Saturday, December 20, 2008

Short Shorts & a Günter Netzer Sighting

First, a bit of television history making the viral video rounds:

There is oh so much to say about this.

I will confine my comments here to observe that the gentleman in the leather jacket is Günter Netzer, an early Ferrari-driving, nightclub owning popstar-footballer. One of his most fabled moments on the pitch arrived in the final for the 1973 German Cup. After a season of public power struggles with his manager, he announced a move to Real Madrid a week before this final game against Koln. The manager had him start the match on the bench. I am not sure I understand the details, but I think the manager tried to sub him in during the first half, and Netzer refused to go on the field. And then, during the second half, he shed his jacket, and said "I will go on now" and scored the winning goal. You can see that goal here, starting at about 2 minutes.

A friend of mine told me about Netzer and this incident in August, and, amazingly, we saw Netzer at an airport in Berlin just a few days after that conversation. I thought of asking him to autograph my copy of Moby Dick (the only thing I had in my hands that someone could sign, as it happens), but I didn't have a pen, don't speak German, and got shy.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Professor's Somewhat Highbrow Gift Guide

1. Jonathan Maghen et al, Municipal de Fútbol (Christof Keller Editions/Textfield, 2008/ ISBN 0981632505). $80.00 - though available for less on Amazon. This is total self-promotion.

Municipal de Fútbol is a unique combination of art, graphic design, and fútbol. Centered on Michael Wells's gorgeous photographs of amateur men's teams playing in leagues across East and South Los Angeles, the book explores the visual texture of fútbol angelino - the most popular sport in Los Angeles, and a defining aspect of LA culture lived below the radar of Anglo media. (Click here for photos of the whole thing.) For $80, you get a box containing two books of photographs (with essays by yours truly), a set of five artists prints, a fold-out poster of an LA amateur team, and - incredibly, an Adidas jersey for a European national team. $80 is a lot, but given all that you get for that, it's really a steal. This is not your everyday soccer product. It's an awesome gift for the person in your life interested in grassroots football, and perhaps the best glimpse at football culture in the US that you'll find. It's fully bilingual, too.

Amazon has it - for $53! Get on it!

2. A national team jersey with the name & number of a favorite female player.

A decent on-line sports store will let you customize a national team jersey, giving you the option of honoring your favorite footballing goddess. And while there is a certain poetry to wearing the US # 1 shirt with the name Solo emblazoned on the back, why not celebrate the international game? For example - a Brazil shirt with number 8/Formiga,11/Christiane, or 10/Marta. Nigeria's 4/Nkwocha, or 12/Uwak. Germany's 1/Angerer or 9/Prinz.

This is a great, original gift idea for fans of the women's game - for especially but not only younger players. Broadcast your love for Brazil, England, Nigeria, or Germany's football cultures, as well as your admiration for the women who represent these countries in international competition.

3. Pete Davies, I Lost My Heart to the Belles (Mandarin, 1997/ISBN-10: 0749320850)

This is a must-read for fans of the game - and not just the women's game. Davies followed the Belles throughout the 1994-1995 season, when the team was just cresting their incredible run as the overwhelmingly dominant force in English women's football. It's a brilliantly written chronicle of a team's ups and downs, and remarkable for the portraits it offers of these largely working-class women training and playing (some on the English National Team) on their own time. It's great on the euphoria of a good win, on the psychological agony of injury, on the challenges of training and managing a team with next to nothing in terms of resources. Every amateur player no matter their gender can relate to these stories.

But there are elements to this story that are very specific to the issues faced by women in the UK. This season saw the fallout from a BBC broadcast of a controversial documentary about the Belles which portrayed them as foul-mouthed and "hard. " I haven't seen it, but something tells me the controversy caused by the documentary is related to the particular anxiety women footballers provoke - that playing the sport is unladylike, and that the sport is full of lesbians. Davies doesn't "out" players, but the book seems to me a loving portrait of a working-class lesbian community. If you are a lesbian reader, you are very likely to see lots of things tucked between the lines (the pubs the team frequents are clearly gay pubs, for example). And it's hard not to wonder if the FA's upset at the BBC documentary and their crappy treatment of Belles players wasn't homophobic. But none of that is addressed directly. Writing for the general reader, Davies negotiates this thorny terrain carefully.

I don't think he uses the word "lesbian" once in the whole book, even though it is really a memoir of butch-bonding - a sport writer palling around with a bunch of 'tomboys' for an entire season. You can feel throughout how deeply moved he was by his experience of getting to know the Belles - and I suspect that if he wasn't already a pretty enlightened guy, by the end of this experience he emerged with a deep respect for women, and for lesbians in particular.

Do you know a female player who is a fan of the English men's game, but knows nothing about what her sisters endure across the pond? Are you a female player and want to share what the women's game feels like with your brother, or dad? This is the book.

I don't think it is still in print, but Alibris sells used copies of it, and you can also find it on for next to nothing.

4. Eamon Dunphy, Only A Game? The Diary of a Professional Footballer (Penguin, 1999/ISBN-10: 0140102906). Listed at $12.27 on; available new via Also try Alibris.

It doesn't matter what you think of Dunphy - this must be one of the most incredible examples of football literature out there. Originally published in 1979, this diary records Dunphy's thoughts while he played his last season with Millwall. The book contains some of the most wildly romantic writing about how great playing football feels when all goes well, and some of the most compellingly bleak prose you'll find about the misery of being a sub. It's an awesome read, and no memoir I've read can touch it.

5. Peter Schnall, This is a Game Ladies (Partisan Pictures, 2004 - available on DVD) $19.99

I've praised this documentary before. This has to be one of the best sports documentaries about women athletes ever made. As much as I love Dare to Dream, the documentary about the USWNT, this is a much more complex portrait of C. Vivian Stringer - an already legendary figure in US university-level athletics - and the Rutgers University Women's Basketball Team.

I think I cried through at least half of it. This is a gift for the coach in your life, for the women you know who played college-anything, for fans of women's basketball, and for young women of color looking for role models in high-level athletics.

6. Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow (English translation Verso, 2003/ISBN-10: 1859844235) $17.00 (but you can find it cheaper than that on the internet)

This is a love letter to the beautiful game written by an internationally renown Uruguyan writer. Written in very short "chapters", it is the kind of book you keep nearby for moments when you just need a pick-me-up. This is the gift you give to a guy/girl who loves the game, when you want to really get their attention. It is, quite possibly, the most beautifully written book about soccer - the book that captures most closely the nature of our affection for it.

This book is in print - it is widely read in Latin America - and readily available. This extraordinarily poetic book will rock the world of whomever you give it to.

7. Helmuth Costard, Football as Never Before (1971). 16.90 Euros

A DVD edition of Helmuth Costard's amazing real-time portrait of George Best playing for Manchester United (in a match against Coventry). The perfect gift for the hard-core Man U fan with a wee bit of interest in film, art, or just George Best. (The film is hopelessly sexy!) This is plainly the inspiration for Douglas Gordon/Philippe Perano's Zidane film (which is itself available in Europe and I believe due for a release in the US.) Elsewhere, I've described Costard's portrait of Best as the film Andy Warhol would have made if he made a football movie.

I am not sure how to buy it without navigating German websites - here is a link to the DVD's page on its distributor site (this is how I bought it): Zweitausendeins

WARNING: This is only for those of you who can play/deal with DVDs in region 2.

8. Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski, Fans of the World Unite!: A (Capitalist) Manifesto for Sports Consumers (Stanford, 2008 ISBN 0804756686). $27.95 ($18.45 on Amazon)

This is for your hard core sports fan with a head for business. This book responds to how "fans of baseball, football, basketball and hockey have long been exploited and oppressed by the monopolistic practices of team owners." These two guys examine the economics of team sports globally to tease out the good and the bad in diverse sports systems. The book is really based, though, in their comparison of the international soccer system with American big league sports.

