Friday, June 26, 2009

Confidence Games: Thoughts on Player Bios, Afterthoughts on "Looking for Eric"

Much of Robbie Fowler’s autobiography is boring. The story of this talented mischief-maker (most famous for “snorting” the touchline) doesn’t grab me. I normally love reading anything football-related - tell-alls, player biographies, histories, theories, economic manifestos, coaching manuals – whatever.

There is no story quite so dull, however, as that of the totally confident person. Fowler and his writer plainly struggled to find those rare moments in his life when he’s been unsure of himself. That uncertainty is confined to anxiety in those months he waited to be called up from Liverpool reserves. Even then, the worry stemmed not from doubt about his ability or concern about if he’d make it. It was more impatience as to when. The book (a favorite for Liverpool fans) is more interesting for its inside peek into club politics than it is for Fowler himself. A lack of uncertainly is a part of Fowler's identity and effectiveness as a player. But in a narrator this quality leaves me cold.

As a genre, player biography is hard. The story of most professional footballers is hampered by the fact that they’ve done nothing else but play the game, and have little to talk about besides either their achievements on the field – with which we are already familiar – or how they blew their fortune, or dealt with addiction, scandal, etc. It’s the rare professional player who actually has a story. Or has the writerly flair it takes to make poetry from the day-to-day life of a footballer (Eamon Dunphy’s memoir Only A Game? is exemplary on this point).

A few players have stories that diverge from the script to tell us something important. Paul Canoville’s Black and Blue was named "Best Autobiography" at the British Sports Books Awards in the spring. Canoville was Chelsea's first Black player - and this is no story about triumph over adversity. He recounts the story of the racist abuse he took from fans, and, more compellingly, he describes the team’s inability to respond to it or to know how to support him. The story of his development as a player and his amazing social life is woven into a nuanced exploration of what it was like to find yourself a living lighteningrod. The book also confronts his battle with addiction and then cancer. It is a compelling story that speaks to anyone who has been subjected to discrimination – and it’s a sobering lesson about the passivity of those who bear witness to it and do nothing. It is also a straightforward account of a difficult life - one marked as much by uncertainty as by determination. It offers no real happy ending, no closure – just the contours of an actual life.

This brings me back around to “Looking for Eric” - subject of my last post. The film ultimately offers a romantic and facile solution to a very difficult situation. Eric conjures Cantona because he needs some of Cantona’s confidence. You can see that confidence in Canonta’s posture – he strides through the film with chest thrust out like the French rooster that he is. Eric, on the other hand, is skinny, pale, sits with his chest curled around itself, is rumpled and withdrawn. As an audience member I felt I should root for Eric to “sort himself out” but the fact of the matter is, as a person, I didn’t buy it. That’s the point at which the film got boring. I don’t buy that life is like football, and if you can just be “confident” the answers to big questions – about what one wants, how to repair what’s broken in your life, etc. – will magically appear.

Considering these three texts together - Fowler's and Cantonville's autobiographies, and Loach's "Looking for Eric," I find myself thinking that sometimes "confidence" is just the uncomplicated psychology of someone who has never experienced failure.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Looking for Eric: A Review

Looking for Eric opens with a crash. The hero of the film is a depressed postman living a very depressing life in depressing Manchester. Eric takes his car the wrong way around a roundabout. He does this just after seeing his ex-wife across the street (he's too shy and hurt to cross over and talk to her, too wracked by guilt and anxiety, and so even though she's waiting for him, he skulks away). Lilly is the love of his life, and he walked out on her without explanation years ago. He is still haunted, however, by his love for her and by hers for him and he stunted by this fact. His friends are worried about him - the crash makes an urgent crisis out of his slow descent, and draws them together around the project of helping him.

One of these stand-up guys is a fan of pop psychology, and initiates a series of gentle interventions. He asks the group of friends to indulge him in an exercise - to first imagine looking at yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you unconditionally, and then imagine looking out at the world through the eyes of someone you admire. Eric chooses, as his fantasy point-of-view, Eric Cantona.

Turns out, the last time Eric remembers being happy was years earlier at a match with his friends watching Cantona play. Fandom and football play an important part in this film as the one place where the men are given permission to be themselves, to shout, scream, to "sing together" and laugh. It seems to be the one place where Eric gave himself permission to feel.

This lays the foundation for the film's funny turn - at a particularly low moment, Eric hallucinates Cantona in his livingroom, and this imaginary Cantona proceeds to keep company with our melancholy postman and, in essence, coach him back to life. This coaching centers almost exclusively on getting himself back in communication with Lilly, his ex-wife. ("I like this woman," Cantona says, "she's got balls.")

