Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Allez Les Bleus/Cherchez Les Femmes: A Cool Interview with Lilian Thuram

Check out this interview with Lilian Thuram, conducted by Pierce Freelon via Blackademics. I stumbled onto this exploring the website generated by Professor Lauren Dubois's course on World Cup politics. Amazingly, Thuram was in residence at Duke as a part of this course. 

Cheers to Blackademics.  And Dubois's course site is really neat, but it looks like the class could have done a lot more vis a vis women.

Given the smart, politically engaged interviews Thuram offers, I wish someone would ask him about recent campaigns regarding homophobia, or, even better, I wish someone would raise the issue of Eudy Simelane's murder to ask if male footballers had thought about working with FIFA around the South Africa World Cup to make some sort of statement against the sexist and homophobic violence directed against black lesbians there.  But, hey, that's moi, asking for la lune.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Political Football: Riyas Komu and the Iraqi National Team

Riyas Komu, Stadium I, 2007

Iraq's victory over Saudi Arabia in the 2007 Asia Cup final is likely to hold up as one the decade's most significant wins. The team's victory represented a complex distillation of resistance and anger. The torture and murder of Iraqi athletes is frequently cited in the litany of horrors suffered by the Iraqi people at the hands of Saddam Hussein (see this 2003 Sports Illustrated story). Responding to allegations of torture in the country's soccer program, in 1997, FIFA investigated the architect of Iraq's athletics program, Uday Hussein, but spoke only with his people and wrote a report exonerating the sadist. Interest in the plight of the country's people has long been guided by questions of political expediency. These athletes know intimately what it is to have one's body enlisted in the service of the state, and are wary at best about having their experiences drafted into discourse defending the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. On winning the cup, while a frantic official stood next to him shouting, "No Politics! No Politics," captain Younis Mahmoud said, simply: "I want America out of Iraq now!"

Drawn to the team by the Asia Cup victory and the captain's powerful statement, in 2007, Indian artist Riyas Komu went to watch one of Iraq's World Cup qualifying matches.

Click here to read the rest of my latest Art21 post about Komu's work, and to see more examples of the pieces inspired by his work with the Iraqi team.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Away Games (small note)

I lost a few days to travel - a flight from Bombay to Kolkata was so badly delayed that the event I was going to attend and report on (the Indian Football Player's Association annual dinner) was over by the time I got there.  All was not lost, because I got to hang out a little with the country's player of the year, Subrata Paul.  He was remarkably zen as the hours ticked by at the airport and it became increasingly clear that both of our trips to Kolkata were going to be somewhat pointless (well, he has family & friends there).  Fresh from training camp in Goa, the Pune FC keeper confessed he was actually "very angry" but honestly, I could not tell this at all from his affect.  Turns out he's been studying Yoga & philosophy for two years, in support of his football. 

He kept me from stressing out.  We sat there pretty chilled out, while nearly fifty passengers threatened to riot. I wish I'd had him with me on the trip back to Bombay. That plane was diverted to Pune, for no clear reason, and we were left to sit on the runway for nearly four hours. 

I'll write more about my trip later, but for now I just wanted to share this: I had joked to someone that my trip to Kolkata was all about learning what away games must be like in India.  I was kidding, because, well, flight delays happen everywhere.

But the morning after I got back, I saw this story: India sent their U23 team to the SAFF cup tournament in Bangladesh.  They won. Great news!  Their flight home was cancelled, they got stuck there overnight and then the airline lost the team's luggage

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yolanda Sousa Hammermeir: Painting as Match Commentary

Yolanda Sousa Hammermeir, Lara's Theme (2003)

The above is not a portrait of a footballer, clearly, but rather the West Indian cricket player [Brian] Lara. The painting is by Goan artist Yolanda Sousa Hammermeier. I love it, just for the colors & graphic sensibilities.  She's also done fantastic paintings in response to 2002 World Cup matches. Turns out she made headlines in the late 70s and (very) early 80s as a prolific striker - I came across her name as I was looking for women footballers in Goa, and was thrilled to learn she was also an artist.

We had a fantastic conversation last week. I write about her football paintings here: Players Painting. She recalled playing against a US team in the 1981 pre-FIFA women's world cup - she said she thought they were all, like, 15. I believe that was the tournament in which she said India started off with an amazing 2-2 result against Germany - the women partied all night to celebrate and basically got destroyed in the next match.  "Our coach wasn't used to winning," she said. She's always painted, made art, and until a knee injury sidelined her, played soccer. Sport & art have had a fluid relationship in her life, a relationship now sustained on canvas.

Yolanda Sousa Hammermeir, Rüştü Reçber, 2002

This is her lovely portrait of Turkish keeper Reçber, who just had a fantastic game playing for his club side Besiktas - against Man U at home (0-1).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Athletes & Artists: Riyas Komu's "Mark Him"

Riyas Komu, Mehrajuddin (2007) 

Just wrote my first dispatch on art and football, inspired by Riyas Komu's work: Athletes & Artists: Riyas Komu's "Mark Him (First Half). " The above is a portrait of Mehrajuddin Wadoo.  Mehrajuddin is an Indian National Team midfielder, and currently plays for East Bengal.  He's from Kashmir, and you can read a lovely interview with him at It Is Never Easy to Win the SAAFF Cup.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Left Wing, Left Leg

Riyas Komu, Left Leg 2008

I write this from Goa, just minutes before heading to a meeting with the Indian National Football Team.   This is part of a research trip to India, to explore the work and practice of the artist Riyas Komu.  Komu has been meditating on football for a few years now, and is as passionate a fan of the sport as I've met - and is particularly committed to the sport in India.  I'll be posting articles about this trip on Art21 - and will announce those posts and link to them here.  Above is one of a series of his "left leg" sculptures - carved from salvaged wood, cut through with slabs of concrete and steel cable. When I first saw one of these sculptures, I said "He plays." I knew with total certainty that the artist was a player because these pieces are phenomenologically real - meaning, they look like how a player's leg sometimes feels.  Both heroic and traumatized.  More soon!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

RIP: Mike/Christine Penner, Transgender Sportswriter

Los Angeles Times announced today that transgender sports journalist Mike Penner committed suicide.

In 2007, Penner came out in the newspaper's pages as Christine Daniels.  He took a vacation, and came back as she. Daniels continued to write for the Times, and took up what must have been no small battle in her confrontation with the ruthlessly phobic and sexist sports world. Of course, most of her life she - as he - had been living intimately with those attitudes - casual misogyny, throw-away homophobic jokes and worse are so tightly woven into sports culture as to define it.

That said, Christine Daniels reported that readers embraced her - that in fact they defied her expectations with their expressions of care and support.  At the moment, the comments section for the LA Times story reporting Mike/Christine's death bear this out - if readers struggle over what pronoun and name to use, it seems to be out of a genuine desire to show respect.

About a year ago, Mike "returned." This fact left some confused. If Christine enjoyed solid support, the return of Mike was greeted with more ambivalence and judgment than compassion and understanding.

Coming out as transgender is complicated - it isn't simply a matter of opening a closet door. You don't just declare yourself a woman (for example) - you undergo therapy, you live a year as a woman while being assessed for gender reassignment, you take hormones (or you decide not to) and you explore what gender, what sexual identity and life makes sense for you. It isn't like there is one sort of femininity and one sort of masculinity - we all know this: a person may feel well defined by a term like "male," for example, but embody a radically different masculinity from his brother, who may feel just as defined by that word.

Thinking about Mike/Christine, I'm moved by the woman s/he wanted to be, and became in 2007. What would it be like to develop and express a feminine identity as a sports journalist? Women sportswriters defy gender expectations every time they go to work. This isn't a traditional femininity by any stretch. Christine, as a sportswriter, would have cut a distinctly (and queerly) feminist figure. 