Learning from the lessons offered by both domains, they map out the ways that leagues and teams currently alienate and betray their fans - and propose a series of changes in the way leagues and teams are run. It sounds dry - but for the serious fan, this stuff is fascinating. I'm totally getting this for my accountant brother-in-law. It'll make any reader of it instant winner of late-night beer-fueled arguments about what's really fucked up with the MLS.

(This book is also my prescription for those knuckleheads who think that the US has the most profitable professional leagues in the world - the guys who can't imagine how anyone ever makes money off of soccer.)

9. Mia Hamm, Go for the Goal (Harper Collins, 2000/ISBN: 0060931590). $12.95. This is easy to find in the US. Bizarrely, it is not in bookstores in the UK, though you can find it for nothing at

This is not an autobiography. This is a book about how Mia Hamm, one of the greatest players the game's ever seen, plays the game. It's really meant for young players - but I must admit, I learned a lot about basic skills from reading it. It's totally useful. I am amazed that this isn't for sale in England - where the women's game is the fastest growing sport. This is a great gift for young players, and old women like myself who are just new to the game. It is very clearly written, and includes drills! Women fans of all ages will enjoy this - though this is not really appropriate for experienced players.

10. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I talk About Running (Knopf, 2008/ISBN ISBN-10: 0307269191) $21.00. Easy to find.

Murakami is one of the world's greatest living writers, and it turns out he's a marathon runner. This is a down-to-earth portrait of his relationship to long distance running. It is refreshing to read something so thoughtful about what sport means to a "regular" person (meaning the older, non-Olympic, amateur athlete). This is a fantastic book for the athlete in your life who loves to read. If they love to read, they probably know Murakami's novels and will be tickled to discover how much they have in common with him.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fútbol Mania: Local Teams Featured on Time Warner On Demand

Time Warner's digital on-demand service has a channel dedicated to local amateur soccer. Fútbol Mania profiles teams playing in the 2000 leagues (their figure) in Southern California. I just went through their current offerings (they post new 15 minute episodes every week) and was really psyched - the highlights are good, and the commentary is fun (as far as I can tell - it's in Spanish).

You can find it by going to channel 1, and choosing "local." It should then show up on your menu.

I think I'm just going to tell people who talk about how people "here" are not interested in soccer to just shut up. I mean, what media outlet produces a weekly show about an amateur sport no one cares about? If that was how Time Warner worked, they'd be profiling the women's teams playing in these leagues. (None of the games profiled right now feature women's teams. Shameful!) Anyway, click here for their slightly corny announcement video.

My Favorite Couple: Soccer + Basketball

Soccer's closest cousin is basketball (I'm not alone in thinking this). While basketball's scoreboard couldn't look more different from the minimalist tally of an exemplary football match, the best games in both sports have nearly identical point differentials (1-2 points). They are distinguished by similar brands of spectatorial intensity - the time-outs in a basketball game are all that keeps its audiences from having a mass stroke. Fútbol fans are as crazy as their heroes are fit - we are conditioned by the insane emotional demands of a sport that requires you to spend 90 minutes on the edge of your seat or screaming at the top of your lungs.

I stand by my February comments:
Watching a baseball game has the pleasures of a day out with your friends. Watching a fútbol match is like a crazy one night stand with a sex fiend. There's no rest, no pause for reflection - it's like jumping off a very, very tall cliff. Twice. This is why football fans are so nuts. And sometimes dangerous. Think: Fatal Attraction x 40,000.
I love any attempt to couple basketball and soccer. Like the guys in one of my neighborhood parks who warm up before a soccer match by playing keepy-uppy on the basketball court, and heading the ball into the net. And then, while I was amusing myself with this Kaka homage (recommended to me by youtube, no doubt for its gay disco soundtrack, which I adore) I came across this bit of backyard genius:

I don't understand why there is a hoop in this guy's grassy yard - a few folks on the youtube page ("impossible soccer shot") raise this as evidence of fakery. But if you don't have a paved driveway, and you want to practice free-throws and jump shots, a hoop in a grassy backyard will do. And maybe he put it there to practice this shot. People have dedicated themselves to crazier things. Here, though, the ball sure looks like it goes in and then bounces off the post and lands in the bushes to the right.

Doubters also say this guy's celebration isn't nearly as intense as it should be. But I've seen that particular brand of cocky restraint excersized by teen masters on my own team who act like there is nothing more banal than their jaw-dropping footwork. And then there is Berbatov, famous for the "lack of joy in his celebrations." So I'm not a big fan of using affect as a measure of the magnificance or veracity of the goal given us in these personal videos.

If people resist the idea of this video on the assumption that it can't be done, perhaps it's a reflection of an unwillingness to sit with the idea of this odd couple. But these two sports have more common than people seem able to realize. Both, for example, are associated with underprivileged classes, requiring a minimum of resources to play and enjoy. And yet we continue to imagine them as so far apart.

So, thanks to whoever you are with the marvelous "do" and the shot of shots. I believe it, no doubt because I want to.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Who Wants it?: Playing Against Boys/Playing With Girls

Sometimes I think I play with women, and I play against men.

Let me explain: I play in a weekly scrimmage in which I'm the only woman on the field. Last week I had fairly typical night for a female player in an all-male setting. That sort of game looks like this: My teammate has the ball, and there is plenty of space between us. I call for the ball. I'm open, probably because I am not being marked. This may be because I'm a girl. I would like to be seen as enough of a threat to be marked, but I am not above exploiting my invisibility to defenders. So I call for the ball again.

He now has two defenders on him. He looks around for someone to pass it to. I am still unmarked. I perhaps try to get in a better position to receive a pass, and call for the ball again. It is as if I am not only invisible, I am apparently mute as well. I call for the ball in Spanish, and in maybe even in French. I call for it again. He is still holding onto the ball and then he decides to, say, pass it back or attempt to cross it into a cluster of players.

This happens two, three, four times in a row. By which point I am fully demoralized. If at this point in the game the ball is passed to me, I am not expecting it. I either do a bad job controlling it, or get rid of it too quickly. I stop wanting the ball, so I am not fighting for it, and I drift out of the game entirely.

This is where I usually ask to play defense - which is a funny position for a girl my size in a guy's game. But by this point I am mad - at myself as much as my teammates.

Most of the game has been spent trying to make myself visible, to get in the game, and then digging myself out of the psychic hole that swallows you up as you wonder "Is it because I am a girl?" or "Am I that bad?"

So, once I am on the back line I play with the particular focus bestowed by rage. I think very cynically: "He's going to bring it up on the right, because I am here and he thinks he can get around me." And he probably can, since he's 15 years younger than me and has been playing a lot longer. But I can push him wide, and steer him to the next defender - containing him. That almost always works. Often, guys will call for the ball even when I am marking them. I love this. The more they do that, the more likely I am intercept the pass or force the turn-over. And when my foot is on the ball, they have nobody to blame but their own limited imagination.

I love the very particular frustration that those guys display when I get the ball away from them. I think I enjoy defending against guys for this reason. If I've spent the first half of the game being ignored, I play the second half like a castrating bitch. (This is more or less how I experience certain aspects of my professional life as well!)

When I play soccer with women, this stuff just doesn't happen. You either want the ball or you don't. A player who repeatedly doesn't pass the ball to an unmarked teammate who is calling loudly for the ball will catch shit from the entire team. And if I'm not getting the ball from a teammate, I just think she's an ass. I don't think she's sexist.

I became a much better player by playing with women. I got the ball a lot more often, and was expected to do more with it. (There is nothing quite so awful as that thing guys will do with girl-players - where they act like it's a miracle when you complete a pass. It takes the pleasure from the compliment if you realize that your basic competency has come as a surprise!)