Though organized around the reparation of his relationship with his wife, this film is about really about men. Eric's problem, Loach seems to suggest, is as much with the men in his life as it is with women. The film offers a flashback to explain: At a family gathering celebrating the christening of Lily & Eric's baby, his father gets unnerved watching Lilly blow kisses to his son. "That won't last long," he says, as he launches into a nasty tirade about the dead-end trap of marriage and family. In this bullying (expressed as a deep hostility towards women) we get a glimpse of the hard-edged working class masculinity that is closer to Loach's topic. Even as Eric is repulsed by this, and even as it's clear this isn't the kind of man he wants to be, the whole scenario pushes him away. His answer is to run away from it all and not talk about it. (At the film's start, he can't even say Lilly's name.)

Thus the friendship with Cantona - Eric needs a father/brother/friend to lead him out of the woods. And so Cantona leads Eric to turn to his friends to help him through a crisis involving one of his step sons. Talking about his life, his feelings, and his problems has been, up to this point, unimaginable for him. Cantona helps Eric to realize his potential by teaching him to "believe in your teammates, because without that we are lost."

The film is packed with Cantona's gnomic wisdom, "good lessons" like this and has a wildly optimistic ending. It's a feel-good bromance with great footage highlighting Cantona's career.

What's not to love about that?

Friday, June 19, 2009

(From the Track) Q: Who's that Mexican Girl from Riverside? A: Brenda Martinez

U.C. Riverside sophomore Brenda Martinez took 2nd place in the 1500 (4:13.97) at the NCAA national championship on June 10 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Check out the flotrack interview below. I love it when she talks about UCR's "sleeper" status (so true!), and implicitly refers to people's general lack of awareness of Latinas in track and field. She says, "People are starting to ask who's Riverside? Who's this little girl, this Mexican girl from Riverside?" You can see the pleasure she takes from defying the limits of people's imagination by being just that good at what she does.

I also love her response to the question: "At the start of the season could you have seen yourself as second in the nation?" The question seems to prove the point she made about 30 seconds earlier: People underestimate her.

How does she answer that question? With a twinkle in her eye, and no-bullshit "Yeah."

You just know, too, that she wasn't gunning for second.

(Thanks to my sister Justina Cassavell for the tip!)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Police Playing the Policed: on having the LAPD in our league

I am a founding officer for the Union Football League, an AYSO-affiliated adult league which plays near downtown Los Angeles. When we heard that the LAPD team would field a team during our first season we were a bit wary.

The field is smack in the middle of Pico-Union, and right down the street from the new police station. This is the home of the infamous 1990s Ramparts Scandal. It is also the neighborhood of the May Day "Melee" in which the LAPD used violence to break up a peaceful march and demonstration calling for reform in immigration policies in the U.S., and for recognition of the rights of the migrant communities that define the region. (This 2007 blog article has good video of that event - including silent footage of demonstrators being pushed at gunpoint across the soccer field). The cops in this neighborhood have long been working under a self-generated cloud of fear, anger, and mistrust.

The whole experience was something of a nightmare. The LAPD squad is muscle-bound and incredibly fit. They are a tough team. They can run you into next year, and they don't shy away from using their size advantage to win the ball. Nothing wrong with that. But they also have a coach who shouts from the sidelines: "Take him out out!" "Take him down!" and "Get him!" - while wearing a dark blue jacket with the letters LAPD across his back. Guys from several teams reported more disturbing remarks made on and off the field by LAPD players - e.g. "This [the game] is all you have, you have nothing to go home to."

As fit as they are, their ball handling is just OK. When confronted with the better teams in our league - who play a fast passing game dependent on great footwork, bursts of speed and an ability to change direction and turn in a blink - the cops were sometimes undone by the very thing they normally rely on: their size, and their physicality. It's an old story: the confrontation between a militaristic defensive game and the flash, bob and weave of joga bonito.

In general, when things didn't go their way, they got visibly and audibly frustrated, and played not better but just meaner, and harder. They played with a win-at-all-costs attitude, and were convinced every whistle made in their direction was misplaced. They complained endlessly about the referees - so much so that I suspect the refs dreaded working their matches.

As I'm the treasurer, I may have spoken with the team the most. Every week I'd check in about the league fees, make small talk, try to get to know them.

I had a series of conversations with their manager about the problems that were arising around their presence. He was genuinely upset by the tone of the games and remarkably open in sharing his perspective and experience.

It seemed to them that neither their opponents nor the referees could forget that they were the "cop team". He said that they never had this problem playing in more anglo settings. Although the majority of the guys on the LAPD team are Latino, they seemed only to have problems playing in parts of the city like ours.

It all come to a head towards the end of the season. It was a big game between the LAPD team and Nikys Sports - an unbeatable squad sponsored by the soccer shop across from our field. Nikys has everything - skill, knowledge, experience, strength and speed (the store isn't bad either - they have a twitter feed!). IMHO, Nikys are capable of playing some of the best, most entertaining football you'll see in California.

