. The defeat by France in the 20011 Women's World Cup was only the third occasion. It's hardly an epidemic.  
It's a good point. I appreciated hearing this from her. I also appreciated her account of watching the World Cup final with her teammates in Boston, and then what it felt like to see Breakers teammate Aya Sameshina return to the squad with the medal. ("I saw the medal but I couldn't touch it.")

Soon the Breakers suspend play and the WPS folds. She writes, "With the problems that have occurred over the years, I think it's understandable for me to feel that there will always be some kind of issue with women's football [in the United States] at the highest professional level. Let's just say that I don't think things will ever run smoothly. It's a shame, but that's the way it seems to be."

It's hard to argue with her on that score. Smith's book gives us a glimpse of the difference that the England makes, as a context for developing the game. The system has strengths and weaknesses. Club training isn't as frequent and developed as it is in the US. But the FA is building its league system slowly and carefully. The FA had better luck with television contracts until recently. The national team's growth ties directly into the league's visibility. The book left me optimistic about women's football in England - and wondering how long it will be before it tops Sweden and Germany as the destination for the world's best.

There is, of course, a lot more to the book - and to Solo's - than I've been able to describe in these two posts. But of the two, Smith's will tell you a lot more about the experience of the match and the state of the game than will Solo's.

The tone of Smith's book suggests to me that if you sat next to Smith at a party, you could probably talk with her about the game for hours. She might be quiet at the start. She might not be the most gregarious person at the table, but once she gets rolling she can hold your attention just as well as she can hold the ball. Sorry for that last analogy, but I couldn't resist it. If you want to buy Footballer: My Story, you can find it on Amazon. And there's a kindle edition. 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for the book reviews. I had thought about getting Solo's book, and based on your posts I will be getting that and Smith's as well.

    It's very fitting that these players' books reflect their personalities so well. Solo's is the flashy (and very American), personality-driven one, while Smith is more the let-her-actions-do-the-talking one. I'm also very interested to read the chapter on Hope Powell; the art and potential power of coaching truly fascinates me.

    ReplyDelete

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