Thursday, December 27, 2007

Red Card: Afterthoughts on Manchester United's "Rape Party"

Before Christmas, the media here in England was whipping itself up into a froth over what has become known as Manchester United's "Rape Party" - a private-ish holiday bash for which players paid a planner to "harvest" cute girls from the city's shops, sidewalks, and bars. WAGS were left at home as the guys went from a strip club (where they could never have behaved as they would later on), to a bar, to a hotel (pictured here) they'd rented out for the night (see standard tabloid story by The Mirror here). Newspapers here recited tales of players groping and molesting their guests, and settled on their favorite story - of a woman who was "roasted" by six players, who left her with the compliment that she was "a great shag." The night took a predictable turn when a rape was reported to the police - and here, of course, the story gets murky: a 26 year old model reported having been raped by a 19 year old player (who was "quizzed" by police and released). The truthfulness of her complaint is now, again predictably, in dispute. Rumors abound that her boyfriend had been thrown out of the party, and was the person who phoned the police. The scandal has died down: Man U won its games following this event, seems in form as a team, and that's that. Few seemed genuinely bothered by the fact that money which flows to the team from fans is being used to fund the worst impulses of a bunch of spoiled assholes who can't imagine bonding with each other unless it is via and through the body of some woman they've "used" together.

Sir Alex Furgeson has said very little - word is he's banned parties, but the party line is that it's a "club matter".

Americans will recognize the harmony between this event and the party thrown by Duke University Lacrosse players last year and the ensuing fiasco as the local authorities and university used this event to exorcise themselves of past demons. The call to the cops was in that instance placed by a stripper who had been hired to perform. The charges from that case were eventually dismissed - but not before her complaint surfaced the obscene racism and sexism of the culture of that team and that campus. At the very least, those young men managed to transform bad judgement (in throwing a wild party and hiring strippers, etc.) into an intensely abusive and creepy display of entitlement. This story looks only slightly less complex, but even more offensive. Duke, as far from perfect as it is, is not an unreflective embodiment of patriarchy in and of itself - Duke has as many women students as men, anti-discrimination policies in hiring, and was recently led by a woman president. Racism and sexism thrive within its walls, but the extreme versions of those attitudes manifested by players on that team do not represent the institution's public face, or even its present mission. Manchester United, on the other hand, is a men's organization - with some under 16 coaching as window dressing. The story of this party has been swallowed up by indifference to the ways that it reminds us of just what a patriarchal culture looks like.

As scandalous as it is to admit, I can understand why someone might make a false rape accusation. Most of the people attending that party have little opportunity to consider what feels exploitative, abusive, disempowering and why - and what avenues are available to them to protest and resist the behavior, and the attitudes that behavior manifests. What avenue is there really for anyone at a party like that to complain? To register their sense of outrage? Someone had a right to protest - and why not one of the women's boyfriends? Frankly, that's the kind of man I wouldn't mind having as a friend. That party had all the hallmarks of the kind of thing at which people are victimized - at which, at the very least, a woman's consent is used an excuse for the abuse of power.

I would like to imagine a football club whose culture produces both fiercely competitve athletes, and compassionate people. The two can and do go together. But to get from here to there would take a fair amount of self-examination - some real work.

Now, here's my cross: I think the disaster of that party is on a continuum with the events that led to Manchester United's abandonment of its women's team (2005's squad is pictured left). Yes, you read me right: There is no Manchester United women's team. Manchester City (pictured below left), however, does have one, and seems most proud of the fact!

Man U ladies were disbanded by the organization in 2005. The disbanded team played most of its life outside the organization's umbrella - they formed in 1979 as "Manchester United Supporters Club Ladies" - this group eventually became founding members of the North West Women's Regional Football League in 1989, and enjoyed increasingly competitive seasons at varying levels until they were brought into Man U, which had been running schools for girls through its community development programs. Some of the players in the disbanded team had come up through this system. Man U is required by law to offer training for girls in order to run a school for boys - and one gets the sense this is the ONLY reason they train girls at all.