Without the demoralization of playing with boys handy as a rationalization for limits in my ambition, I had to ask much deeper questions of myself. If I wasn't getting the ball, it was because I wasn't calling and fighting for the ball. It wasn't because the team didn't believe in me. It was because I didn't believe in myself.

The players I most admire play with an incredible confidence. The ball seems to find them. It's like they are fueled by a cocktail of desire and belief. Taking the field with women like this is just plain liberating.

And with that, I'll raise my glass to our new President and direct your attention to the video below, made by students at my home university - UC Riverside.

Yes We Did!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Kick It Out?: What do we mean by "It" when we talk about homophobia & football?

England's Football Association is apparently developing a campaign targeting football's homophobic culture. This isn't the first time the FA has made gestures in this direction, so pardon my cynicism about the depth of this organization's commitment to the topic. That said, the current campaign is being generated by Kick It Out, the FA's anti-racist program, which seems fairly successful in its consciousness-raising efforts.

Interest in the prevalence of homophobia in the English football world (something that hardly makes Brits unique) has peaked due to an October incident. Tottenham fans, who obviously had nothing good to say about their own team at the time, sang vile homophobic and racist chants at the Portsmouth player and English international Sol Campbell (long the target of such abuse, partly animated by resentment about his move from Tottenham to Arsenal).

I obviously have a lot to say about this subject: homophobia is a defining element of sports culture. It is deeply ingrained, and is a form of hate to which many leading figures in the sport feel perfectly entitled (like Chelsea's Scolari, who has said he'd kick any gay player off his side). Homophobia animates hostility towards the women's game - so much so, it is indeed hard to tell the difference between it and simple sexism. (For women in many parts of the world - including England - just playing soccer is enough to make you a "dyke" and target of homophobic abuse.)

The homophobia of English football is a reflection of its homosociality and - dare I say it? - we will have homophobia in the game as long as we have sexism in the game. The two are absolutely linked.

The term "homosocial" comes from sexuality studies, and describes single-sex spaces in patriarchal culture (like the military, the US Senate, fraternities, and sports teams) - these are environments defined by the exclusion of women. Defined, too, by the exclusion of all things feminine, effeminate, womanly, gay, or queer.

Clubs have made some interesting gestures towards gay and lesbian fans (see this story). This is a huge step in the right direction. But I'm going to say that just as important to changing things is the active support of women's involvement in the game, the elimination of baldly sexist advertising, and general consciousness raising among the people who work behind the scenes and in front of the camera about how to show respect for all of the people involved in football culture.

I am not saying the only way to get rid of homophobia is to have co-ed football. But we may not really get rid of homophobia in the game until we get rid of hostility towards women. Flip-side, too, is that we won't see an honest embrace of the women's game until we see a celebration of the lesbians who play it.

I just find it really hard to imagine how sports culture is going to make homophobia unacceptable without changing attitudes about not just sexuality, but gender too. The two go hand-in-hand.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Brunswick, NJ - A Secret Center of the Women's Soccer World?: Left Wing Meets Charlie Naimo [And Indugles Herself in NJ Fantasies]

Yesterday I got to meet Charlie Naimo, who is currently the coach of the W-League league champions The Pali Blues and is also the manager to the WPS Los Angeles team (whose name will be unveiled this weekend at Sunday's Galaxy game).

Walking into the Pali Blues office in Santa Monica, my eyes went first to the Formiga jersey on the wall (framed by shirts from Kelly Smith and Marinette Pichon). If you read my blog, you know that I am a huge fan of the Brazilian international. Turns out that during his years coaching the New Jersey Wildcats to the top of the W-League tables, Naimo successfully recruited Formiga to play for his team - using a guy he met at local gas station who spoke Portuguese to facilitate their first discussions over the phone. (Naimo is standing second from the right in this picture of the 2005 championship side.)

This ignited my imagination - the Wildcats are based in Mercer County, NJ. [Note: I originally wrote this assuming they were based in New Brunswick, NJ - home to Rutgers, alma mater for me and my sisters -see comment below.] Naimo was at Rutgers from 92-94, and it was there that he met Denise Reddy, who worked with him on the coaching staff for NJ Sky Blue. She also played and coached with the Wildcats - and is now Assistant Coach for the Chicago Red Stars. Rutgers, as fans of the women's game know, proudly claims Carli Lloyd among its recent graduates. And we also know Alexi Lalas, too, as Rutgers guy (though he left one course shy of graduation - which is a very, very Rutgers thing to do). As we talked, I began to glimpse something of a New Jersey network...

We used to think of UNC Chapel Hill as the nexus of the women's soccer world, but as others have noted, times have changed and the women's soccer circuit has become more complex - New Brunswick (the setting for Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) is clearly one of several sites from which movers and shakers emerge.

Thinking about what playing for this Wildcats team must have been like, I found myself wondering [mistakenly] where Formiga lived in the urban/suburban wilds of "New Brumfus." Did she ever eat at Szechuan Gourmet (the Chinese restaurant for which I worked as a hostess in the 1980s)? Did she ever hit the dance floor at The Melody? (Is that place, pictured here, still there?) What did (and do) the Wildcats do when they aren't playing soccer? What do their day jobs look like? What did French international, WUSA star, and Wildcats player Marinette Pichon think of New Jersey?

[Of course, I wrote the above willfully projecting the Wildcats in New Brunswick, which is about a 30-40 minute drive east of Mercer County - not all that far from Walt Whitman's stomping grounds, and closer to my family's home. I had strangely projecting the team along the line of my own commuting route between home and school!]

I digress. My point is that I was thrilled to learn that Formiga (who will probably be playing for the Bay Area WPS team) is practically a Jersey girl.

And Naimo, a North Brunswick native, is a Jersey guy. He definitely has a very NJ combo: matter-of-fact-friendliness balanced with a "don't fuck with me" vibe. (Think: Tony Soprano, or, even better, "Bruce" or Patti Smith.) You can see that balance making for a very competitive coach - soliciting a level of commitment from players with that approachability, but using that DFwM face to push players to match his level of commitment to the team.

And, well, his record speaks for itself. Every team for which he has worked is a well organized, well-funded group that ruthlessly slaughters its competition. I am not sure if I am reading this right, but it looks like in the past four or five years, his teams have had a combined 67-3 record.

Naimo was totally unapologetic about that dominance. He has little sympathy for other organizations that don't fund their teams adequately, and don't support them with professional training. What are you supposed to do? Play less aggressively? Of course not.

He is not much of a bullshitter, either. I especially enjoyed what he had to say about the challenges of soccer culture here in the U.S. But I'm saving that part of our conversation for another post.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Falling Down

If I ask myself how playing soccer has changed me, I'd have to say that I fall a lot more than I used to.

Coaches say "stay on your feet" before a game. They need to say this because falling is such a big part of soccer. Who says "stay on your feet" before a baseball game? Nigerian Faith Ikidi is pictured here surprising North Korea's Ri Kum Suk with a reverse kick. I have no idea if she stayed on her feet as she did so - but clearly she's not playing like that's her only aim.

Falling was not a part of my life until I started playing about five years ago. Tripping, sure. But falling? Flying through the air falling? These were bodily events to be avoided at all costs.

Falling was not a part of my life until I tried tackling Sojin.

This was at the start of my new formation as a soccer nut. I was one of those dangerous new adult players with no sense of her own physicality or how playing the game actually works. I was running full-on at Sojin, who had the ball. I had no plan, and I wasn't wearing cleats.

I don't remember what happened, but I ended up launched into the air like Superman, except of course I can't fly. I landed flat on my stomach - a very weird crash landing that knocked the breath out of me.

