Saturday, April 12, 2008

Fan Letter: Yrsa Roca Fannberg Paints Barça

Yrsa Roca Fannberg's quixotic blog, art versus sport is more than a Barça blog - it is what the title promises, a site pulled in these two directions - art and sport - at once. I've come down to Barcelona partly to meet Ysra, and to look more closely at the wonderful watercolors she has posted on her site. Last night, she kindly met up with me and my friend, the artist Ming Yuen S Ma.

Yrsa is an independent minded artist who works across a range of mediums - at the moment she is studying documentary film-making. She makes these gorgeous watercolors in the same spirit with which she writes - with an eye to mood, delicate questions of psychology and emotion, with an eye to not only the sublimity of the sport, but to its beauty - which is sometimes quite ordinary, and at other times quite melancholy. The tone of her writing is nearest to Eduardo Galeano's Soccer in Sun and Shadow - one of my all-time favorite reads.

It was a joy for me to meet a woman similarly engaged by the sport - for those of us whose identities are primarily bound up in art and intellectual life, an absorbing passion in football can be quite isolating. Even though many women play and become fans via their attachment to their fathers, brothers, to the men in their lives, that affection for "their" sport can make us, well, a little bit weird.

Speaking for myself, when I've tried to talk footie with guys as a way to, well, talk to them, I've come away with the distinct impression that I've trangressed some major rule of womanly conduct. A few weeks ago, for example, I sat on a London bound train with my friend Mandy, who is perhaps the biggest Arsenal fan ever (and that is saying a lot). She's followed the team since god knows when (and knows every minute detail about the French national team as a result). She no casual expert on this subject.

So, across the isle are two guys: a BBC sports journalist, and an American tourist. They were talking football - and stuck with this subject for a full two hours. They talked about relegation - a fascinating, exotic form of sport brutality to us Yanks. As it happens, I'd just read National Pastime, a comparative economic analysis of major league sports in the US and around the world - focused in part on the relegation system and its economics. I mentioned this, in a casual conversational friendly way. They both looked at me, said nothing, and then continue talking as if I'd said nothing.

I suspect a lot of women who love football have had similar experiences - my friend Mandy hadn't even bothered trying to talk with those guys, and welcomed me back to our discussion with a knowing look. Women really really love to talk about their sports, it sucks to be shut out of a conversation because you are a girl - and that sense of rejection is made worse when a guy looks at you like you are stupid. Men are fans - when women talk footie we are, well, crazy, or we must be lesbians - or, crazy lesbians.

When men talk footie with each other - when they talk in great depth and with enormous intensity of feeling about other men - it is often not just about footie, it's about their relationships to each other. It's a way to be a guy with other guys. A woman who tries to take part in this sorts talk upsets whatever delicate balance is in place that allows guys to talk with and about guys without, well, thinking about guys.

Anyway, back to Yrsa's work: Most representations of footballers are hyper-heroic, hyper masculine. When Yrsa offers a visual meditation on that ecstatic post-goal moment, she literalizes this explosive joy, as above, in "Encima 2" (I think that's 'Ecstasy 2' in Catalan). Sports photography tends to amplify the testasterone even in failure, when our sports heroes are made to look more like fallen soldiers than, well, human. Not often do we see them look like the big babies they sometimes are, like Messi here on the left.

Take this portrait of Thierry Henry (right, below): he looks weighed down by his own feet, like he gets heavier and heavier as he gets closer to the ground. If you've ever played 90 minutes, you might relate - I know that there are times when the ground feels attached to my feet - like the earth itself is holding me back. I think I see in this both an affection for Henry and a mix of hope and a fear of disappointment. But perhaps I project.

The thing that moves me most about these images - about especially "In Training", pictured at the top of this article - is that they are quite plainly made out of love. And that love isn't filtered by the requirements of macho/heroic tradition. Maybe because Yrsa's a woman it's ok to look at and see men in this way, and to paint them with this sort of delicacy. Maybe because she's half Icelandic/half Catalan - and because she played herself in Sweden until she was 14 (she says she was terrible) - she approaches the subject of Barça and football culture with an eye that is both that of an insider and that of an outsider. I think Barça fans would agree that the freedom with which she looks at this world gives us a glipse into its beauty and its emotional intensity.

When she'd spread her portfolio out on our table, the waiters in this tapas bar stopped, called others over, and pointed to the portraits - "Oh, that's Messi, for sure, look at how he holds his head", and "You can't miss Thuram there" or they'd shake their head in consternation as they identified the prodigal son: "Ronaldinho." Our faces lit up with a kind of warmth - the same warmth that animates Roca Fannberg's images: these are members of the family, and we love them no matter what.


  1. i,ve been a raeder of your blog for some while now and it is always fascinating, intriguing and there is not a chance to read anything like this on the web. If i were those guys on the train i would of engaged in the conversation about relegation even though i dont know much about the economics of football in the US. Fantastic read thank you.

  2. you are most welcome, and thank you for your comment. and yes, no doubt, if they'd been gals - if you'd been there instead of that lunk-headed american guy - we'd have chatted about football from paris to london non-stop!

  3. This is a very interesting read, and I'm grateful to know about these watercolor paintings.

    I think a complicating factor in the train conversation you describe may have been the introduction of substance into the sports chatter. If, in Umberto Eco's description, sports badinage involves "talk about [sport], the talk about the journalists who talk about it,” then by actually adding content - mentioning a book the so-called experts had not read - you were transgressing in some way. It's been my experience that the Venn diagram circles of sports talk and the academic study of sport only barely manage to share turf. So sports fans don't feel that academics should interfere, and intellectuals, for the most part, leave sports alone.

    Thankfully, you have found very fertile ground in the intersection of the two worlds, and your writing should be celebrated.

  4. hi global gam & thanks for the compliments!

    yeah - as soon as i posted this one, i thought that conversation wasn't the best example, as there's no way to tell the story without making me out to be the big academica nerd that i am - which has its own problems. but that anecdote was just one of a long string of such experiences - i find that a lot of guys just don't feel comfortable with welcoming an informed woman into those sorts of conversations, no matter what the point of entry - sure, it's ok if she doesn't know what the hell she's talking about, but if she does? if she can comment on the arc of her team's season and the limits of its training philosophy? you can feel yourself disappear socially in those moments. but, fact of the matter is - it's the same thing most of the time with straight guys no matter what the topic. it could be Marx, or Hong Kong action flicks, and it's be the same thing.

    i should say - i've never found this conversational thing to be a problem with older men - partly because when i've talked to older men (at the pub, on the tube, or at a game) they are often by themselves. but they've given me the impression that they find it really really fun to talk with women of any age or orientation about football if football is their passion. i love those conversations - those grandpas really know their stuff, and i think sometimes they are very happy just to have someone listen to them, and talk with them - just like women in such settings. for women, one of the real pleasures of playing football is just meeting other women with the same interests.

    some might think that women on a women's football team might talk about other things - their partners, families, etc - but my experience has been the opposite - that it's all about football - about the teams we support, and how we are playing, etc.

  5. From one academic nerd to another, I appreciate your comments about the conversation--or lack of one. As a guy, I appreciate your insights on why there may have been some hesitancy on these fellows' part to let you "play."



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