There is no linear route from a public identity as one gender to another. Some people try out a gender identity, and find that a stable gender isn't what they want.  Maybe that person reclaims the pronoun they grew up with, and maybe they carve out a queer version of it.  Maybe they settle into the new pronoun, but decide to queer expectations of what that pronoun signifies.  Each person's process is different.  Mike/Christine's story was unique - unfolding in a hypermasculine world, and in public.  She was gracious in the few interviews she gave (listen to this one on NPR). She also fought to guard her privacy - pushing back on questions about the decisions she was making about her body, for example. We may know little about Mike/Christine's personal struggles - but recent events show us how intolerant the sports world is when it comes to the fluidity of gender identity.

Mike/Christine's suicide comes just days after the 9th annual Day of Remembrance for victims of violence against transgender people.  A recent study published in the Journal of Homosexuality asserts that thirty percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.  Some say that figure is very conservative, putting the number closer to half. 

Let's remember Mike/Christine for being a great writer, for being brave and for helping us to imagine an anti-homophobic, queer and trans positive sportsculture.  The world is a poorer place without him, without her.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Henry's Handball & the Moral Ambiguity of Football

The ball rebounded to Thierry Henry's hand, first once and then again. He scooped it gently, and let it fall to his feet. He made a controlled pass to his teammate William Gallas, who scored a much-needed goal against Ireland.  The referee didn't call the handballs (clearly visible in recordings of the match). Henry didn't ask him to. And Ireland are out of the World Cup.

The LA Times is running a poll, asking readers what they think FIFA should 'do' about Henry's handball.  It's a somewhat typical response: there must be one agent responsible for evil, a clear solution to a problem. Lambert is responsible for shaming the women's game (and not the referee, coaches, and the players on the field whose passivity allowed all that to happen); Thierry Henry is a "cheat." The demand for Henry's head - or for his hand - makes for good copy.

For something a little more complex, see The Guardian's interview with Irish sports journalist Barry Glendenning (one of a slew of articles on this subject, representing a range of perspectives). Of course "we were robbed by France," in a move that "would be illegal even in basketball," he comments. (Is he referring to the double-dribble?)  Henry is shown describing the handball frankly in a post-game interview (transcribed in French here). Where the American press casts his statements as "unapologetic" European journalists see it more nearly as "frank" and "honest."  Of Domenech's support for Henry, Glendenning says "If any Irish player had done the same, I'd fully expect the nation to be 100% behind him." He also points out that Henry's image has already been so compromised by his "previous chicanery" that this incident can hardly be said to be all that damaging to the star's reputation.

"Cheating" is an art in this sport. Everyone is of course remembering Maradona's "Hand of God" goal.  Maradona discussed it in an interview for the BBC: "This is something that happens...I have scored goals in Argentina with my hand." He goes on to explain exactly what he did, and how he "sold" the goal to the linesman. (The Guardian's Richard Williams minimizes Maradona's intentionality by calling it a "street kid's instinct" in his column chastising Henry from whom he expects better given his relative "sophistication": This is wildly classist - a fantasy of a pan-Latin 'favela' - and totally ignorant.) There are myriads of smaller incidents - daily actions in which players exploit the deeply subjective nature of some of soccer's most fundamental rules. Handballs, offside calls, the identification of goals and the discounting of goals, calls for aggressive tackles and diving  - all are made by referees without the help of video replay, and are vulnerable to human error and players know it - and the most competitive exploit this.  It becomes part of your game.

The French press sees the handball as representing a larger crisis on the squad stemming from the limits of Raymond Domenech's stewardship.  (For a taste of the mood regarding the national squad, see this match report - "Voyage au bout de la nuit" - from So Foot. It opens with "Blood on the dance floor. 5 minutes of play and the face of Julien Escudé, taking the place of Eric Abidal, is already cut open after a run-in with...Patrice Evra. The tone of the match is set. The Irish have already invaded the French camp.") The European press (and the soccer-blogging community) wonders why on earth France holds onto Domenech. France has at its disposal one of the most talented populations of players on earth - French athletes are stars in squads of stars, playing for the best clubs in the world.  And yet as a national team they limp along and seem increasingly disaffected. If the French public turns against Henry (and it has, again and again), it's out of a broader disappointment with a side whose fate turns on such an ugly incident.  Who wants to win this way? Well, the people who want your money.

Eduardo Galeano described 'the history of soccer' as a 'sad voyage from beauty to duty.' That 'duty' is paid to the sports 'telecracy,' which demands that its 'functionaries specialize in avoiding defeat.'  If Thierry Henry didn't, say, clear the ball from the goal (which would have been so chivalrous as to be completely scandalous), if he played the ball to his feet and passed to Gallas, he was being a good employee.  And it is ridiculous for us to expect anything different - if you want an honorable game, you are far far more likely to find it in a neighborhood park than you are on your favorite sports channel.

This morning a friend reminded me of Albert Camus's famous assertion: "Ce que je sais de la morale, c'est au football que je le dois." ("What I know of morality, I owe to football.")  This statement has been interpreted differently by sports writers - to suggest the clarity of moral obligations within a team, or to suggest the moral ambiguity of football.

How we read that statement depends on what and whose football we are talking about - just as how we think and feel about Henry's handball says a lot about what game it is we want. Are we talking about football played for beauty and pleasure? Or football played for work and profit? How can we keep the appetites of one from spoiling the joys of the other?

Friday, November 13, 2009

New Mexico/BYU: What happened to the Referee, Joe Pimentel?

Elizabeth Lambert's name is now synonymous with violent play. What happened to Joe Pimentel (pictured here, giving Lambert the one yellow card he issued)? The center referee basically folded his arms and did nothing through that match - was he suspended, pending some sort of inquiry and evaluation? Nope - He went on to referee a men's game a few days later: the UCLA/Washington PAC-10 championship match, in fact. Does that seem fair to you? This is in spite of the fact that the referee assignor and high level administrators were at New Mexico/BYU match. I've e-mailed the board of the National Intercollegiate Soccer Officials Association, and am waiting for a reply. I encourage readers to do the same - this is not an incident in which a ref missed sly fouls committed off the ball. My faith in the fairness and competency level of refereeing at NCAA matches is deeply shaken by not just the poor officiating at the New Mexico/BYU game, but by the fact that the referee ultimately responsible for policing such things was in essence rewarded for his failings. When do we get a public statement from him, from the NISOA and from the coaching staff at New Mexico accepting responsibility for their role in keeping an out of control player on the field?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On the suicide of Robert Enke

Robert Enke worked very hard over his career for his spot on the national team, playing in Portugal, Spain, Turkey and finally in the Bundesliga, for Hannover 96. He won eight caps for Germany, and was in position to be the country's #1 keeper in the upcoming World Cup. Enke committed suicide on Tuesday, November 10th by throwing himself under a train.

Enke's death is a horrific reminder of the seriousness of depression, and the particular difficulty faced by athletes who suffer from it. Used to toughing out setbacks and injuries - taking the field with bone chips floating around your foot, fractures, sprains and worse - athletes struggling from depression may be reluctant to seek help, for all the ways depression doesn't register as "real enough," and for fear of seaming weak or losing their place on the team (see Dave Zirin's 2008 article about this). This was the case, his wife explained today (see Juergen Voges's AP news story): Enke feared that coming out about his depression would mean he would lose "his sport, his life."

Depression goes after the things that matter most to you, everything that brings you joy: it can take the sport that was once a source of pleasure and make it into a site of misery. I read once that depression separates people from who and what they love with "surgical precision." That strikes me as about right.

Enke's wife and doctor speak to his struggles at this press conference, available on the Guardian's website. There is no single event one can point to as depression's "cause." News stories point to the death of Enke's very young daughter, Lara, who died at two years old of a congenital heart problem in 2006. He apparently first sought treatment for anxiety and depression during his tenure at Barcelona in 2003. Given his dogged fight to break into the top flight, such counseling would be normal - just not perhaps for an athlete. Enke hovered for years in the #2 spot and worse for Europe's top clubs. If there was ever an effective external trigger for anxiety and depression, it's the precarious position of a keeper on the edge of playing for his country in the World Cup. News reports keep repeating how he seemed closer than he'd ever been to being at the top - as if this makes his depression more mysterious - but of course this would raise your anxiety, not lower it.