The experience was extremely bizarre for me. Totally mystifying. What had happened? Why did I fly through the air like that? What had I done? Was it my fault? Was it Sojin's? (I had a terrible tendency to want to blame whoever else was near me for whatever happened to me on the field.) Being a congenital theorist, I made everybody stop playing to process the experience with me. (I am amazed these folks put up with me during that first year!)

Sojin, a far more experienced athlete and certainly a better soccer player, was bemused by my confusion, and patiently explained that if you run full speed at someone - if you charge at someone like that - you are very likely to go flying. "Plus," she said very sensibly, "you need cleats." (That was the last time I played in anything but the proper shoes.)

Nearly a year later I had another memorable fall. In the intervening months I'd started playing pick-up games and had learned a lot. I'd learned to think less - or, more nearly, I'd learned to let my body do more of the thinking. This time I was tackled by a pretty big guy who meant me no harm, but physics dictated that I go ass-over-teakettle forward through the air - I'd been running, and somehow he got me from behind. I tumbled right over myself, and came up on my feet - ball still at my toes. I tried to play on, but my friends were all so stunned that they'd stopped to stare. They were rightly wondering if I was OK - as every other time I'd fallen, I'd been rattled to my physical and psychic core.

This time, however, I was relaxed when I went down, and so the fall didn't really take me down. It was, in fact, fun. I remember that fall in great detail - and a few others, too. A player nicknamed Barca slide tackled me in a training session last spring - she mistimed the tackle just a bit and clipped my feet. Everyone was mad at her, but I was thrilled that'd she'd considered me enough of a threat. Sure, I was sent a few feet in the air, but I was fine. And I'd won my team a free kick. In June, I played in a tournament staged over a rainy weekend, and the slide tackles were fast and furious - I know I took at least two hard tackles that had me kissing the grass. I found both bracing - like a splash of cold water. They were clean, fluid tackles, too - something I admire, even if they are directed at me. And I honestly think I played better that day for them.

As a defender, you often go flying because you are giving, not receiving the tackle. I am still to green to be working on anything but instinct, and so when I go flying it's out of a reflex. I don't usually know what has happened until I'm wiping the dirt off of myself. Still, I'm thrilled by the experience.

I am not yet at the level I most admire - the player who throws herself in the air to win the ball or score. My falls are reactive - and they are usually caused by something I am doing with my feet. I'm not the player who will dive to head the ball into the net - but I would very much like to be her.

I used to think that falling was synonymous with getting hurt. But I know now that that isn't exactly true. Falling awkardly, falling when you are tense - this will hurt. But play relaxed and fluid, and you'll be surprised by what your body can do. Somehow you fall, but you don't fall down.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Modern Minstrels: Sexist Jokes about Women Athletes

A popular youtube video poking fun at women playing basketball is in my view little more than a modern day incarnation of old-fashioned minstrelsy. Those lightly "comic" routines were once found funny by racist audiences who enjoyed having their attitudes confirmed in entertaining spectacles that should turn the stomach.These images and performances provided the gearwork by which a white supremacist culture rationalized its most violent and abusive practices. (Spike Lee addresses the love affair between American culture and minstrel performance is his brilliant satire Bamboozled.)

It may seem extreme to some to compare the "spoof" on the idea of a WNBA Live game with things like that, but....

Below we have a man in lesbian-drag (the straight guy's acceptable form of black-face), playing at being a WNBA star, introducing his bored friends to the new game - an abject out-dated and comically slow moving "virtual" basketball game, in which a lone female stick figure limps across the scene and makes a bad shot. The player then falls over, "injured" when she gets a "yeast infection."

There is, it turns out, a whole subgenre of youtube videos mocking the WNBA - not because the authors of these videos have a problem with the organization, but because they can't get over the idea that women play basketball, and that there are people who want to watch them. This came as a total shock to me. And not just because I love watching the LA Sparks in action (and think they were robbed in the playoffs). I just spent a year in England getting acquainted with Old World sexist attitudes there about women playing soccer. Silly me - I'd felt a certain national pride in the way that Americans seemed to at least not hate the idea of women athletes.

That was a really naive fantasy. Apparently, most (not all) guys here can handle women playing soccer (sport of girls and immigrants). But basketball? Professionally? Youtube hosts a range of these just plain offensive diatribes. These are made by guys who are so full of hate for this idea, they produce homophobic and just plain moronic pieces about how boring women's basketball is, how badly women play, how ludicrous it is that anyone should try to get anyone to watch WNBA games.

A few months ago I posted a comment to neXib's youtube video, which features goal keeping "errors" in the 2007 Women's World Cup. I expressed my outrage and pointed to Nadine Angerer's amazing record and highlights. He responded "that's because she's a shemale." And closed the comments.

The comments to neXib's "Female Goalkeepers" (which is often the first youtube video to come up under the search "female goalkeepers") do include a lot of angry fans of the women's game. Some highlights from NeXib and his cohort, as they field that outrage:

To another user (who wrote in agreement with the spirit of his video), neXib wrote:
"Well it has been like that for a long time. Maybe they are afraid of getting some balls in their face :P "
One of his fans:
"women shud take care of kids..these gals luk like half males due to heavy football play"
Other comments:
"Why are these women attempting to do something that they clearly do not have the physical or mental capabilities for? They are only embarrassing themselves."
"ha ha girls suck at football lol " and, from another: "soccer is for men.sorry."
"honestly... I think they should just get rid of women's keepers, and just let guys from the under 15 national teams play GK instead."
The video, which presents itself as evidence of how women keepers "are rubbish", features footage of the three keepers in one tournament (one loses out to Marta - FIFA's Female World Footballer of the Year twice over), and presents itself as a statement of both the women's game and women's abilities.

NeXib disabled the comments not because his video solicited the above sexist remarks from youtube users, but because, in his view, the women and men writing in to point out the sexism of the video had "no sense of humor".

I'm proud to have been the one to have sent him over the edge.

There's a line between videos showing "lowlights" of a sport, and videos which show such things in the service of a statement motivated by prejudice. You would not see youtube hosting videos that singled out errors made by black or latino male players (of any sport), in a manifesto about how no one wants to see them play professionally, because "they can't." And believe me, there was once a moment when people held those ideas and made those arguments - and they would have found criticism of their position humorless, too.

Why is it acceptable to post youtube videos like this about women? Why is that OK? (There is good writing about women & goal keeping see, for example, David James's "Keeping Up with Part-Time Rachel").

In any case, here is youtube's community guideline regarding hate-motivated material:
"But we don't permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity)."
How is a video which clearly singles out a few errors made by women goalies in early rounds of the 2007 FIFA world cup in the explicit service of an argument that women are physically incapable of playing soccer not an "attack" that "demeans" "a group based on...gender"?

Sports Illustrated links to the WNBA spoof with no comment. The comments on youtube largely react to its humor, with only a few tentative voices pointing to the offensiveness of the content of the joke and the comments it invites, like:
LOFL you dumb twat, its also about ball handling, jump shooting, defense, a post game, and alot of other things (none of which those dykes do well).

LOL@ even trying to compare the WNBA to the NBA. I bet the team I played on back in JR High could beat the womens olympic team.
Why aren't those videos censored for violating the standards of hate speech defined above? This kind of "humor" supports world-wide active and often violent suppression of women's interest in athletics - in no small part because it's a fast route to empowerment. If guys HATE the idea that women play basketball, soccer, whatever, it's because they HATE the idea that women might be strong, competitive, fearless, and aggressive. The video I've posted here (reluctantly) is, in my view, a clever and socially acceptable act of hate speech.

And I wish a joyless future of ineffectial layups on all the dudes involved with its production.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

MARTA MARTA MARTA MARTA!!!: Marta Viera de Silva is (SORT OF, maybe, Uhm...?) coming to LA!