Incredibly, in the letter sent to players informing them that the team was disbanded - and that they couldn't play even on their own under the name - the organization's leaders explained that it had never been their 'intention to become involved in women's football at a high level'. In his 2005 article for the Salford Advertiser, Tony Howard cites a Man U spokesman: "We have always made it clear the ladies' and girls' section was about community partnership and education rather than establishing a centre of excellence. Ultimately the hope is the boys will progress to the first team. So naturally more resources are put into that area because it is our core business."

Enough said - women's soccer is only as good as a side show. According to the May 2005 Man U shareholder's newsletter, Hayley Bates, pictured here on the right, saw the dismantling of the team as the final expression of "a pattern of a lack of respect for the women and sexual discrimination since the inception of the women's department." The team members were given plastic water bottles as a send-off.

As I know the Man U guys in the office and on the pitch wouldn't listen to anything that felt at all feminist-y, I would recommend they watch a couple films about women athletes - like Dare to Dream: The Story of US Women's Soccer, an HBO documentary about the US team that won the world cup in penalty kicks before a statium audience of 90,000. Or This Is a Game Ladies, about top ranked Rutgers University Women's Basketball team and their inspiring coach C. Vivian Springer (these women were infamously the subject of racist/sexist remarks from radio host Imas, who very much picked on the wrong group of woman - check out a recent highlight of their season here).

Anyway, what if Man U players make a point of talking to the women who play football in Manchester - Why not begin to learn about women by learning about women who have a lot in common with male athletes, but who enjoy none of their privileges?

The women of Manchester have a right to expect the city's men to take an interest in their side - not just to defend it, but to, in fact, fight for it. FC United, the fan-owned club formed in 2005 by disgruntled Man U fans (wary of the new American owner Glazer whose takeover coincides with the axing of the women's team) should, according to their website, be forwarding a ladies' side about now. I look forward to seeing them in action.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

el Resto del Mundo

Last summer's Galaxy/Chivas match was fun to watch, even if it wasn’t the most beautiful version of the beautiful game. It was a 0-3 routing – an uncharacteristic result, as the Galaxy have won most of the matches played against Chivas USA, the team with which they share the stadium. But Galaxy/Chivas USA is the best rivalry in MLS – Beckham’s arrival merely turns up the heat, letting Chivas USA be David to Galaxy’s unlikely Goliath.

Lost in much mass media coverage of Beckham’s arrival is the way that most basic terms of the conversation have already been determined by the received wisdom, that “Americans don’t play/watch/care about soccer.” It just isn’t true – and, worse, it obscures the existence of those who do. That sentence describes more accurately the wish that the sport had a different audience than the one it does – especially in the Southwest, where a very large portion of local fans are made up of Chicanos and Latin Americans, of long established communities and recently formed ones, from nearly everywhere. Mexican league games have drawn larger television audiences for Spanish language channels than, for example, Hockey’s Stanley Cup finals; premium cable packages come not only with dozens of movie channels, lots of NBA and NFL coverage, but a myriad of channels broadcasting nothing but soccer – in Spanish, English, and frequently in mixtures of the two - e.g Fox Soccer Channel.

Nobody really needs to “sell” soccer to American consumers – the market is already there. Nevertheless, on the surface at least, the MLS is plagued by insecurity over the development of the sport – playing its season, for example, over the summer (when international players are in demand from teams competing in trials and playoffs for the World Cup, or the Copa America, Euro, etc.) so as not to put US audiences in the position of having to choose between a Pistons game, for example, or the Columbus Crew.

In Los Angeles, any public park with open space has to manage the large and ever increasing demand for soccer fields – many parks respond with signs of stick figures kicking a ball, line drawn diagonally across and captioned with “No Soccer”. New soccer fields are booked months before they open to play. MacArthur park, home of the May Day demonstration for immigrants' rights violently shut down by the Los Angeles Police Department is an informal home to scores of games – from kids kicking the ball with their friends, to pick-up games, and tournaments organized by local leagues. (The recent film “Goal” opens with one of these games). Lafayette Park, just to the west, is home to a small artificial turf field open for about a year, and already host to three adult men’s leagues (not to mention hours and hours of youth soccer), with games starting at 6:00pm (weekdays, 6am! weekends) and ending sometime after 11:00pm – at which point those of us looking for informal games take the field until as late as 2:00am. On a Friday night in the summer, you might watch Lempira play, a team of mostly Honduran locals (Lempira was an indigenous warrior who fought Spanish colonials - the national currency is named after him). They are strong, big, fast, physical. Or Alianza, a team of experienced players mostly from El Salvador (newly regrouped as Inter), and boasting an Olympian (Antonio Serpas) among their ranks. Or “Barcelona” — one of the youngest teams - lightfooted, lithe, and athletic, as one might expect, given their name. (My favorite name, from the Fall/Winter 2007 roster: “Resto del Mundo”) The field is walled in with a high chain link fence, and on good nights dozens of people may be lined along this perimeter– wives, girlfriends, buddies, kids, other teams waiting for the field. Pan back, and you see that this field is surrounded by a network of dirt patches home to as many as a dozen “kickabouts” – pick-up games of mostly – but not only - men and boys of all ages playing around palm trees and park benches, using garbage cans to mark goals.