We can't say that any one of these things triggered his suicide. You can't "blame" conditions for a person's depression, and you can't blame the person either - they are already certainly in the vicious grip of a self-blame, which is part of the problem. The demon is the black sun of depression itself. Whether you are in its grip, or are close to someone who is, its nature is very hard to grasp - it infects the way you feel and think on the most elemental levels.

At my own worst moments (I struggled with panic disorder in my 20s), it was the non-judgmental, non-pathologizing understanding of a friend who intervened to help me seek treatment by recommending a wonderful therapist. My friend also suffered from panic attacks - it was a huge relief for me to hear someone talk about this very awful feeling from experience, because until that moment I thought I was not only crazy, but that there was nothing that could be done about it. I am not sure where I'd be today if it weren't for that conversation twenty years ago. My problems, however, were very small by comparison - anxiety is not identical to depression, though the two can go hand in hand. I was just twenty, and had almost no responsibilities to anyone but myself. And I've always been surrounded by art/intellectual/creative types - a queer sort of world where, at its best, we embrace each other's 'mental illnesses' with affection and humor.

Enke and his wife adopted a baby girl in the spring, and people seemed to think he was doing well. His wife said, however, he was afraid that public acknowledgment of the severity of depression might lead the state to take custody of their adopted daughter - he was terrified of this possibility. In his suicide note Enke apologized for misleading people around him into thinking he was ok - it was necessary for him to carry out his plan. The days before a suicide can be, in fact, a gruesomely "upbeat" period for the person planning to kill themselves - set on the plan, a person can even feel a sense of happiness, knowing that it will all be over. People around them relax (the easing up of their worry feels like a relief, because for the depressed person the concern expressed by those around them becomes itself a heavy burden, and source of guilt and shame). Sadly, we usually learn this only in the wake of a suicide, as we gather around and find ourselves saying the same thing to each other - "he seemed like he was doing better." It's baffling.

All we can know for certain is that Enke must have been in absolute agony to have ended his life like this.

In looking for stories about athletes who have been open about depression, I came across this July New York Times article about the brilliant basketball player Chamique Holdsclaw. After years of drifting in and out of the game, dogged by a depression which made the game joyless, she is back on the court playing for Atlanta. Stories like hers are important. In a 2007 Sports Illustrated profile, she explains that after the death of her grandmother
it was like I was in a box and had closed myself in. It was the one time I needed help and I wasn't letting anybody in.
I am not sure how people get out of this box without help from those around them. And I am not sure how we can tell when people in our lives are in these dark places - since all too often people in the grip of this sort of depression isolate themselves, so that people around them can't see what's going on. In the world of professional sports, there is already a structure in place to facilitate this boxing-in of oneself - you don't want to be a "problem," your very livelihood is in fact dependent on your ability to project an image of yourself as invulnerable. And the goalkeeper especially is the heart and soul of a team, the person who radiates confidence outwards and whose solidity grounds us. Like baseball's pitcher, this player carries a particular symbolic weight.

A death like Enke's leaves friends, teammates and family with a tremendous sense of failure. Enke's wife comments
We thought we could do everything and we could do it with love but you can't always do it.
My heart goes out to the people in his life - losing a person this way is absolutely devastating, for it seems to signal a profound failure in our ties to each other. A friend committed suicide in 1997, and those of us who were close to him are to this day marked by this sense of loss and failure.

There is no easy answer here, no smart sentence to write about this. I guess I would just say that if there was ever a moment to censor the ungenerous reflexes of sports culture - the macho , win-at-all-cost worldview, the intolerance for the possibility of failure, the disgust sports culture shows for vulnerability - and to cherish instead sport as a site of collective pleasure and interpersonal connection, this is it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

ESPN does an ACTUAL story about the New Mexico/BYU match

Watch this interview with a local reporter (Jared Lloyd/Desert News) who covered this match. He points out that the "refs allowed" for a "physical game" - and offers a well informed perspective on the tone of the game (explaining New Mexico's use of a physical style of play to break up BYU's movement up and down the field). Without minimizing the responsibilities of the individual players he more or less says that this is what happens when referees stop policing a competitive match. He also leaves us with questions about the coach. If you are invested in a player's development, wouldn't you pull them out of the match if they were playing that violently? Of course, if none of the fouls are being called, and you are in a close match, what coach would? In any case, we still have no real digging by journalists into the refereeing angle.

Why isn't the referee's name being broadcast, for example? Joe Pimentel - that's his name, and he shouldn't be allowed to work another match.

The sensationalism with which this story is being handled is much more shocking than the story itself. My god, you would think sports editors had never met, uhm, a woman. Of course women can play hard, and dirty. Just like men do. In a municipal league, when it's this obvious, you don't suspend the player, sometimes you suspend the whole team.

A lot of women and men players reading this know this - and the sports journalists covering this story ought to also know this - that a) women play dirty just like men do and b) the real story is about the refereeing and coaching. As bad as Lambert's play was, I just hate seeing her scapegoated this way as if responsibility for what happened in that match falls on her alone.

I wish ESPN had gone after the real story from the start by reporting on the actual game.

Friday, November 6, 2009

New Mexico/BYU's Bitchslap

ESPN ran a story about a recent match between BYU and New Mexico's women's teams which has become infamous for the elbows-to-the-ribs and ponytail-yank antics of New Mexico player Elizabeth Lambert. Fans of the sport are groaning, because this is what it takes to get a non-Olympics/World Cup/WPS Final into headlines - replays of bitchslap.

It seems to start with a fairly standard but decidedly unkosher elbow to the rib - as New Mexico's Lambert was sitting right behind a BYU player, the latter dug her elbow into Lambert's ribs. Lambert gave it right back, but less subtly and perhaps with more force. You could see that Lambert was furious. She proceeded to play violently through the rest of the match - incredibly yanking one player to the ground by her ponytail, and kicking a ball pointlessly into the face of an opponent, who was on the ground [This may not have been Lambert - see comments].

The obvious question is: where the hell was the referee? (Lambert picked up just one yellow card.) In that ESPN highlight video, there were two or three incidents that looked red card worthy - and they were on the ball, too, so the ref must have seen them. That she committed those offenses is bad, but that she was on the field for the duration of the match is worse because it suggests that the people controlling the match were not taking it seriously.

Anyway, it's a low point for women's soccer and I'm not going to link to the video here. If you want to find it, it's easy enough. Shame is, looking around for footage of great tackling in women's soccer, I struggled to find anything. A reminder of just how awful coverage of the women's game is. There are some fantastic defenders out there - in the WPS and internationally.

I did find this strange highlight video from a WPS match that celebrates some great keeping but looks to me like a chaotic game. Still, it's physical but clean play. But before you watch that, enjoy this photo montage celebrating the world's #1 badass, Nadine Angerer:

I also recommend this lovely montage celebrating "tough female footballers." The gal who put this together didn't have much to work with - not because there aren't great moments out there - but those moments are not recorded, broadcast, and rebroadcast. I am not sure all of the video clips are worthy of celebration, but some are and she's put in some fantastic photos and scored it all to Christina Aguilera, for good measure. Actually - I take back my equivocation: it's the best highlight reel of women's soccer I've ever seen - if one side seems weak, it's because the other is that much stronger (and yes, I'm quoting Aguilera here).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Girlfight's Foxy Boxing: Possibly the Queerest Straight Romance on Film?

Karyn Kusama's (gorgeous) film Girlfight climaxes with a "gender blind" boxing match, in which the film's central character gets into the ring and boxes her boyfriend. This has got to be one of the most fascinating scenes in a sports movie.

Before I go any farther, let me just say that the New York State Boxing Commission has never authorized gender-blind boxing for men and women in the same weight class. That plot point is a bit of fantasy. Mixed boxing matches do happen, sometimes as exhibition matches and then, of course, as a sub-genre within the erotic entertainment format commonly referred to as "foxy boxing." (Foxy boxing normally features two or more women, but is sometimes staged between men and women.)