A few days ago, having received an e-mail announcement of the international "draft" picks for the WPS teams, I wrote this:
MARTA has apparently been 'drafted' by the new LA professional women's team. I have a pickup game to join shortly, so can't do my research on this just yet - but OH MY GOD, I am so HAPPY! I am going to pass out from excitement! FORMIGA - first pick (are they reading From A Left Wing?) - is going to the Bay Area!!! Look out, though - Cristiane will be (might be?) playing for the Red Stars, who really seem to have their shit together. Look for a full report from moi sometime over the weekend. If you don't know who Marta or Formiga are, just read my posts below on the Olympics, or search their names on this blog. On reading the press material a little more closely, though - who knows. This could be smoke and mirrors? Who knows anything about the LA team?
Melissa from The Offside's WPS wing has done some of the homework to decode the WPS "international draft" statement. It's not a draft, it's a wish list. And it would be just like the top-down thinking at AEG to name Marta as their choice before they've, well, given the team a name and done any work to connect this future-team to the actual fans of the women's game in the region. My enthusiasm above is a sad, sad indication of how starved we are for information.
I tried e-mailing the contact address given for the LA WPS team on the WPS site, and got that query bounced back. Calls and e-mails to contact persons listed on the WPS LA website (which is, really, a virtual ghost town) are unanswered. Sure, it's just little ole me. Not the LA Times, or Sports Illustrated. But I don't see stories in those outlets which tell us what the hell is going on. Just this solid rant from Grahame Jones ("Hey Phil: Bring Marta to LA") on LA Times's new sports blog site, which is operating on just about the same level of information I've got. Which is nada.

The Offside explains why we don't see German players in the draft list. But why don't we see any of the Nigerian players either? Did anyone else watch those Olympic matches? The whole thing seems to be a lot of smoke and mirrors. Sigh. It isn't even worth getting angry about. The WPS announcement of teams wish list/declaration of intention to recruit doesn't seem to mean much of anything - beyond perhaps a warning shot to European clubs to start paying their better players better money.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Soccer Monogamy: Why Don't Women Play Pick Up?

I am putting the question out there. Why don't women play what we Americans call "pickup"? A friend of mine joked that it was because women want soccer monogamy - to commit to one team, whereas guys will play with anybody. It's a funny joke, but not much of an explanation.

Pickup is by far my favorite way to play soccer. These are informal games between whoever shows up. You know the spot and the day of the week. The hour is usually sometime between when you get off work and grab dinner. There's no league, no ref's - you use garbage cans for goal posts, and barely keep score. No uniforms and usually you don't divide up by who is wearing light or dark. You line up, every other person steps forward, and there's the teams. (Not wearing different colors had the advantage of making you much more vocal, much better at signaling to teammates when you want the ball.) Some games in LA have been going on for ten, fifteen years - friendships develop through these games that outlive most marriages - though you may only know each other by nicknames like "The Russian" or "Barça." Pickup games are a big part of the pleasure of playing sports like soccer which require little in terms of field and equipment (as is the case with basketball too), and so can be played in these informal settings (whoever heard of pickup baseball?). (When you are watching Law & Order and the detectives need to talk to a black man, he's invariably found playing pickup basketball.)

For reasons I don't entirely understand, however, women - as a class - don't play pickup soccer. Sure you'll see girls like me out there with the boys, girls who are so crazy about the sport that they'll push through the weirdness that they feel when they first try to join in a game not knowing if their participation will be refused because of their gender (believe me, that's a depressing experience and not easy to get past). And you'll see quasi-organized coed games, played outside leagues and teams - but usually those are more formal than what I mean.

I don't think guys know how lucky they have it - when women want to play regularly against other women, they have to join official teams, register, get ID cards and fill out league forms. That's basically your only option.

I used to play pickup with guys in Griffith Park in L.A. Sometimes these games were insanely big. One night, we were at least 15 on 15. Some girls were gathered at the other end of the park, though, warming up as if they were going to play. No uniforms - looked like an informal game. A guy playing near me said that if he were a girl, he'd go play with them, as it looked like a smaller and more reasonable game. I thought that sounded like a good idea, so I went over to my sister soccer players.

They were standing in a loose circle. They were younger than me, and most had sleek ponytails. I explained that I was playing in a huge pickup game, and that I would love to get in on a smaller game if they were going to play.

They turned and looked at me, as a single Borg-like unit. Their leader stepped towards me and squinted as she explained:

"Uhm. We're, like, a TEAM. And, uhm, this is, like, our PRACTICE."

The others seemed really relieved as she said this. So, I was, like, "Uhm. OK." And I went back to the 15 aside game, which was, however, quickly getting better as guys peeled off to get dinner. By the end of the night, I was having a great game in a 7 aside match. I felt like I had wheels on my cleats - the game was fast, competitive, and played in the middle of a cloud of dust.

I have yet to experience a female version of the chaotic fun of a pickup game. I suspect one problem might be that when women start such games, they let guys in, and the guys take over. But that doesn't explain the complete and total absence of the phenomenon.

If you have theories about women and pickup soccer, I'd love to hear them. If you know of a great women's pickup game, I'd love even more to hear about that!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Defensive Thoughts

Why is playing defense so satisfying? I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but there are more than a few of us who love the high anxiety of the back line in a tight game - who love the challenge of trying to shut down a player with more speed, more skill - who live for the peculiar victory of engineering another's defeat. (Check out Nigeria's Faith Ikidi as she tackles Sweden's Teresa Sjorgan here in the 2007 World Cup.)

I am back home in Los Angeles, and just played today with a new team - 11-a-side, under blue skies & the hot afternoon sun, on a typical LA field (bumpy, with huge swaths of packed dirt running up and down the field). The first day with a new team can be nerve wracking, but these women were really welcoming and relaxed. Our opponents struggled for reasons that weren't totally clear as they seemed OK on the ball (fitness perhaps?). Our team won handily (3-0).

I played left back and had a great game. Not perfect, but still great. I pushed up, got involved in play, made all sorts of trouble for those trying to move down the wing, and had a really dramatic 'save' which nixed a breakaway at the last minute - At a full-on run, I managed to just catch the ball with my left foot as the striker was trying to pull it to the left to make a shot. I went flying, too, bringing down the striker and our keeper as I did so - but I'd gotten nothing but ball with the foot, and everyone was OK.

From the reactions of my teammates, I guess it looked pretty good. But as a defender, you are just angry that someone got past you, and that anyone is near the goal. You don't celebrate a block like you celebrate a goal. If you are in that situation, it's because something on your end went wrong. In this case, I wasn't in the right position, I got split between two players and got totally played on a nice give and go between their forwards, and one of them broke free. And while I may have gotten my foot on the ball at the right moment, I gave up a corner.

Defense can be such a different game than attack. Your work is often negative (stopping the action), and you are also often cleaning up messes (your own, your team's). And when you fuck up, you can't just stop to wallow in shame. You have to immediately, without missing a beat, keep at it. If you don't, your mistake may put the other team ahead. In a funny way, you can't take your mistakes too seriously during the game itself.

In any case, back to my opening question: Why is this role so satisfying?

Maybe it's because a really strong back line allows for the possibility of mistakes, allows your team to be more risky in its attacking game - and isn't this what makes the game interesting? I guess I just like being trusted with this responsibility.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Soccer Moms vs Hockey Moms?

I just finished watching Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican Convention, and noticed all those folks waving home-made "HOCKEY MOMS" posters. Palin calls herself one, and got a big cheer when she told a good joke about this demographic (Q: What's the difference between a hockey mom and a bulldog? A: Lipstick).