Further east and to the north, on any given day, most of the fields at Ferraro Fields in Griffith Park are booked through 10:00pm – at best, a new team might rent the uneven patch of dust adjacent to the freeway at 8:00pm on a weeknight. On the better fields, you will find games for the LA Metro and Super Metro division, parallel women's leagues, tournament games organized by area churches, etc. (Again, I am not even touching on AYSO.) South Central – just about the last place in America some might imagine as populated by “soccer moms” — is home to Compton United – local referees identify it as one of the most competitive and exciting youth teams in the city. Women play all over the city – on Monday evenings, the gorgeous 3G soccer fields at the Glendale Sports Complex, nestled in between the 2 freeway and a scrubby mountainside, are covered by women playing games of lung burning 7 on 7.

A comprehensive portrait of amateur soccer in Los Angeles would be a tome no less complex that the city’s population itself. I don’t wear my CF América scarf out all the time: Lots of El Salvadoreans live in my neighborhood, and hate Mexican League soccer, so it’s not a great way to make friends (which is why I keep my Tottenham hat in my pocket until I’m a good distance from my Arsenal supporting neighborhood – don’t get me wrong, I love Arsenal – but that red!). Better to choose a Barcelona scarf: Everybody loves Barça (except, I guess, in Madrid). Anyway, It’s easy to assume that Latinos prefer Chivas USA, but the reality is that lots of Latino fans route for the Galaxy over Chivas USA – partly because the Galaxy have been in LA longer, and partly because, well, Chivas Guadalajara is a team people love to hate. Beware: this crude youtube montage features the all too typical super lame homophobia of haters - largely in the form of "somos gay" scribbles across chivas team photos and insignia. This was one of the tamer montages I culled from a youtube search of "chivas haters."(See NY Times Blog on the subject of Chivas USA & La Galaxy). Chivas USA’s arrival in Los Angeles thus gave instant birth to the best rivalry in MLS – if you are from, say Hondorus, Guatemala, or El Salvador – or if your favorite Mexican team is anybody but Chivas, you may be more likely to support the Galaxy if not out of love, then out of hate. (Recalling Tottenham’s chant, “If you hate Arsenal, stand up!” – after yesterday’s game I can see how Tottenham fans might feel this way.) Even if Beckham’s arrival has drawn more of “Hollywood” to the Home Depot Center, it would take a lot more than that to marginalize Latino - or, in local futbol parlance, Latin - fans.
We have a perfect embodiment of the density of LA Fútbol culture in the eternally, queerly fascinating Morrissey - an out Chivas USA fan. For those not in the know, he's a huge icon for the Chicano Goth set - see, for example, the tribute band The Sweet and Tender Hooligans. (The image on the right, a reproduction of a work by the artist Shizu Saldamando captures the mood of this scene eloquently). Anyway, Morrissey apparently even offers discounts to his own concerts for Chivas fans. (What does this mean for his reported comments about immigration and England? How can this person be that person? See Dave Simpson's blog entry on this controversy for more info.)