Like many sports films, Girlfight centers on an athlete (Diana Guzman, played by Michelle Rodriguez) who works out her anger through her sport, and like many sports films about women, it also charts her entry into a man's world, not as a sex object, but as a competitor. And, of course, like a lot of sports movies centered on women (especially women in masculinized sports) it navigates the subject of female masculinity and queerness by giving the central character a hot featherweight boyfriend (with the girlish name Adrian).

This counterbalances the opening scene in Girlfight, in which with Guzman beats down one girl to protect another - and a later scene which suggests that the hostility between Guzman and her female nemesis at school is underwritten by some sort of romantic history. Given the character's queerness (her active refusal to be "girlie," her macho attitude and protective relationship with women around her) the climactic boxing match between Guzman and her male lover is just plain fascinating.

All along, Guzman demands to be taken seriously. The lone woman training at her gym, she can't box unless the guys box her. But in sparring matches, guys have a really hard time hitting her - getting around their sense of her weakness, but also around their anxiety about what it would mean to engage her and struggle with her strength. The film suggests as well that such an act - a man hitting a woman - calls to mind familiar scenes of domestic violence. None of the guys want to be that man. (Guzman's mother was a victim of her father's brutality, and her desire to box is explicitly cast in terms of her desire to top her father, and too, to ward off the haunting sense of her powerlessness as a child witness to his rage.) It's impressive that the film makes all of this complexity visible for us, without being didactic.

Kate Sekules writes in The Boxer's Heart that as she was learning to box, this - the hesitation to hit a woman - was as much an issue for her as it was for the men in the film. In an interview with David Templeton, she describes the first time she boxed a woman:
It wasn't easy. It having to push through glue to hit her. There was this invisible impediment, almost like someone holding down my elbow. I did hit her, eventually, in that first session. I hit her a lot, but I didn't really lay into her. I never got in a really good shot.
One of the most complex things about heterosexual dynamics (be in romance or sport) is this "glue" - the sense that there is something between men and women, manifesting itself like a protective surface but which is in fact more like a restrictive bubble. The mindset of course is not limited to how men interact with women - it shapes how women interact with women, and think of themselves, too. When Sekules confronts her inhibitions regarding hitting women, she also confronts her inhibitions regarding her own body in relation to others. In essence, she peels that glue off herself. [See also this article about sparring with a professional woman boxer.]

Back to that boxing scene between Rodriguez's character and the boyfriend: throughout the story, he's struggled with her feelings towards her. She's an atypical Latina, una malcriada, and not the sort of girl who is going to prop up one's sense of masculinity by feigning weakness. So when you see him admire her for her skills, when they bond over the grief and glory of training, you start to see an atypical heterosexual romance in which a guy actually likes the toughness in the girl, and decides it's worth it to sort out what that means for him.

I just can't remember the last film I saw that had a heterosexual romance that looked like this.

That boxing match, as the culmination of both their romance and their training, is a strangely queer moment. She actually wins the fight, and they don't break up. It's crazy, hot, and positively utopian.

Made me think that those foxy boxy people must be onto something....

Friday, October 16, 2009

Paris Foot Gay & Creteil Bebel: Homophobia Extraordinary and Ordinary

Last week, Creteil Bebel, an amateur French team, refused to play a league match against Paris Foot Gay - citing a range of reasons, all homophobic. They have since agreed to take the field against PFG, after they were threatened with being banned from the league and made national headlines in France as the homophobic Muslim team (the manager cited the fact that players on his team were "practicing Muslims" to explain the refusal).

I have a couple of thoughts about this interesting story.

1. Paris Foot Gay fields Muslim players, so the impulse to characterize this as a problem between a gay team and a Muslim team is off base, even given the manager's moronic statement. Better to characterize it as a conflict between a gay team, and a homophobic team. Islamophobia is a big part of French culture - supported in part by the representation of Muslims (and Arabs more generally) as backwards women-hating, homophobic fundamentalists. As a gay team with an anti-racist policy (and a multicultural roster), PFG knows this and has been smarter about this issue in its statements than has been the French press (at least as represented by the television broadcasts I could access on youtube).

2. Creteil Bebel has come around, and explained that their objection was less to the fact that PFG is gay, than to the fact that "Gay" is in their name - that they advertise themselves as a political team. Some bloggers are confused by this - in part because it's a load of bull, given the manager's earlier statements. But this is in fact a pretty common reaction to the words "gay" and "lesbian". Just saying them can be a political act. And in the space of football, it is - PFG identifies itself as a gay team in order to both advertise itself as an anti-homophobic team (which gay players may prefer) and also to raise awareness and combat homophobia within the leagues.

3. Somehow the way this story was reported bugged me: Smug media bulletins about this, as if suddenly sports editors care about homophobia - when those very same media outlets ignore an entire sport (women's soccer) because of its own sexism and homophobia. I could be wrong, but I suspect the only reason we are hearing about this is because PFG is an activist team and would have responded to this with a press release. Which is good - it shows you just how much one well-funded, savvy team can accomplish.

Anyway, hooray to PFG for opening up dialogue with a phobic team, and forwarding conversation about the issue within the French leagues. And I'm glad Creteil Bebel changed their minds. Let's hope they have a good game. And sack their manager.

Footnote: Paris Foot Gay is partly sponsored by Agnès B.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Damned United: A Review

Dirty, dirty Leeds. Dirty fucking Leeds. After reading David Peace's novel The Damned UTD these words cycled through my head for days. They work as an obsessive refrain in Peace's account of Brian Clough's infamous 44 days as the manager of (dirty, dirty) Leeds.

I knew nothing about Clough, Leeds, and this bizarre story before reading Peace's novel - that I enjoyed the book, and felt as if Clough himself, in all his puerile genius, had wormed his way into my head is as good a testimony as I can give to the intensity and distinctiveness of Peace's writing.

Like any fan of a novel, I reacted to the news that it was being turned into a movie with suspicion. In the movie theater, a couple near me asked if this was a "sports movie, you know, like an underdog story." The answer to this is, No. This is a story about a guy who was an underdog when he took over Derby County and led them from the bottom of the second division to the top of the first in two years. (Imagine!) When Don Revie, manager of Clough's hated Leeds UTD, was promoted to England manager (a job Clough wanted, but never got), Leeds asked Clough to take over the storied side. Which he did, and bungled - he was sacked after 44 days of antagonism and controversy. He was an outsider at this point in his life, sure, but he was already pegged as a football genius.

So, there is no underdog in this story - no glorious win. Just the story of an impudent, self-centered (gifted) bastard so driven by hate that he takes over a team in order to take them apart.

The film is gentler than the book. (A film which stuck to the maniacal tone of Peace's writing would, in fact, be almost unwatchable.) The screenplay splits its time between Clough's Oedipal struggle against Revie, and his friendship with his partner, the coach Peter Taylor (Taylor refused to move to Leeds with him). Their relationship is explicitly cast in terms of love - the film plays with their dynamic as a couple, and this is where any of the tenderness and emotion in the film is expressed.

I loved the film. But I also love English weather and Thomas Hardy novels. It's visually gorgeous, but everything is gray, wet, and dilapidated. If there is paint on the walls, it's peeling. If there is wallpaper, it's greasy. Glass is grimey. Fields are muddy. Ceilings are low and stained. Early on, there is a lovely scene of Clough, desperate to impress, trying to tidy up the facilities at Derby before an early match against Leeds - polishing tarnished brass, scrubbing blacked grout. Even the football is dirty - all I remember about the games in the film is mud, rain, and blood.

Given this, that refrain "dirty, dirty Leeds" takes on an added importance. Everything around Clough feels shabby and worthless when compared to what Revie has. Clough is more boy than man, invested in a recognition (from Revie) that he'll never get (Revie refuses the hand Clough offers him, not in a deliberate slight but because he didn't notice Clough, who was cloaked in insignificance). As we watch Clough trying to scrub away the dirt of a working class world (his world), we see a man who on some level feels he will never be good enough, a man incapable, too, of being happy with what he has. And of course, this restlessness, this discontent was behind the arrogance and ambition that made him such a legend.