Palin proudly proclaims herself to be a "hockey mom" - this is a not so subtle attack on the soccer moms who were much in the news in the presidential elections of the 1990s. In the context of Republican rhetoric, soccer is here being contrasted with hockey, and implicitly cast as the wussy sport (played by immigrants, women, and middle-class liberals). It's a cheap shot - plainly an attempt to cast soccer as a game not played by "real" americans. ARGH. ARGH!!!! There were a thousands things to hate about what Palin said in tonight's frighteningly charismatic speech. But this one, indirect swipe at the beautiful game deserves mention here: Ambivalence about soccer, and those who play it, haunts american political discourse - and betrays the true feelings of such politicians about what I've elsewhere referred to in this blog as el resto del mundo.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Half Time

From A Left Wing is on vacation until late September. Check out "Left Wing's Best Shots" in the left column for a sampling of articles posted on this blog since December 2007.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dazed and Confused: Brazil Comes Up Empty/USWNT Takes Home 3rd Gold Medal

It's past midnight, and I've spent the day a bit lost and confused. I drank too much wine, I talked too fast and didn't really listen to people. Or, I didn't talk much at all, and didn't listen to what others were saying. I just waited for a decent time to call it a night. Is 9:30pm respectable enough? Is that too early to call it a night so I can get the day over with?

Brazil lost to the US, by one unanswered goal scored by Carli Lloyd in extra time. I know the words on my passport should have had me rooting for the US, but I felt no joy at this victory, and did no more at the match's finish than turn off the television.

I agree with Brazilian fans Hugo & Cibele's take (see comments to my last entry) on today's match. The US played a strong game, a strategic game, and were tireless. The match looked like a replay of the loss to Germany in the World Cup final - the opposition's impenetrable defense, Hope Solo taking on Angerer's position as the unbeatable keeper, then the waiting game - you know that lone, textbook goal is coming somewhere in the last twenty minutes or so. And there it was - USA 1/Brazil 0.

It was a soulless match. I don't know the answer to the question these kinds of games provoke - because if they suck the joy out of the room, they do put silverware on the mantle.

What was it Eduardo Galeano said? The story of football is a voyage from 'beauty to duty' and is today played by 'functionaries' who 'specialize in avoiding defeat.'

I wanted Brazil to take home the medal. It would have made for a better story. But perhaps this desire is about more than wanting a certain team to win - perhaps it expresses a longing for a world in which the "beautiful losers" win.

I shouldn't be so romantic. When we see Brazil's national women's team get the material support they deserve, we'll see them winning these final matches. I just hope that Brazil's football association takes this defeat as an incentive to honor the skill and passion these women bring to the game, by putting their resources into their training and competition program, and by developing the talents of those girls inspired by them. I fear though that some may see in this a confirmation of their patriarchal ambivalence towards the very idea of "Pele in skirts."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Olympic Women's Soccer Semifinal - Brazil Levels Germany 4-1: Formiga Ends Angerer's Unprecedented Record in the Goal

Wow. All I can say is Wow. (Click here for FIFA match summary.) As Canarihnas just played the game of their lives against Germany (Check out Amanda Vandervort's article on them here). After a rocky start, in which Germany looked on path to beat Brazil at her own game in a repeat of the 2007 World Cup Final, Brazil came back from one down with a brilliant strike from Formiga (pictured here) and then followed up with a string of devastating attacks on goal - playing circles around the 2007 World Cup Champions to end the match with a decisive, and very entertaining victory (4-1).

Brazil's defense looked awful at the game's start, and I'm going to say one of the plays of the match has to be a save from Tania early on - at about 2 minutes, she dug deep and literally extended herself farther than one would have though possible to get rid of a very dangerous cross headed right to the front of the goal, where Germany's strikers were waiting. Overall, in the opening Brazil's defense was harrowing to watch and they looked bizarrely slow.

Meanwhile Bridget Prinz had her eye on the goal, and looked on pace to score. She's tall, and has a lot of physical presence - she's also lightening fast, and opened the scoring at ten minutes with a first rate run, out dribbling the opposition and taking the ball right up to the goal. It was a move right out of Brazil's own play book. My notes on this point: "WTF!?" That's a good "WTF", by the way, because it was a great goal - even if it made my heart sink.

The game was a rough one (3 yellow cards for Brazil, 2 for Germany) - as was the case with their opening match, neither team wanted to let the other team find its rhythm. There were some scary moments - early on (around 6 minutes), as Angerer raced in to protect the ball she threw herself in the way of Daniela's raised foot - she took it flat on the chest. It looked like a 50/50 challenge to me, as Daniela had no right to expect Angerer's body to be there, and Angerer did get the ball - the latter is 100% fearless on this point, and has made some insane-looking challenges in the past (giving up a penalty in the 2007 World Cup to Marta - which she then saved). It's part of her strength as a goalie, she makes you think twice about taking the ball close. She took a minute, but got up and was right back in it. She is tough as nails. She was then making one stop after another - and as impressive as many of these saves were, I found myself thinking that if Brazil kept up this level of attack, it would only be a matter of time.

The turning point of the match came at 43 minutes. Cristiane took the ball deep into Germany's half with loads of defenders on her - she nutmegged Stegemann and then made some highlight-reel worthy maneuvers around the defense - toeing and rolling the ball this way and that, to turn and send it right to the sweet spot in the middle: Marta, of course, was there (and marked). FIFA says she failed to connect - but this video suggests that she actually might have flicked the ball on (or not) - but an unmarked FORMIGA raced in and fired the ball into the net. Split between Cristiane (capable of shooting on target even when marked by two or three players), and Marta (ditto), and Formiga (there was no one left to mark her!) - Angerer was beat: For the first time in god knows how many minutes.

I have come to admire and respect Nadine Angerer so much that a part of me was sad to see her unprecedented streak brought to an end. Her record of minutes played without conceding a goal will, no doubt, stand for years and years to come.

Now - can I just say: I called it. Formiga! Not to take anything away from the twinned futebol goddesses Marta and Cristiane - but, as I've argued elsewhere, mid-fielder Formiga in many ways represents Brazil's strengths as a team. The talents of strikers like Marta and Cristiane are easier to measure in the very very limited space alloted to women's football, and you'll rightly see their names everywhere in coverage of the team's Olympic exploits. But with so little column inches given to writing about the women's game, we don't hear much about the John Terrys, Lilian Thurams, Petr Cechs, or even the Zidanes of the women's game. When I first started watching Brazil, I kept asking myself: What position does Formiga play? Because you'd see her clearing the line (as she did at least once in this game), playing well back, and then well forward - racing in to follow up the forwards, taking loose balls back and distributing. She is a very, very smart and fast player - with what I think they call "a great work rate." I would just love to have the stats on how many kilometers she logs in a match.

I don't think she's called Formiga because she's tiny. I think it's because playing her is like being covered with ants. She moves like she's got eight legs and like there is a thousand of her. She drives you crazy because you can't get rid of her. She plays like an army of Formigas! Formiga: I am a fan! So, I practically wept when she opened up the scoring - and it's fitting that she should hammer home a fantastic team goal, too.

Well - what else is there to say? Marta (getting past Stegemann here) and Cristiane (celebrating one of her goals here with a back-flip) put Brazil ahead with a classic collaboration - Marta takes the ball in close, draws one, two, three defenders and then slides the ball to Cristiane who exploits the space with a neat slide past Angerer. Later, Marta decides she needs a run and wants to score one too, so she takes the ball in close, beats the two defenders and with a tricky and risky little move she manages to get the ball just past an outstretched Angerer, using her left foot to do so. Cristiane puts the last nail in the coffin with her own attacking solo, beating four (yes, that's four) defenders before taking on and beating Angerer. Damn.

I'm so happy to see Formiga & As Canarihnas get past Germany (who deserve much recognition for their recent performances - truly an amazing team). And if we see the US go through (they are playing Japan as I write this), there will be lots on the line in that gold medal match, as the US will be looking for its own payback for last year's semi-final World Cup loss, and Brazil, too, for their last Olympics final which they very narrowly lost to the US.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Olympic Women's Soccer: Japan Beats China?! Germany Seals the Deal. And, well, Brazil Makes You Crazy.