Watching the Galaxy lose to Chivas (the Galaxy have won the overwhelming majority of these match-ups, and so Chivas fans seems to take particular pleasure from the win over Beckham’s side), I couldn’t help but wonder if the British superstar (Becks) knew just how far from home he’d come. The following day was marked by a more ordinary experience – a sunset pick-up game under the skyline of downtown Los Angeles, in a park dropped in the middle of its industrial parts. Wedged between warehouses and a metro train track, this modest space (open about year) is now home to some of the friendliest pick up games in the city. It’s the kind of thing that seems hard to find in London – in spite of an abundance of green space. Maybe it’s California’s weather, a warmth that can expand into its culture – I saw women older than me kicking the ball around with guys, teenagers and younger kids out with friends and family, and my crew from Lafayette - not the culture of Beverly Hills, but the culture of El Resto del Mundo.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

HUGS: on sexism & Hollywood United's 'sister' team

I put "sister" in scare quotes, because I can hardly imagine anyone with a lot of respect and love for their sister coming up with an idea like Hollywood United Girls Soccer - HUGS.

When I heard that Hollywood United - a team of Hollywood musicians, actors, and retired soccer players - many of the latter with international caps - had a sister team, I thought "cool!"

I of course pictured Joan Jett mixing it up on the field with the likes of Brandy Chastain and Julie Foudy. Alas, that is not what HUFC has in mind.

Again, this story begins one year ago on a Sunday afternoon. It involves a drive first into posh enclaves in the South Bay area, and then over to Crossroads in Santa Monica, which is a posh enclave in and of itself. The trip was my first foray into the HUFC universe - not to see them play, but to see members of the team play in an annual tournament in which ex-pats from England, Scotland, and Ireland play a team of Americans. It was a wholesome family affair sponsored by the British and Dominion Club of Orange Country. Those games were brutal - big guys going at it. Some were fun to watch, but it was mostly an inelegant game - as it would be, since the teams don't normally play together.

The highlight of tournament for me was meeting some of the women who play in the Orange County Women's Soccer League. As I walked over to talk to them, I felt myself being sized up. Not: "Is she younger than me?" "Is she prettier than me?" But a far more intimidating assessment of my fitness level. (I was also struck by their outfits - high waisted jeans, and expensive but very simple white shirts, understated gold jewelry. Official OC lady-jock kit?)

Anyway, we talked footie for a while - turns out they were heading into a 30 year anniversary for the league, which was been founded in 1976 - surely it must be one of the older leagues in the country, and I'm dying to learn more about the early days of its formation.

I was impressed, and a little scared of the fireplug manicured lady bulldogs from the OC. And I wasn't even watching them play - I'm sure they are very fierce (picture furrowed brows and ponytails whipping around like cat-o-nine tails). Soon the men's game ended, and I hopped into my trusty Honda to drive over to Crossroads, a private school in Santa Monica with a first rate 3rd generation artificial turf field. HUGS was playing in a co-ed tournament there, with some guys from HUFC.

The HUGS girls were really pretty - young, tan, wearing lip gloss and eye liner. They seemed really nice. One had even brought cupcakes. They wore specially designed outfits - not soccer kits, really - short shorts, tight shirts - all the better to serve their assets, which were in abundance.

They were about as fierce as a bunch of kittens rolling around in the grass. I shouldn't paint them all with the same brush, as one or two had some fire on the field, but in general, they were embarrassing. I'd say my own skill level was higher - and that isn't saying much at all.

Ian Carrington, the HUFC manager who told me about this game, was apologetic. But I'm not sure understood what he ought to be apologetic for.

Women athletes have to fight tooth and nail for any visibility (do you have to give birth, as did Paula Radcliffe, months before a marathon you win, in order for winning to NYC marathon to be newsworthy?). HUFC contributes to the problem when it recycles the worst aspects of the sexism that structures the culture of international football - in which women players are treated like a titillating side show. For points of reference - somewhat random: see Alex Bellos's discussion of Brazil's team beauty queens & pageants in his book Futebol, or, more simply, that nation's genuine shock that it should forward the most exciting women's side in the game; check out Bellos's profile of Marta - or, more interesting, see the story of Ronaldo's first wife, Milene Domingues. Sexism in traditional football cultures (e.g. England, Spain) is bad enough. It's bad enough that adult women who love the game can tell stories about being turned away from the game by the absence of opportunity, by outright discrimination. Or simply that girls in even the most developed countries don't get to dream about making a living playing their favorite sport - no matter how gifted they might be. Using the cause of women's football to cruise cocktail waitresses working in the crush of Hollywood & Highland is just plain sad.