I didn't get to see that the night they took on the LAPD. The center ref lost control of the match after 30 minutes, and fearing that a player would be seriously hurt, or that the game would descend into a melee, he rightly called it off. I've never seen that before.

All of the referees and the spectators I spoke to held the LAPD team responsible for the disintegration of the match. Their game was marked that night by verbal abuse, dangerous and pointless tackles, and just plain rage.

The guys from Nikys, normally the more 'emotional' of the teams in our league, were remarkably calm about it all and went on to finish the season with an almost perfect record.

The day after that disastrous match, the manager withdrew the LAPD from the league. Their departure was inevitable and we were glad they knew this. We talked on the phone, and I learned this wasn't the first time this had happened. The manager (who'd spent the weekend assisting with the Santa Barbara wildfires) sounded exhausted and depressed. It'd been years since they'd tried playing in a league like ours, because previous attempts had ended exactly this way. He told me, in fact, that Internal Affairs advised them to withdraw (fearing that if they injured an opposing player, the LAPD might be sued).

In that conversation, I caught a glimpse of the complexity of his position - and the seductive lure of the fantasy we'd all indulged in imagining things could unfold any other way than they did.

People wax romantic about the utopic possibilities generated through football but realities of power and authority, and significant histories of abuses of both can't be wished away.

It is not possible for a cop team to play in one of the most policed neighborhoods in the region, and imagine that we can all forget who they are. The cops don't forget it. The player stopped and searched as he pulled into his own driveway ("lots of Toyotas in this neighborhood are stolen") and then issued a citation for making a dangerous turn (!) won't forget. Nor will the guy with a brother in jail. Nor the guy harassed because of his immigration status. Nor will the guy arrested last week for doing what people do at parties in the Hollywood Hills sans repercussion.

Forgetting is a form of entitlement. Forgetting who and where we are is a luxury. If anglo teams in middle class swaths of beachside communities "forget" they are playing the cops, it's because they do not experience themselves as "policed." And if the cops can forget that they are cops when they play those teams, it's because those guys aren't the ones they are policing.

I would like to think that football is not a space of forgetting, but of remembering. Remembering who you are, and who is with you - remembering a history not with words, but in movement.

I will stop myself here, before I get romantic.

I was glad to see the cop team go, and am happier even still to let go of the atavistic scrap of liberalism that overrode my gut feeling about the wisdom of inviting the police into our space of play.

Friday, June 5, 2009

From Punch to Pitch

Jackie vs. Audrey, Ohkay Casino, 2006
Delilah Montoya

I just read 8 reasons women should take up boxing on Lisa Bedsoe's blog, The Glowing Edge, and thought I'd comment briefly on my very recent encounters with boxing.

I've just started to learn some kickboxing/boxing basics as part of my work with personal trainer/performance artist Heather Cassils. Learning to kick and punch has been great for feeling strong & sexy, and it's also been great for, uhm, channeling some anger & frustration (or, more nearly, concentrating it into expressable forms).

And it's been really useful on the pitch: Kickboxing is helping me begin to develop a sense of where my feet are. I didn't grow up juggling the ball, and have a devil of a time volleying. There's been an almost immediate improvement in my connection with the ball since I started this training. And the increased upper body strength is giving me much more confidence in challenging for the ball, and also in warding off challengers.

If women's boxing interests you, check out Katya Bankowsky's 1999 documentary Shadow Boxers (KO Picture Show reviews it here). It focuses on "The Dutch Destroyer" Lucia Rijker (clips from the film can be seen here, woven into a fan-made homage). Shadow Boxer is a little uneven, but much of the training and fight footage is gorgeous. And then there's artist Delilah Montoya's photographic series, Women Boxers: The New Warriors (published as a book). Montoya juxtaposes fight images with portraits of the boxers alone, and with their trainers and family members. It's a great gift idea for your basic ass-kicking female.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Municipal de Fútbol Reading: June 9th @ Imprenta in Los Angeles

Tuesday, June 9, 2009, 8:30 – 9:30 pm

705 S. Rampart (at 7th), LA CA 90057

Vol. 11, no. 4

I will read from "Voici Mon Épée," a performative essay about - a Whitminian Ode to - the fútbol scene in Lafayette Park, which is right down the street from Imprenta & The Silver Platter. This essay is a part of Municipal de Fútbol a collaborative art/design project about soccer in East & South Los Angeles. It represents an extension of my writing here, and my critical work on art and sport spectacle which is featured in this issue of X-TRA. After the reading, I will talk with the audience about what it means to write about sports from a queer feminist perspective, and also about the forms of border policing which seek to regulate and control the fundamentally migratory pleasures of local fútbol communities.

Come to the reading & stay for The Wildness (great queer club in the space next door)
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