OK: First off - Japan beat China (FIFA summary here). The two are rivals, but I can't say as I saw this one coming. I only caught the second half, and it was good enough to explain why. I felt for China, as I can’t imagine how it must feel to give up a game like that in front of so many adoring fans. At least they were supportive (the atmosphere in the stadium seemed amazing). That said, during the second half they seemed overly cautious – almost depressed, even when they had the ball. Japan, on the other hand, reminded us just how much of the game is about getting to the ball first. They had hustle, hustle, hustle and deserved the win. Sawa got the first goal, and celebrates here. Nagasato got the second, cleaning up some scrap in front of China's goal. They move on to take on the U.S. They lost to the Americans 1-0 but I'm not sure what that says about anybody.

NEXT: I missed the first half of the above game watching a scoreless 45 between Sweden & Germany, who were playing a very physical and defensively amazing game (FIFA summary). [By the way 5 of the players in this match are teammates at Djurdåden Damfotboll in Sweden - Sweden's Victoria Svensson, Sara Thunebro & Linda Forsberg; Germany's Ariane Hingst and Nadine Angerer.] Germany grabbed the lead in extra time, with a perfectly placed corner from Lingor. Garefrekes laddered over the crowd and headed the ball across and into the net with force. Sweden's keeper got the tips of her fingers on it, and almost had the save, but there was just too much power on the ball. Simone Laudehr scores in the second half of extra time from a perfectly placed ball from Prinz. As Sweden put on the pressure, my gal Nadine made another save or two - the game ends, in fact, with Sweden having taken 9 shots on target to Germany's ten. And that's it.

One of my teammates suggests in a comment on this blog that I might give Angerer too much credit in some of my entries. After mulling this possibility over, I thought perhaps I should say that Germany's entire defense has fantastic communication. I don't think I've seen a single slip up between them once. Otherwise, I'd say - no - it's impossible to give her too much credit. She's kept a clean sheet so far, and had a clean sheet through the World Cup. Nobody seems to score against her. She went 540 minutes in the 2007 world cup without conceding a single goal - and that includes a penalty save against Marta! This is, by the way, a record for both men and women. This youtube video is grainy, but it gives you a sense of how good she is. I have to say, while I'm not a Germany fan, I am an Angerer fan. The more I see her in action, the more I feel like I am watching football history unfold.

LAST: How do you beat Brazil? (FIFA summary for their game against Norway). Unless you are Germany and have Nadine Angerer solving all your problems (Marta, Cristiane, Formiga, Daniela, etc.), I don’t know if it can be done. Here is Brazil's strategy: The team is stacked with players that need three defenders on them when they have the ball. Give the ball to one of those women, and let her take it up a bit. Everybody else gets to move around, and because the player with the ball is so awesome, she will actually get it to one of her teammates - say Cristiane - even though she's holding the ball in the middle of a wasps nest. And, since, like, at best the player receiving the pass has maybe one or two defenders on her, and she is better than them, she can score. Brazil has players who can do things like surprise a defender who is running for and with the ball towards the goal, and before she gets control of it, your Amazonian football goddess will make up the five yards between them and slide her body between that running defender and the moving ball and - mid-stride - she sends the ball into the back of the net (the strike is pictured here). That's how Marta got the second goal. She made it look easy, but the look on the Norwegian defender's face (surprise, frustration, awe) said it all.

Brazil is getting better and better. They are proud of their skills, and have every single right to be [I originally wrote "cocky and arrogant" instead of "proud of their skills" - and I meant on the field, when they in their groove - but too many readers mistook my remark, so I changed it for clarity: see comments]. If I had to face these women in a game, I think I’d just, well, I guess I’d foul them hard and often. I think it must be easy to get frustrated and angry playing them. And that's part of their plan.

The only weakness I saw in Brazil’s game today was that they got too relaxed after the second goal. In particular – their forwards, who seemed content to just let the back line do any defensive work, which therefore meant Norway spent more time in Brazil’s territory than they should have in the last fifteen minutes, and Brazil wound up giving them a penalty. But, you know, I didn't mind watching women laughing and having a good time as they were in the game's last leg. Overall, though, for the most part it seemed like Norway was just so sure they were going to lose that they gave up before they set foot on the pitch.

They have their work cut out for them, because they must face Germany again. That's the game of the tournament in my eyes. Pardon the expression, but it should be balls-to-the-walls football, as I am sure Brazil has no intention of letting this game go to penalties.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Women's Soccer: Profligacy, Parsimony, Politics (reflections on the Super Falcons' performance)

FIFA has a pretty decent summary of the Brazil/Nigeria match in their site, and there is a great blow-by-blow from, so I'm not going to give the detailed account I gave for the Super Falcon's battle against Germany (see below). Watching today's match (amazing - don't let that 3-1 score fool you, it was an entertaining match start to finish), I found myself mulling over the way the word "profligacy" was used in FIFA's summary of that last game againt Germany:
The African champions dominated much of this match and had enough chances to win a few games, but their profligacy in front of goal - which had already been in evidence in their 1-0 defeat to Korea DPR - once again proved their undoing.
Warning: I am an English Professor by trade. The author meant something like "wasted goal scoring opportunity," a situation that writers about football find themselves needing to write over and over again, and so one's vocabulary stretches along with that striker's foot, and like that prodigal daughter who discards the perfect pass and misses the wide open net, sometimes the writer, too, goes wide of the mark. All that aside, profligacy is an odd word choice. Its first meaning is:
1. Licentious or dissolute behaviour; debauchery; spec. (in later use) sexual promiscuity. [Oxford English Dictionary]
Given the centuries-old racist and sexist traditions that inform representations of African women, it is not a word I would choose. I am sure the FIFA writer didn't mean to draw from this (the primary) meaning of the word. Better to use the word in a statement like "Manchester United's behavior off the pitch is a good example of the profligate lifestyle of contemporary footballers."

Even the secondary meanings for "profligacy" feel not quite right as a description of how the Super Falcons play:
2. a. Reckless extravagance, prodigality; (also) a wasteful or extravagant act. 2. b. Lack of moderation, excess; great abundance, profusion. [Again, this is from the O.E.D.]
On this point, my objection isn't political, but technical. In footballing terms, I would say "profligacy" is more apropos of the striker who strikes too soon, of the player who sends the ball too far down the pitch. (In which case, one might tag Brazil for its profligacy in the first match against Germany in which we saw lots of long balls just thrown away.)

If the Super Falcons suffered against these teams - the very best teams in the very toughest group in this tournament - it was, I think, more properly because they were too conservative. Which is perhaps counterintuitive, because the Super Falcons play with a lot of style and imagination. But style isn't the same thing as wastefulness. If that were true, Argentina and Brazil would have the weakest records in football. And England would have qualified for Euro 2008.

A team of goal scorers and a lame back line may be accused of profligacy, in which case we can turn to Tottenham as a fine example. But the Nigerian women's team plays more like Arsenal, who would never be called "profligate" with the parsimonious Wenger at the helm. We all know the purse strings are kept tight chez les Gunners. And then we have the style of play: lots of jaw dropping short little passes right up to the goal. Spectacular to watch. But, as we all know, eventually the odds go against these genius little moves up the field. Every pass is a pass that can go wrong or be interfered with. Every moment you hold onto the ball is a moment a defender has to catch you. The problem, here, then, is not "letting go" but holding on.

I am wondering if, in the case of the Nigerian women's team, this isn't about confidence, and the opportunities a team has to play together. You didn't see Nigeria, for example, making a whole lot of medium or long passes into space - Germany's Stegemann scored off of exactly that kind of optimism ("I know she's on her way, and will be there by the time the ball gets there"), and Marta and Cristiane work off of exactly this kind of confidence in each other ("Marta - draw those three defenders off me, and then cross me the ball!").