I find the HUGS poorly written "mission statement", which asserts that this team of soccer babes will "bring soccer to the forefront of sports in the United States", unbearably ludicrous - insulting, in fact - unfolding in a parallel universe of men who could care less about the 2009 start up of an actual pro league, who think "Mia who?," who have no stake in the big questions facing the US women's national side. Perhaps the HUGS mission is meant to be funny? Which makes it all the more upsetting - girls playing soccer: How cute! How amusing! Their myspace page is even worse (e.g., the above image).

At least Arsenal and Tottenham have the sense to lend their names to real teams (although they don't have the decency to pay the players - a topic for another post).

That afternoon I found myself struggling to keep my feelings in, and struck by the fact that the culture of that swath of the amateur scene is defined by a deeply panicked version of masculinity - a strange weekend attempt to marshal whatever scraps of white male privilege are left in LA, and by the function of this team: with nary a woman on it whose skill level might give these guys something to think about - they are a fluffy bit of stage dressing, meant to shore up their sponsor's fantasy that they might still have balls.

Heaven forbid HUFC support the cause of women's athletics by sponsoring a team of women who might actually be able to give them game!

There's a story brewing in this: LA Galaxy president Alexi Lalas plays for HUFC - and Galaxy owners AEG will also own the LA based women's professional team for the new league - It's hard for a real fan of women's football to support any organization that spawns something as awful as HUGS. I would love to see Lalas withdraw from HUFC as a show of support for his real sisters, the ones in the game.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Some Notes on Hollywood United & the LA League Scene

It’s a misty and cool January Sunday - nearly a year ago - and I’m wending my way from downtown Los Angeles to Palos Verdes – a gorgeous and very exclusive coastal region south of the city (not far from Carson, home of Chivas USA & LA Galaxy). The landscape changes from the flat freeway-crossed grid of south LA to the open, breezy boulevards of Lomita (I think), and after an hour I’m lost in a hilly enclave whose streets are lined with eucalyptus & willow, edged with gorgeous running paths and demarcated by wooden signs that look so little street signs that I’ve missed my turn-off twice. This looks like a place where people ride horses and know what a field hockey stick looks like.

I arrive at the Palos Verdes High School, mere blocks from seaside cliffs. It's about ten minutes into the game between Hollywood United Football Club and Palos Verdes Soccer Club. It’s not a beautiful game. The field is pretty shitty, and nobody seems to have much rhythm, except for HUFC’s defense – anchored by Alexi Lalas.

Hollywood United is a somewhat fabled team in Los Angeles. My information here is sketchy, but: They were founded in the 1980s, by mostly Hollywood musicians. I want to say that someone from The Cult (Billy Duffy, who still plays?) founded the team. Check out the very media heavy HUFC myspace page. Anyway, I have the impression that the team was made up of the sorts of guys who used to hang out at the pub-style bar, The Cat & The Fiddle on Sunset Blvd. Rockers, europhiles, eurotrash. I normally use that last word with much affection, here, however, I use it with deep ambivalence.

The team's greying roots in the entertainment industry are still alive - Steve Jones takes the field, Anthony Lapaglia plays goalie (they have an older team they call "Dad's Army" as well as young team that plays in the LA Metro Division). I in fact learned about HU first from my friend Peter, who was playing for another interesting LA amateur team, Dinamo - he was defending Steve Jones, and recognized him in the middle of game - a strange experience I would imagine. (He said Jones is really good, and was fun to defend.) LA Galaxy president Alexi Lalas plays for them - I have a soft spot for him, as we were at Rutgers at the same time - the first soccer games I ever watched were at Rutgers, and were during their great 1990 season when they went to the NCAA championship (only to lose on penalty kicks if memory serves).

I've seen a couple HUFC and HUFC related games over the course of the year, as I've been interested in learning more about league play in Los Angeles County. HUFC is the most visible team in the region - if by visibility we mean mass media attention - though, to be honest, I think they get more press in the UK than back home. They are however, the least representative team if by representative we mean how much they look like the people who play soccer in Los Angeles. There are more leagues in LA than one can imagine - setting aside youth leagues (a universe unto itself), we have adult men's and women's leagues in abundance, and a wealth of opportunities for pick-up games - the latter much easier to find if you are a guy, but not impossible if you are a gal. The men's leagues are mostly but not totally Latino - and with the Latin scene, we have a huge diversity - Mexican, Costa Rican, Ecuadorian, El Salvadorean, Argentinian, Brazilian, Venezuelan, Guatemalan players abound. Add to that Armenian, Russian, home-grown African-American, African, English, French, Korean, Korean-American, Japanese-American - and you get a picture of what the sides are like in LA.