[I expanded this review for Pitch Invasion - you can read the revision here.]

Friday, October 2, 2009

'The Golden Age' and 'Goal Dreams': Two Football Documentaries, Two Very Different Pictures

"The Golden Age" is a Queens, NY league of mostly Latino players over 40 - it is also the title of a brilliantly filmed and edited documentary celebrating the global game and its particularly migratory character within the US. The film makers manage to capture the skill and energy of the players who slog out their season in Corona Park/Flushing Meadows, on the grounds of the 1964 Worlds Fair - I have never seen a documentary about the grassroots game that actually captures what it feels like to play and participate in a league like this one. And the documentary fleshes this out with terrific portraits of la cultura futbolística in the countries in which many of these guys grew up (Chile, Paraguay, Colombia). In many ways, the hour-long film is a pure luxury. You can watch it at

The film-makers are the first to confess they don't speak Spanish - and this makes me wonder if this isn't in part why the league drama with which the film ends isn't explored in more detail (most of the league's teams walk out of the playoffs, accusing the league organizers of favoritism and corruption). Speaking from my own experience (which includes this linguistic limit), local leagues are tough, dense and complex scenes - we certainly glimpse this in The Golden Age, and it's where the rose colored glasses begin to slip off. This is where tougher stories emerge - these leagues are sights of incredible social stability for people living in increasingly precarious conditions, they are the platforms for consciousness raising and community building, but they are also sites of petty exploitation and steady conflict with, oh, nearly everything one might expect (park officials, property developers, ordinary greed, group dynamics). But these points are made by a viewer who really just wanted more, more, more. [Just learned that the film on is a short version of a feature length film - this explains a lot!] It is an achingly beautiful portrait of the grassroots game and the pleasures it offers its players.

Goal Dreams (2006) follows the Palestinian national soccer team as its organizers try to pull a team together for a 2006 World Cup qualifying match against Uzbekistan. There isn't much to romance in this story. Players are pulled from all over the globe (Chile, Kuwait, Sweden, Lebanon, the US). They train in Egypt, where they wait for a dozen players from Gaza who are held up for weeks as they are unable to cross the border. Because movement between the West Bank and Gaza, and between cities on the West Bank is nearly impossible, putting a team together from within Palestine (which, furthermore, had no league at the time) seemed unthinkable.

This is a sobering film of a team with next to no resources - as much as one wants to make an uplifting story out of their plight, you can't. As the film progresses, the enterprise takes on a depressing hopelessness - players show up looking glum and the Austrian coach asks "where's your smile?" The Palestinian players tell the translator that five of their friends were killed in an air strike during the night.

Players talk about the impossibility of playing together on a team where the language barriers are so intense - the Palestinians from outside the region were born and raised in Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. and have no common tongue. Players from Gaza and the West Bank spend weeks in limbo waiting to cross the border while their teammates train without them. There is a cringe worthy sound bite from FIFA chairman Gerome Campagne who explains FIFA's refusal to postpone the match against Uzbekistan with these words: "What is important is [for FIFA] to not be mixed up in political issues." FIFA, furthermore, only postpones matches when there is a "force majeure" - the occupation of Palestine and the nightmare it produces for its citizens is not, in their view, a "force majeure." In the end, after Isreal delayed half the team's departure from Gaza, and then refused to allow exit visas for a number of players, they lost 0-3.

The team's organizers have reconsidered their whole approach. Until very recently, players still couldn't train or play matches in Palestine - and even now, with a home stadium, negotiating travel to this stadium remains an obstacle. But the current roster consists largely of Palestinian players from within the country, and the team - as well as Palestinian football - seems increasingly stable. Or at least more stable than it had been, which isn't saying much.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Amanda Palmer's 'Leeds United'

Amanda Palmer is one half of The Dresden Dolls. "Leeds United" is off her solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?. The track isn't directly about Leeds but the pounding on the keys, the blaring horns, the voice hoarse from shouting/screaming/singing taps into the riot of football crowds. She explains that the whole idea of turning out to support your team & getting into brawls with each other struck her as "Roman" and a good subject for her. I think this song is also picking at the interface of unruly feelings and the desire for control with lines like
Who needs love, when there's Law and Order?
And who needs love when there's Southern Comfort?
And who needs love when the sandwiches are wicked
And they know you at the Mac store?
Indeed. It gets more intense as the song expands into mayhem. [Football fandom is folded into these retreats from love & then the flip into chaos.] The vocal was, apparently, done in a single take - all the better to sound "unhinged". "My voice was completely in the gutter," she explains. And what a great place that is. Enjoy.

[I should say, this is a preview for my review of The Damned UTD (2009) - I saw it the other week under the promise I'd wait until its official release to publish my thoughts.]

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Soccer in Ciudad Juárez

Amazing that the network of soccer haters produced this gem about fans of Ciudad Juárez's Indios [Click here if the video isn't loading on this page]:

I understand that they just fired their coach. Last year "El Profesor" Eugui led them through improbable playoff victories against Chivas and Toluca. This season, apparently, the team hasn't been doing nearly so well. Let's hope things start looking up for them real soon. Tip courtesy of Pablo Miralles (of Ahí Vienen Los Gringos).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Las Fútbolistas (Great Grandma on the Left Wing)

"Las Fútbolistas" Ángel Zárraga (Mexico, 1886-1946)

A friend recommended this painting to me - amazing, given the year it was painted and the commonly held view that women's football is a recent phenomenon spearheaded by post Title IX generations of American women. By chance, I happen to be just finishing Barbara Jacobs's incredible portrait of perhaps the most successful and famous side in English women's football, The Dick, Kerr's Ladies (see also this recent Guardian story). Jacobs charts the development of this team during and after World War I - Lancashire women working in factories (while men were on the front) formed recreational teams, and then played charity matches to raise funds for returning soldiers. These matches drew impressive crowds by any standard - 10,000, 15,000, 35,000, 53,000, 65,000. People with almost nothing to spend on themselves paid for tickets - and all the money raised (beyond expenses for the players) was turned over to local charities. (Interesting detail: the women's games from these years produced what is arguably the first night match in a Boxing Day derby.)

As these women became national - and even international celebrities - and as women's football developed rapidly into a form of popular entertainment - the establishment decided that it was too dangerous. It was deemed inappropriate for women by the FA in 1921. Jacobs points out that this ban was likely issued as much for reasons of class as gender - these teams forward images of working class women doing something other than laboring as servants and in factories, and breeding more workers to do the same. It also foregrounded the very different gender dynamics within the laboring communities of the northwest of England. Matches raised huge sums to support returning soldiers - wounded, traumatized, and re-entering a very changed labor market (changed, in no small part, by the war itself and by the women's work in the factories). Men in the northwest actively supported the women's game - the success of the women's game, in other words, not only challenged ideas about femininity, it challenged the social organization of relationships between men and women (thus not only were women banned from FA grounds, men were banned from refereeing women's matches).

Jacobs also points out that the FA must have been getting nervous - all of the profits raised by these matches went back to the communities which hosted them. In fact, were it not for the women, the FA could not have taken any credit for charity works during these years. But as thousands of people spent their hard earned dollars to see the women play, and to support their neighbors - it was inevitable that they would begin to ask: "Where does all the money raised by the men's games go?" Indeed!

I am inclined to think that this - the anti-capitalist, labor-oriented ethos of women's football and its fans - must have been the bigger challenge to the (fragile, shifting) social structures of the day. (Jacobs is very good at breaking down the complex class dynamics of sport and leisure in the UK.) The success of the league, and the FA's hysterical reaction proves a point made by a range of radical feminist thinkers - a truly feminist environment seeks to destroy mythologies of gender difference. In doing so, it tackles the very architecture of capitalism. And that's the bit that really freaks people out.