Nigeria's problem isn't profligacy - it's the opposite. A fear of letting the ball go. And with so much riding on them - the only African women's football team at the Olympics (and, therefore, the only all black team on the tournament's rosters), who can blame them. Want to talk about parsimony? Let's talk about FIFA's ambivalent support of African football over history, and then let's talk about FIFA's even more ambivalent support of women's football over history, and, well, marry those two histories et voila! You have the special burden of being the only African women's team allowed to take the world stage. Who can blame them for playing a somewhat skeptical game.

Well, there you have it, my reading of one sentence in a FIFA match report. This is what happens when a feminist English professor becomes a fan of the football.

Before I sign off for the day, let me just say some things about today's game. The Super Falcons have super fans! You could hear them shouting, cheering, and singing alongside their own brass & drums band from the start to the finish of the match. And while plainly Cristiane is player of the match, I'd like to give a shout out to Nigeria's Faith Ikidi who got in some technically perfect tackles and was just a hornet in both of the games I was lucky enough to see. She's one of the defenders of the tournament in my eyes.

Cristiane's bicycle kick goal brought tears to my eyes. So amazing, so perfect - she was surrounded by defenders and still got a controlling touch and just sent it over her own body and into the net. I was rooting for Nigeria, but I'm a fan of the beautiful game, and I don't know what's more gorgeous & inspirational than a goal like that. (Note the Nigerian player who nearly takes Cristiane's foot in her face!)

So - here it is [I leave the broken link up, to signal the depressing withdrawal of images of women playing from the internet - with no mass media circulation, with no money riding on the rebroadcasting of women's games, the Olympics Police censoring of fan-produced highlights services the suppression of the women's game more effectively than it protects a fucking Olympics copyright. Sorry for the language, but it makes me very angry that I can't show you that goal. And you can watch three thousand less interesting goals from the EPL whenever you want.]:

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olympic Women's Soccer: A Day in the Life of the Super Falcons (Nigeria/Germany)

First: Big thanks to Şenol, for recording this game and getting me a copy - no women's football was aired in France today, as far as I can tell!

As I tune in (about 20 minutes into the match), it looks like a normal day in the life of a team playing Germany. Prinz collects the ball at the top of the box, fires a shot with 2 defenders on her, and it goes just over the top. Sigh. Another day at the office.

But, actually, this game is more interesting than that. Germany looks big, strong, and, well, scary. But Nigeria is playing with a lot of energy and creativity: they are just as capable of making havoc. Both teams are really attacking the ball (pictured here, Pingor and Uwak going at it). There is no "watching" the game from the pitch. And they seem to be surprising each other.

Just as I am pouring myself a glass of wine, Nigerian defender Ikidi sends a high lob down the field, it's picked up on the wing and, with a gorgeous flick, the ball slips forward to Super Falcons star Cynthia Uwak (Like a few of her Nigerian teammates, Uwak plays in Sweden, for the Falkopings. She was twice FIFA African woman footballer). Uwak starts on a promising run, and is brought down with a trip, for which Bresonik is given a yellow card. This seems to set the tone for a bit. Nigerian player Ebi gets a card too, just after Garefrekes peels the ball away from her feet. Ebi chases her down, tries to contain her, and trips her up. Laudehr takes Uwak down again a few minutes later. Both teams are working hard to try to prevent the other from playing their game.

It strikes me that in some ways, the Germans seem more unsettled by Uwak than they were against any of the Brazilians. Uwak is really fast on the ball, and has an amazing touch. She is, arguably, the most dangerous player on the pitch in this game (other contenders, Prinz and Nwocha). That said, the Nigerian defenders seem to struggle against Germany's strength and size advantage - there are moments when neither seems to quite know how to play the other.

Anyway, like Uwak, Faith Ikidi also plays for a Swedeish team - Linkopings - and is working her ass off – if the ball makes it down the wing, it’s not on her side of the pitch. She has a nice way of clipping the ball out from players barreling up the field, she has great positioning and a fantastic rapport with those working in her neighborhood. So most of the action looks like the above, but is interrupted by German Smisek getting the ball on the wing, and sending it to the goal, where it is easily picked up by keeper Precious Dede (best name in the Olympics?). Throughout the bit of the first half I saw, Dede looked confident, and was not really challenged.

The first half closes with an exciting give-and-go exchange between Nigeria's Michael and Uwak which ends with Michael surgically threading the ball through three defenders. More bodies start piling in to shut down Uwak who is playing like the ball is velcroed to her feet. Angerer comes out of her goal to remind us why she's the best in the game. She just throws herself over ball before you know what’s happening. It’s surprising, brilliant. Done with total confidence and even a bit of elegance. Drama!

It occurs to me, as I watch this German television broadcast, that the announcers stop calling the game when Nigeria has the ball. (They go totally silent.) I suspect they don't know the players names? It's annoying.

Anyway, new glass of wine in hand: Germany starts the second half with a bang as a dangerous cross to Prinz is deflected by Jermone's hyper-extended foot just - and I do mean JUST - before Prinz gets there. Germany is looking a bit more together. Overall, as the game gets going again, they have far more shots on target but, then again, Dede sees them coming from a mile away.

At 54 minutes, Micheal & Nwocha make a fantastic attack as Michael takes the ball up past two defenders, and takes her shot - Angerer has come out of the goal and deflects the ball, which is picked up promptly by no. 4, who takes another strong shot on target - Angerer, who has been backing up to her line, makes the dive and another unbelievable save.

She is being challenged more by Nigeria than she was by Brazil. Today, both teams are seeming increasingly frustrated by the absence of a goal.

Next thing you know, Nigeria makes another brilliant - and I mean BRILLIANT attack at about 56 minutes, as their midfield scraps the ball forward where it is picked up by Nkwocha, slipped out to Michael on the wing, give-and-go with Nwocha as the two move on the goal - and Michael takes a shot that goes wide of the goal again. ARGH. By the way, Nkwocha (also twice named African women's player of the year) plays in Sweden as well, for Sunnana.

Nasty bit of confusion Nigeria's back line rattles the team as defenders hold the ball too long and then leave it to Dede to sort it out too late - this suggest the door is opening for Germany - but, amazingly Nigeria recovers and spends the next shift in Germany's half, doing their best to work the odds by taking as many shots as they can. Angerer doesn't seem phased in the least. Laudher seems annoyed, however, as she takes a fistful of Uwak's shirt and yanks her to the ground. Nwocha's header off the free kick goes wide. She never really connected with it.

And, well, that's practically the game. It's about 65 minutes, and Germany brings the ball up with clever one-two touch triangles. They bring it all the way down to Nigeria's corner and Mitag (who'd been on the pitch for, like 3 minutes) reaches with her foot to send a gorgeous short cross into space into which materializes Stegemann's foot. Et voila. Chance not wasted. Chance converted into that singular all important point.

Nigeria - and in particular Dede (pictured here) - deserve much credit and admiration for fighting on, and keeping Germany to a single point (Final score: 0-1). Super Falcons: Left Wing sends you her best cross in sympathy! I was rooting for you!

PS: Nadine Angerer looks a lot like Joaquin Pheonix. Don't you think?

[August 12: On their site, FIFA says of this match that Nigeria had poor finishing - they call it "profligacy in front of the goal". But then they also go on and on about Angerer, and wonder if she's on her way to keeping a clean sheet through yet another international tournament. Well: Which is it? Because Nigeria had plenty of shots on target. And you can't have it both ways! Nigeria gave Angerer a much tougher game than Germany gave Dede - though Dede did have some great saves. Anyway, it's just yet another lame moment in the very thin English language reporting on games not involving the US! Angerer is a brilliant keeper. The best teams, the best strikers in the world have failed to convert their 'chances' in front of her.]
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