SO, the game that Sunday was representative of a narrow slice of LA life - the teams, while not entirely white (though both were mostly so), seemed cut from the same cloth in terms of class - guys who played NCAA Division I soccer and ex-internationals, which is a pretty specific filter. That slice includes very well funded teams, manned by guys who are really dedicated to the sport (many of whom are fantastic players), but perhaps more upward-looking in terms of the soccer food chain - cultivating something like a 'big club' vibe about themselves.

What struck me most about this particular game was the contrast between the Palos Verdes guys & the HUFC guys – and the three El Salvadorean referees. The HUFC guys were cold and aloof, they eyed me with what seemed like suspicion - with the exception of Lalas, who warm, friendly, and curious about what I was foing. The rest were, like: who is this weird girl? The only women there were girlfriends and wives of players - so I can see how my presence didn't make sense. The PV guys were a bit nicer - as were their friends and family - I talked to a couple moms - soccer moms with 30 year old sons on the field - and they were all too happy to recount the details of their sons' careers playing for UCLA, etc. The HU WAGS weren't featuring me at all.

But most interesting, and forthcoming, were guys working the match as referee & linesmen, all certified by CAFLA, a training school for refs, run, as it should be, in spanish - the defacto language of the pitch in southern california. I catch them as they are loading up their cars long after everyone else has left. And where with the others my introduction “Hello, I’m researching amateur soccer in LA” was met politely, but not exactly with enthusiasm – the ref’s spot my Club América scarf, and so start teasing me about what a disaster Mexican soccer is ("crazy futbol!"). Turns out the three are from El Salvador. We talked about the Mexico/Argentina World Cup match - one of the best of the summer.

This leads to a great conversation about nationalies playing in the leagues - about the rivalries between esp. El Salvadorian players and Mexican players, and then about the subtleties within Mexican soccer culture itself.

The three of them have lots to say about the game I'd watched - HUFCs players complained endlessly about the calls, and about the field – “Ballarinas only want to dance on Broadway” one says, and they laugh about how the old guys are reluctant to admit that they just don’t have the speed to compete against a middling-in-terms-of-skills, but younger-in-terms-of-years team. (HUAC lost this one.) I remark that it seems to me that when guys go up against HUFC, they look at Lalas - who was a hero to American players in the university circuit - and they get really pumped up to win - how many chances in your life do you get to play against your heroes? It seems to me that the teams playing against HUFC have more fun, and relish every good shot, good tackle - take a real pleasure from the game - one less accessible to the HUFC guys who, in the games I saw, spent a lot of time yelling at each other. (Frank LeBeouf in particular - who had little business yelling at anyone in my mind, as he never seemed to be up for a run.)

We mull over this, and they tell me about the better games being played by the Latin leagues – at far flung corners of the LA basin – Whittier, and Compton. They tell me to check out CAFLA training sessions. We stood in the parking lot chatting for a long time - they also gave me their names and numbers, which I much appreciated.

Anyway, I have lots more to say about this - those guys were absolutely right: the most inspiring scenes are to be found in the scrappy urban leagues inand around the city. That's where you'll find the coolest players - like Tenge, of Lafayette Park, who plays half the time on the pitch talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone - and isn't hindered by that in the least - in fact, I think he plays better while on the phone. I have lots more to say about HUFC - especially about their "sister" team, which I tried to appreciate, but just can't support - it's the most offensive thing ever, in fact, such an upsettingly sexist endeavor that it's poisoned whatever generousity I might have had about HUFC. I have to save my thoughts on that for a separate post.