[I am researching the story behind this painting - there is a probably link between it & The Dick, Kerr Ladies - Zárraga was in France when he painted this and other gorgeous sports tableaux. It may have emerged from his contact with French women's teams - one of the great stories of the Dick, Kerr's Ladies were their matches against a French team both in England and in France. Seems very likely there is only one or two degrees separation between the painter and the Lancashire lasses.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Are You Serious?" - notes on Williams's outrage

When confronted with the accusation that she'd threatened to kill the line judge, echoing John McEnroe's mantra of complaint, Serena Williams looked at the officials and asked "Are you serious?"

Williams had lost her cool, that much is indisputable. This happens to many of the best athletes when things aren't going as they'd hoped and planned. As she stated herself, her passion got the better of her when it disintegrated into anger. You can see that here as she is walking back to take her serve again, she loses her focus and is pulled out of the game by anger at the quite obviously bad call.

Athletes lose their cool all the time, in a wide range of sports - Zidane's headbutt is perhaps the most famous example of a player losing his temper spectacularly. Of course, that was worlds worse that what Williams did - the two actions are hardly comparable though you would never know it from the media reaction to the tennis player.

Not every athlete has their verbal and affective expression of anger read as life-threatening. No, this accusation - that Williams issued a death threat to the line judge - is the kind of thing reserved for Black and Latino men and women.

In the men's league I help run, a white linesman not used to working in our part of town walked off the field because he felt his life was in danger after a Latino player yelled at him - the center referee, an older Latino guy, was glad to see him go - the guy's racial hysteria had been a problem from the match's start. Our league is mixed, our referees are white, Latino, Armenian and more - they share a commitment to fairness, including an active refusal to allow bias shape how they call a game, and react to players.

Jasmine Cannick writes on Black Tennis Pro's:
Williams could be heard saying to the lineswoman: “I didn’t say I would kill you. Are you serious?”

Yeah, are you serious?

Most Black women can relate to what happened to Serena. We get mad like everyone else. The only difference is that for some reason when white women get angry, they’re not seen as threatening as we are. Maybe it’s the expression on our face. Maybe it’s the seriousness with which we address issues when we are upset. Maybe it’s the tone of our voice. You know that “don’t fuck with me today” tone that can stop a person dead in their tracks and scares the shit out of most white people.

Like comedian Dick Gregory said about Black people’s hair, when we’re 'relaxed', white people are 'relaxed'. You could say the same applies in tennis.
This is an important point. While it doesn't seem unreasonable that an official might take issue with Williams's expressed desire to shove the ball down the line judge's throat, the reaction to it - from the accusation that she'd threatened to kill the line judge to smug media reaction to her "disgraceful" conduct - is quite obviously amplified by racism and sexism, and reminds me of why I'm not such a big fan of tennis (the culture of which can seem as airless and uptight as the country clubs from which it emerged).

Of course such eruptions happen in tennis, and as many have pointed out, it in fact defined the personas of a range of male players. Other sports have furthermore made an art out of conflict between players, managers, coaches and referees. Baseball has perhaps perfected this - fully integrating this drama into the sport. Bruce Weber explains how umpires are instructed to take the abuse directed at them, and how to tell the difference between the anger that is part of the game, and anger which threatens the authority of the refereeing official. His Fresh Air interview is well worth listening to - there he explains how argument with the umpire works:
An umpire goes against his instincts as a human being. Most people when they get in an argument, they try to win it. But an umpire's job is not to win an argument it's to end the argument....

You have to read your opponent....Wait him out, don't bait, don't try to get the last word in, don't insult him, don't do anything that is going to perpetuate the argument.

When a guy is calling your mother all kinds of names, and questioning your ethnicity and's hard to keep your head.

You can use all the profanity you want [when arguing with an umpire], as long as you don't make it personal....the magic word is "you." You can say "That was a horseshit call!" but you can't say "You're horseshit!"
Should you say the latter, the umpire has every right to eject you from the game. Does the world stop when this happens? Or when a yellow or red card is issued for dissent? Of course not.

Few sports cultures expect players to accept outrageously bad calls made at critical junctures. And sports have mechanisms for absorbing that complaint into the practice of the game. Referees in basketball, baseball, American football, and soccer expect anger and hostility at such moments, and have experience and professional guidance on how to keep oneself from being intimidated by such things, while also acknowledging that you can't write conflict, dispute, and anger out of the game.

I'm sure Williams wished she said something else. Like: "That was a fucking horseshit call and you know it." But given the culture within which she must work, I am not convinced that this would have made the slightest difference.

[For more commentary on this, see Troubling Comments from the US Open, as well as recent posts on Black Tennis Pro's and Women Talk Sports.]

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tomorrow: European Championship match England v Germany

Tomorrow England and Germany will compete for the European Championship. Germany rules the hen house and has for far too long - having won every European Championship since 1995.

The annoyingly titled Die Besten Frauen der Welt (subtitled in English) shows the level of their training, and that pretty much says it all. Few women's teams in the world enjoy the material and technical support that are given to top players in Germany.

That said, England had a good result against Germany in the last World Cup - holding the eventual champions to a scoreless draw. The English players have a lot of skill and experience - and a lot more riding on their performance than the Germans. They have more to prove to a country that is strangely aware of the women's game (your average Brit can name the best women's team, where your average American can't) and yet hosts a persistently unsupportive media and FA - this is, of course, why so many English players are on WPS rosters.

I'll leave the previews to UEFA & the English press:

The Guardian: England out to poop the German party and England's women are pitch perfect and Who's who in the England Squad.
The Telegraph: England women face tricky Germany test
UEFA's site: Germany, England, ready for a classic

Not sure if it's being broadcast in the US, but you can watch the match here.

David Beckham + Ellen

Another one for the archive in support of David Beckham: Lesbian Icon. Check out David Beckham's appearance yesterday on Ellen, sporting Ellen underwear. [My youtube link to this segment is not working - you can hunt around for the full interview by searching for David Beckham on Ellen.]

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Film (in production): Gringos at the Gate (Ahi Vienen los Gringos)

Pablo Miralles and Michael Whalen are making Gringos at the Gate (Ahi Vienen Los Gringos), a documentary about the US/Mexico rivalry. The preview below is composed of interviews with fans of both teams filmed before a February match in Columbus, Ohio. They promise to post another video on youtube about the August match at Azteca. A film like this is long overdue!

By the way, it looked like fans of El Salvador outnumbered "Uncle Sam's Army" 6-4 at the World Cup qualifying match played this past weekend in Utah. Too bad US Soccer doesn't have the guts to play a match like that in Los Angeles, where you'd probably get a similar ratio, but four times as many people. Personally, I think it'd be good for all if the folks in charge embraced the fans of the sport instead of running away from them.

Editorial linking the stories of Semenya and Simelane

To follow up on posts about Caster Semenya and Eudy Simelane: Mark Gevisser writes a great editorial in South Africa's The Times calling attention to the links between the two stories, "Celebrated and Castigated." Gevisser asks if the conversations about gender sparked by Semenya's visibility had happened a couple years ago, would Simelane have been murdered? His question is rhetorical - but he goes on to sketch some of the intense contradictions that shape discourse on gender, sexuality, colonialism and nationalism. I really recommend reading articles in The Times for South African perspectives on both stories, and how they relate to each other.

As he was writing this, Semenya appeared on the pages of a Sunday magazine femme-d up, The Times covers the debates about this as well in "Caster Gets Made Over."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Girlie "S'Gelane" Nkosi, Eudy Simelane's teammate and a lesbian activist, murdered.

Please read John Turnbull's story about Eudy Simelane. Turnbull digs a little deeper into the crime reported in The Guardian's story about the wave of violent attacks on black lesbians in South Africa (these are often referred to as "corrective rapes"). [You can find LGBT writing on the case here.] Amplifying the sense that there is a link between lesbian visibility and football, Turnbull explains that a second woman from Simelane's local women's team died recently from injuries sustained in a similar attack. Girlie "S'Gelane" Nkosi was a gay and lesbian rights activist. Turnbull quotes from her memorial program: She "[transgressed] all social gender norms and openly confronted the ills posed by economic exclusion" and was "arguably the most visible lesbian of Kwa-Thema."