The future of soccer rests in the scenes the CAFLA guys know - the enthusiam, love of the game, knowledge - there is a deep resevoir of talent and energy out there, below Anglo mass media radar. The LA times picked up on this in a recent story about the changing demographics in LA area schools - where many campuses are 80% + Latino - at those schools, there is a tremendous interest in soccer, and those teams are now dominating high school competition. Well - that, and the whole gender issue, is for another day, another post.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

conversion narrative

Q: Is he a jock?
A: Oh, no. He plays soccer.
-Overheard on NJ Transit Train, 12/06

When we were kids, my two sisters and I lived on opposite sides of the planet. We didn’t sit together on school buses. When we passed each other in the hall, we acted like we barely knew each other.

I wore black. I didn’t like getting out of bed before noon. I was the first girl in my school to take advanced calculus. I listened to The Police, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, The Residents, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys. I read Dostoyevsy, and, worse, totally identified with the characters in his novels. My moods were dark, to say the least. I was a ‘non-joiner’, and deliberate moper.

My sisters ran cross-country, and were stars of track and field. They were well-liked, and socially well adjusted. My sisters dressed like normal kids – not girly girls, but down-to-earth, easy-going athletes. They listened to the radio.

I was against all forms of physical exertion – I brought forged doctor notes to school to get out of running “the mile” in gym class, and thought of athletes as proto-corporate drones. In fact, in high school I calculated how much gym one could fail, and still pass for the year – and I failed just that much.

They were jocks, and I was a geek. Privately, we lived under the same roof. Socially, however, we may as well have been divided by the Berlin Wall. (I’d of course, have lived on the East.)

All of that changed, of course, as we grew up – as adults we are as close as sisters can be. But now, I never feel closer to them than when I take the field as a soccer player, a sport I took up four years ago, at the age of thirty-six – as it turns out, I was never all that different from them.

Soccer was the only sport that interested me at all when I was a kid – we played it once a year in gym class, and, secretly, I looked forward to each session of the beautiful game. Like my sisters, I like to run – and, like my sisters, I have a fierce competitive streak, which was, when I was younger, channeled into a desire to be weirder than everyone else.

On the field, I wanted to take the ball away from the other team, I wanted to run, make the great pass, and win. But these desires were, I admit, faint – the whispers of a secret self. I could not have admitted to myself then that I had an inner jock. I was into punk rock. And Dostoyevsky. David Bowie. Jimmy Carter. And my whole being was organized around my mood swings – which ranged from dark to darker. I was in a near constant state of existential crisis. I imagined sport as the domain of the endlessly self-confident, as belonging to those with the singularity of focus that belongs to the unquestioning, the believers. I was, and am, an unrepentant unbeliever, a skeptic, and a questioner. And there was no girl’s soccer team at my school anyway. I’m old enough to remember Title IX, but too old to have benefited from its effects. Plus, I wanted to be Patti Smith. I was pretty sure she wasn’t into sport.

And yet whenever I happened upon guys playing pick-up soccer I itched to join them on the field. I can only speculate on why this sport called me – it’s the sport of the elite in the New Jersey suburbs, and I had an ambivalent fascination with the preppy girls and boys who practiced it. They had names like Trebbie and Trevor, went to private schools with the word “Academy” in their names. Girls wore their dirty blond hair in sleek pony tails, and had mothers who drove them home in Saabs. They had freckles and lipgloss. It’s also the sport of Italian immigrants, and still has a hold on the NYC metropolitan area. (What pizza parlor worth its salt isn’t wallpapered with posters for the Italian team?) This sport of elites and immigrants is the underdog of sports in the US, even though it is the overwhelmingly dominant men’s sport in the rest of the world – soccer’s invisibility in the US has always stood, for me, as a symptom of American cultural oblivion. Liking soccer was, as it has been for many misfits and intellectuals, part of being a non-joiner, a questioner, and an unbeliever.

That said, I never followed professional, amateur, or NCAA soccer. Even though I went to Rutgers, which was a Division I powerhouse at the time, I didn’t really follow their seasons. I kept my eye on the world cup, sort of. And, I must confess, while I watched a couple of the women’s world cup games that amazing year they won it all in Pasadena, and I was a graduate student during the reign of Lady Tarheels, I was a fair-weather fan – I joined that bandwagon late, and never got interested enough to keep up with the women’s professional league or the successes and failures of the national team.

And then one day a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join a game she was organizing – a co-ed casual game for people who hadn’t really played before, or hadn’t played much, or hadn’t played in a really really long time. The secret soccer player in me suddenly spoke up. “I’ll be there.”