Their hometown, Turnbull also explains, had been a kind of queer haven for black men and women in the 1980s - and so these attacks have special importance as perhaps symptomatic of a larger reactionary and phobic shift in the culture of the country that was one of the first to allow for same sex marriages.

As I mentioned in my first post about Simelane's murder, reading from the U.S., it is tempting to see this kind of violence against women as a remote problem. Violence against queer men and women is, however, not as uncommon as people like to think. Butch women, lesbians, effeminate boys and men, drag queens and transgendered people do not have the luxury of imagining such violence as a far away problem. One sad example from my own local papers: Lawrence King, a remarkable 14 year old boy who had come out to his class and wore make up and girlie accessories to school, was shot and killed by a classmate in 2008.

Turnbull offers us a much needed perspective on Simelane and Nkosi's lives. There is still a lot more to be said about both of these women - about their lives and about the justice system that appears to be failing their communities. Judges, it seems, can't bear to acknowledge that the lesbianism of these women is relevant - in fact, Turnbull writes:
This past week, Circuit Court Judge Ratha Mokgoatlheng asked whether “lesbian” was an appropriate word to use in court.
This story leaves me with a sickening feeling of outrage, dread and sadness. It is an all-too familiar story - homosexuality so deeply criminalized that the mere mention of it is prohibited.

Imagine the impact that an openly anti-homophobic and queer positive WPS might have, globally. Imagine if the WPS, and other women's pro-leagues, say, held fundraising matches to support the fight against these forms of violence - used the visibility of its athletes to make a statement in support of women around the world?

Actually, why leave this to women?

What if, oh, say, FIFA saw these horrible attacks as crimes against their own athletes - and stepped in - especially as the World Cup will be hosted by South Africa this coming summer. Imagine if the footballing gods - no doubt worshiped by some of the men committing these attacks - publicly and loudly denounced all forms of homophobia? The English FA is trying to wrap its mind around such a thing. What about football's international governing body?

Imagine posters of Eto'o, C. Ronaldo, Lampard, or Henry declaring "Simelane was my sister."

Sadly, FIFA hasn't exactly been a pathfinder on this issue (frankly, I wouldn't call them leaders on the issue of women's football in general). Still, if gay English football supporters can get FIFA to pay attention to homophobic chants and graffitti in Belgrade, surely we can get FIFA to pay attention to, say, the murder of lesbian footballers?

That problem of scale in the comparison made by that sentence is ridiculous. That alone should make you get in touch with someone at, say, The US Soccer Federation: Phone: +1-312/808 1300. If you live outside the US, go to FIFA's associations site and click on your country's name. Contact information for your national FA should appear towards the bottom of the page on the right. Call them, and ask what they plan to do to raise awareness about homophobia in the game, and regarding the attacks on prominent lesbian footballers in South Africa. If they don't have any ideas, offer them a few, and suggest they pose this question to the Committee for Women's Football, the Bureau for the 2010 World Cup, and the Committee for Fair Play and Social Responsibility.

Thank you John Turnbull for once again offering some of the most solid journalism on issues that matter to international women's football.

Friday, August 28, 2009

England-Russia - from UEFA Women's Champions Tournament 2009

England fought their way back - are slugging their way through the tournament. Knowing a little about how shabbily they are treated by the English FA, I'm pulling for them. Kelly Smith has a crazy-good goal here. Enjoy. Commentary is in Russian. Their next game is against Sweden on Monday. Not sure what time yet - looks like 7:00pm in Finland? I think that's 9:00am Pacific.

[Update: August 31 - England are through to the quarterfinals after drawing against Sweden. UEFA match report here.]

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Notes from an alienated fan: Why I want a feminist, anti-homophobic WPS & a more progressive, anti-nationalist/pro-migrant MLS

OK. I know a lot of you read that headline and either rolled your eyes, or muttered "dream on, sister."

I've been involved in a discussion on Big Soccer about Dan Loney's article, "Endless Summer". He opens with a reference to my post about the Galaxy/Barça game. Some Big Soccer readers have been baffled by my overtly political (feminist, Marxist) approach to the game (expressed in comments about Loney's article). Two issues have come up which I thought I should address here: why the politics of sexuality matters to a conversation about the WPS, and what on earth I was suggesting when I wrote:
Is making a corporate success of the MLS - and lining the pockets of the dubious executives who run it - the lone measure of the game's success? Is rooting for the Galaxy, and giving our dollars to the creepy monster that is AEG the only way to express one's loyalty? Aren't there other ways to imagine what the passion of fútbol fans looks like?
Why not imagine that one of the best things about soccer in the U.S. is that it isn't a "national" sport, and that it's most successful here where global capital hasn't quite figured out how to exploit us as either a market or a pool of labor?
And so - in the interest of building on the dialogue with Big Soccer readers (and doing so within the platform of this blog) - below is a riff on why I want an actively anti-homophobic WPS, followed by one hypothesis as to how the MLS managed to alienate a lot of this region's most passionate fans of the game.

Part One: speaking as a fan of women's soccer

Some Big Soccer readers are puzzled as to why I insist on talking about the feminist politics of women's soccer, and they also want to know why I insist that homophobic attitudes ought to have no place in the management or ownership of WPS teams. (AEG owns 50% of the Sol, and itself owned by Philip Anschutz, a notorious backer of the anti-gay amendments that made Colorado infamous as the "hate state.")

One of most empowering moments for me, as a 40 something female sports spectator/casual player, came during the last FIFA Women's World Cup. I was in a bar in France, watching the Brazil/US Women's World Cup match. I didn't have access to a TV, so I went to "Le Bar Sportif" and asked them to put the match on (it was about 2pm in the afternoon). There were a dozen people there - a fair amount of grandpa-aged guys, a couple older women, some young guys. I knew Brazil was good (I was even rooting for them a little, because I thought they were the underdogs). Famously, they ran circles around the US.

It was on a major French cable t.v. channel (something akin to ESPN, I guess). It was being called by good broadcasters (far better than the MLS coverage, I'd say), one of those calling the match was a woman.

There is one moment from that match that stands out in my mind: Suddenly, in a fast, fluid, and masterful sequence of moves, Marta flicked the ball over and around the US defender, sending the ball one way, and going the other to scoop it safely to her feet and dribble it past another defender, and then slotted it past the goalie - the whole bar was on its feet.

The guys started shouting "Maradona! Maradona! Maradona!" And the French broadcasters were screaming - "If she were a man, she would be making millions." and "Ce n'est pas juste!" It was a "crise de guerre" - and everyone in the bar started talking about that, too - that it was wrong - criminal - that we couldn't watch her play every weekend.

Half of us were literally in tears - it took us all by surprise (like the US win over China at the Rosebowl). We were united, as any group of spectators is when a player transcends what we think is possible.

It also revealed how much of women's abilities we don't get to see. Because we don't get to see it, we think it doesn't exist at all. And when some series of accidents gets a woman like Marta out of her village in Brazil (to Sweden, then), and broadcasts her skill to millions of viewers - well, that has a huge effect on us all. Marta and her teammates play a "Latin" style of football that is deeply associated with masculinity (even as it involves lots of hip-swiveling!) It's very entertaining, and explosive. They trash-talk, they dive, they sometimes choose to hold the ball where you think they should pass it - and then weave it through the entire backline and score.

I didn't know women could play like that. And I'm a feminist, and fan of the international women's game.

Another revolutionary moment: In England, the WC final match between Brazil and Germany was THE MATCH OF THE DAY - it was broadcast on network television, in a place of tremendous importance to the rhythm of UK football culture. And England wasn't even playing.

My uncle, who normally occupied the living room during those afternoons, moved upstairs to the bedroom (to watch golf).

I sat down and watched it with my aunt - she is the sort of women who would probably have been an athlete had that opportunity been available to her. The two of us got quite emotional, talking about what it meant to us to see women on television, playing football at that level, at that time of day - normally reserved for the biggest Premiership matches.

I have never suggested we stage kiss-ins at WPS matches (though, now that I think about it, it sounds like fun!).

But I do not think anyone can really market women's sports successfully without being a feminist. I also do not think you can actually love this game if you don't appreciate, admire, and respect the people who play it at the highest levels. You can't appreciate, admire, and respect a person if you think that they are shameful - that who they love, who they build their lives with, is something that should be kept hidden as if it were a crime.

The WPS's biggest challenge is the global sexism and homophobia that shapes people's attitudes. There is always already a sense out there that people don't care about women's sports. You have to ask yourself where that attitude comes from. It doesn't come from nowhere. Women's matches are not boring to watch - unless they are played by athletes who have never had decent training or strong competition. (Those deprivations also don't come from nowhere.)

The spectacle of female athletes playing team sports challenges very basic concepts about women (we can handle individual women competing against each other in games like tennis because that is practically the only we way are supposed to relate to each other). Women were prohibited from playing baseball (they used to! Softball was invented to make "America's Pastime" just for men) - they still are, in fact. At some point, girls have to drop out of baseball and be segregated in softball. This is also why women play less sets in tennis than men. Women used to play the same amount of sets, but the tennis associations demanded they play less, so that people wouldn't think that women were as strong as men - players fighting for equal pay responded to the explanation that they get paid less because they play less by asking that they play the same as men, at which they were told "OK, we'll just give you the money." Better give them the money than blow peoples minds with the idea that women can battle each other for just as long as the men do.

The launch of a professional women's league in any sport must find ways to neutralize these attitudes. I agree, turning matches into Chucky-Cheese style outings is not the answer. Nor is turning a match into a political rally.

But geese - openly embracing gay fans doesn't mean you have to turn a match into a political rally (as many of the Big Soccer commentators have suggested)! But it does mean deciding that one would rather homophobes dealt with their fear, or stayed at home. And you know what, I actually don't think the audience for the WPS is dominated by people with those attitudes anyway. So it's really annoying to feel like the league, teams, and the media acquiesce to those anxieties.

I am perhaps an atypical sports fan. I came to women's soccer as a player through the queer feminist environment of the Hackney Women's Football Club. And through them, I learned that I'd rather in some ways see women's soccer flourish as an anti-homophobic, feminist space off the grid of mainstream culture, than see it whitewashed and constricted in order that it not scare off men.

My favorite attitude is Natasha Kai's - she outed herself very casually in an interview with NBC during the Olympics (!). Like it was no big deal. But of course it's a huge deal. It really matters - to every young queer girl who perhaps was feeling (as many, many gay and lesbian athletes do) that if her teammates found out she was gay then she'd have to quite the team. Maybe now she feels that in Kai she has a powerful ally. She has others potential role models - but she will only learn that when she reads the negatives - like: what player is NEVER pictured with a boyfriend/husband? What player do we know the LEAST about personally?

You just can't underestimate the positive impact of the sport on girls and women. For all sorts of reason. And I don't see why that shouldn't be enough - why any WPS team should turn itself inside out wondering how to make men who don't care about the game come to watch a match. Women make up half the population (slightly more, in fact). They earn money, they spend money. They spend their family's money. Why on earth should the business model for the "success" of the women's game be at all organized by the fear of alienating men?

Lest you think I'm a separatist, I ask: Why don't we have more faith in the men in our lives? (We seem to trust them enough to coach the vast majority of teams.) I see lots of guys at matches, of all sorts of ages. They are often more romantic about the women's game than women are! (e.g. "This is how the men used to play - as a team - before it became all about money and militaristic defense.") I don't think they care either way about the sexuality of the players - and we don't need to keep them in the closet to hold their attention.

Part Two: speaking as a fan of fútbol Angelino

To bring this all finally around the the MLS. I think a lot of soccer fans feel like MLS has an ambivalent relationship to the association of soccer with immigrant communities.

It's part of the romance, the mythology of the sport (e.g. the 1950 NT that upset England in the World Cup, the movie "Goal"). But at the same time, many Latinos/as living in the US (be they Mexican, Mexican American, from El Salvador, born here but from Honduras, etc.) feel ignored, undervalued by the MLS.

This is a very large percentage of the population in this part of the country and it is also a heterogeneous community very actively interested in soccer. These are not people who go to one Barça game and never think about soccer otherwise. These are people who can tell you everything about Barça's last couple seasons, sigh over the disaster of Ronaldinho's last few months there, and then rant about the Mexico NT and its managerial antics, and they also have a lot to say about the USNT, and MLS players. These are the television viewers to whom the region's stations cater with Spanish-speaking operators and cable packages Anglos never hear about. They are the readers keeping La Opinión, a Spanish-language daily newspaper, in the black (La Opinión thrives financially where the LA Times struggles because the former is the only place you can read up on international leagues, as well as get reports on the MLS and even local independent leagues).

This is the community to which I was referring in my article. They are a huge market, and have been hard for big corporations to master. Sure, these fans may go to one Barça match for $25, and they may also check out a Chivas or Galaxy match when they can, but lots are skeptical of the efforts of MLS teams to "support" the community (by, for example, asking you to sell discounted tickets to your friends). They don't identify with the MLS teams in the way many wish they would. They are promiscuous fans - of an MLS side, of a team in Mexico, a team in Italy or Spain. They may root one day for the USNT and another for El Salvador, and another for France. They may spend more time in a year watching friends play in Balboa Park then they do at Carson. They may have both a Chivas and a Galaxy shirt - and those shirts are probably knock-offs.

I know that the MLS has figured out that many of the most ardent fans of the game feel alienated from the MLS (I was just talking with folks at Chivas USA about this issue, and they are well aware of the magnitude of task before them).

Here's my cross - the link between gay fans of women's soccer & Latino/a fans of the men's game: I think fútbol fans feel this way because they have been kept in the closet. Chivas & the Galaxy both are working on finding the players that are left out by the US development systems (namely, the poor and/or first generation kids who go to crap schools with no decent athletic program and can't afford club soccer). And they are trying to figure out how to build links to the independent leagues through which much soccer life is organized in this region as a way to appeal to adult fans of the game. This is new to them - and it shouldn't be. This fact - that soccer is more popular, on average, with immigrant communities than with communities that don't identify as such - has nearly ALWAYS been true of the sport.

In the conflicted, paradoxical place of Latino/a soccer fans in the US we get a glimpse of the very powerful contradictions that structure not just soccer culture, but indeed, American cultural identity itself. And guess what, it isn't such a pleasant place to find yourself. Both hyper-visible (as the source of nearly all romance about the sport) and invisible (your community doesn't have enough wealth to be worth the trouble). You are welcome as an idea, unwelcome as a reality.

To suggest that folks are "casual" and not "real" fans of the American game because they don't consistently support the MLS or because they might root for Mexico against the USNT is not only unfair, it unintentionally comes awfully close to suggesting that the largely Latino/a audience of which we are speaking isn't really "American."

Now - again, for the Big Soccer fans - this was the context for my article. My ongoing writing about soccer in this region - and the uneasy relations between the Latin/local scene and the Anglo/national/global-corporation circuit - was left out because Loney's discussion is about something else (the relationship between fans culture of the MLS, and US fans of European clubs who want nothing to do with the MLS).

If the MLS wanted the fans about whom I am writing, perhaps it would have fought a lot harder for a stadium in downtown LA. Some die-hard, long-lived Galaxy fans still bemoan the move from the Rose Bowl to Carson, and speculate that the Galaxy's exile was to appease folks in Pasadena who didn't like having their neighborhood taken over weekend after weekend by the folks that mow their lawns and take care of their kids on the weekdays. That theory for the move was offered to me by a middle-class professional Latina, who is as passionate a fan as I've ever met. And it is pretty representative of the level of trust between some Latino/a fans and the MLS.

With her, I root for something better.
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