Since then, I’ve been playing in games as many as three times a week – and, in the game my friend started, every single Saturday that I am in town. Much of my social life is now organized around being available for these games, and being in shape to play them. I watch Footballers’ Wives, I read L’Equipe every day throughout the month of July as France wowed and then stunned us in the 2006 Fifa World Cup. I’ve edited Mia Hamm’s Wikipedia page. I collect team scarves. I have pictures of Thierry Henry and Zidane on my refrigerator. I read Hamm’s book, Go for the Goal!, cover to cover before passing it on to my ten year old niece. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, makes me happier than a great game –a game when we all come together, raise our level of play, forget everything else in our lives, and in which I make just one beautiful pass.

Even more dramatic a change in my personality is the fact that I can talk about soccer for hours. When I meet another soccer player, especially, I become both a chatterbox and a sponge – after all, I am still learning. So when I meet a friend’s uncle at a party, and he mentions the league he plays in, I trail this poor guy for the rest of the day, asking questions about his experiences. When I see my nieces, I’m often in the back yard asking them to show me what they’ve learned since I last saw them. Since I’ve never been coached, your basic seven year old will have something to teach me.

Suddenly I have a whole new relationship with my pal Mandy, who has been an Arsenal fan for decades, and can tell you anything you want to know about not only her team, but the Champion’s League as well. And she just confessed that sometimes, she really wishes I would talk about something else.

Well, you get the point. I’m a little obsessed. With that, a youtube homage to the sublime Marta:

Monday, December 17, 2007


I am sitting in bed, laptop in lap, mulling over what has forced me into the blogosphere: A bad day on the field. Maybe because I wasn't playing left wing, but left back? I spend most of the game on the bench - actually, not even: I was doing linesman duty - taking irritating screams from an unknowledgeable player on my own team, angry I wasn't calling the other team for offside (they were almost never offside, actually). The same player spent the better part of the last 20 minutes I was on the field yelling at me - to chase the ball, which actually isn't good advice, especially to a defender marking the better striker on the opponent's team. Others on my team were yelling, at me, at each other - I'd seen that sort of thing once before, when I helped out a co-ed team of lawyers in Santa Monica California - playing with them was about as much fun as working with them must be. Normally, I can tune that stuff out - when on the back four, I listen to the back four, to the goalie and those standing their ground, holding down the lead, starting the next attack. Normally, I can ignore busy-body forwards who like to imagine that nothing happens if they don't do it themselves.

What struck me, what moved me to log in, was how absolutely miserable I was after the game. Even though we won - a solid 4-3 win, with my team fighting back twice, once from two down (to nothing), and from one down. We were very scrappy on the field, and played optimistically - our striker just kept at it, until she was stiking from mid air high leaps, right over defenders and goalie. This was a team that had beaten my own (which I'd recently joined) earlier in the season by a humiliating 6.

Weirdly, I was down. So down I couldn't stay on for the bonding ritual over a pint at the club's pub. (Note: in the US, my home country, we never have bars in our athletic clubs!) I took the tube back to catch the last half of Arsenal v Chelsea at my local pub, The Holloway. (I had a wonderful moment walked from my flat to the pub - Arsenal scored, and I caught the sonic wave of the ecstatic crowd - hooray for Gallas - one of my favorite players!)

I was down because I spent most of the time watching and not playing, and I stepped onto the field stone cold (having been on the line, I couldn't warm up), found myself out of sync with my team, who were hot and bothered. I held my own - I don't think the player I was marking so much as got off a shot during those twenty minutes - though I saw more of the back of her than the front. I was down because I'm new to this team, and haven't had a chance to prove myself. I was down because I want more time on the ball, but know that as a newbie and an inexperienced player I don't have any right to ask for it.

Anyway, my bad mood lasted all night and into the next day. Soccer is like this - when it's good, it's like being in love - you are thrilled to be there, butterflied in the stomach as a game approaches - palms get all weird, and it's all you can think & talk about. Last week, I was up, up, up. And that happiness shaped everything I did for days. But when it's bad - even if you win - the sourness of that experience can poison your whole day. It's the mood of the field, the pitch of the pitch. The vicissitudes of the player's heart. The interior life of the substitute.

That's what this blog is about.

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