Friday, July 24, 2009

FA parody of Nike ad: What would a women's version look like?

Watch the first video - Nike ad - then watch the English FA's parody of it.

I'd love a promotional video like this for the women's game. It's funny how you can use the misery of the lowest levels of Sunday leagues to romanticize the sport when it comes to men, but the women's game is cast as squeaky clean and relentlessly upbeat (when it is represented at all).

I wonder what a more gritty portrait selling women's low level football would look like?

In addition to the usual insults & injuries of weekend leagues (good ideas/poor execution - or good execution of bad ideas, plus ugly fouls, uneven refereeing, shitty pitches), in a women's version you could have the screaming and mewling children you normally chauffeur all week to their own activities and whom you leave at home on sundays to be looked after by partners who somehow manage to get to the gym themselves but resent having to look after their offspring one morning a week, and then there are the annoying boyfriends on the sidelines shouting stupid advice to their girlfriends, and the low turn out of players who haven't managed to find the childcare, and the subordination of your league schedule to men's and youth leagues, plus coming home & having to do housework when you are sore all over and just want to lay on the couch and watch t.v. Hmmm. None of that sounds so glamorous!

Merci Loic pour le link!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Starved fans pack Rose Bowl for pointless match - and love it!

Last night's match between Chelsea & Inter Milan was a pretty laid back affair. Chelsea dominated the entire match, and seemed really relaxed as they did so. I'd say they were operating at about 65%. (Read match report here.) Inter Milan? I don't know what to make of them. They seemed to accept to their role as the team to be defeated by Chelsea. Which is a shame for their fans - there were quite a few in my section.

The fans in attendance are on my mind because Scott Wolf's story for the Daily Breeze grossly misrepresents the numbers and the spirit of last night's crowd. Wolf writes:
The game between the Italian domestic champions and one of England's most star-studded teams looked like they drew about the same as a UCLA-Fresno State football game.
He then goes on to suggest that the supposedly poor attendance was due to massive indifference fueled by Beckham's behavior the other night (since when has such a thing dampened people's interest in a sport?) and concludes

it's clear soccer still has a way to go before it becomes a must-see event in Southern California. Only a spectacle, like the World Cup, proved to be a winning ticket.
Nick Green quite rightly questions the veracity and logic of this report in his blog article on the game. As one who was at this match, I can affirm Green's entirely opposite reading - the game was in fact extremely well attended. (I was sitting quite far up and we were packed in like sardines - I have the spilled-beer soaked shoes to prove it.)

Somewhere around 80,000 people turned out to see Chelsea play at 65% percent, in a game that only matters to the deep soccer nerd aware of Drogba's vascillations in commitment, the rumors that it maybe might possibly be John Terry's last appearances as "Mr. Chelsea" (he is being seriously romanced by Manchester City), and that The Special One's team would be facing the squad that made him special. I'm speaking here of course of the elegant José Mourinho, former Chelsea manager now guiding Inter and pictured here, perhaps slightly bummed about the large numbers of people about to witness his team's mediocre performance.

I am not surprised that there are tens of thousands of people who are that deep into this world. But many US sports writers are willfully oblivious to the amount of energy (and money) we spend keeping up with this sort of stuff, and what suffering we are willing to endure in order to participate in the global game.

We brave the tail end of rush hour and overcome heat-wave induced inertia for the pleasure of watching a game played with the intensity of a weekend kickabout between friends. We do so because the people on the field are some of the most technically skilled and gifted players of the sport. I was just happy to lay eyes on Petr Čech (goalie of magic hands & bionic face) and admire John Terry (who manages to be an intimidating defender when he's just standing there and the ball is nowhere near him). And I am not a fan of either team.

Grahame Jones reports in the LA Times that yesterday's match drew
the largest crowd to see a soccer game in Southern California since the U.S. defeated China in the 1999 Women's World Cup final, also at the Rose Bowl, and the biggest for men's soccer since the 1984 Olympics.
Quite a few people were still filing in after kickoff because traffic was so gnarly - because there were so many people attending this game. But even his hyperbole is not accurate. Last year, 92,650 people came out to see FC Barcelona play Chivas Guadalajara at the Memorial Coliseum in downtown Los Angeles. (A rematch of that game will be played in August in San Francisco.)

Last night's crowd is, in fact, good evidence of how hungry fútbol fans are for more. We live on meager rations. The MLS bores the crap out of most of us. The WPS season is all too short. You have to have a really expensive cable package if you want easy access to international games. And our sports editors are actively hostile to us - reproducing match reports written by team press offices, or reported with all the literary flare of the phone book. Good stories are ignored until they are irrelevant.

When you look at the numbers the story isn't that of a city that doesn't care about the sport - quite the opposite. Perhaps Wolf got the story wrong - as so many US sports journalists do - because the people behind those numbers are invisible?

After yesterday's interview with Gustavo Arellano, I hung out to listen to his conversation with musician Ceci Bastida. Ceci was a member of the influential Tijuana No!, and is a fantastic musician and advocate for Rock en Español. She and Arellano talked about the music industry's resistance to marketing Mexican music - to Spanish-language music in general (even as, say Japanese or French Pop is embraced by alternative-middlebrow radio), and Mexican music in particular. Such resistance makes no sense in terms of money and demographics - it's a blindness to the interests and desires of not only Latino consumers but also others who care about, are participants in, and members of Latino, Chicano, and/or Mexican cultural spaces.

Of course, the 80,000 people at the Rose bowl were not 100% Latino. Just for the sake of argument, let's say the breakdown was an uncharacteristically-low-for-L.A. 60%. I think that's about the fraction of the crowd that Wolf missed. But where Anglo/American/European sports writers and editors are content to treat this crowd as invisible and insignificant, it's worth taking note of those organizations that are very interested in taking note of every person who passes through the turnstiles - Chelsea FC & FC Internazionale Milano. You can bet they are crunching the numbers and know exactly how the math on this works.

Monday, July 20, 2009

David Beckham: an argument for non-monogomy

I am talking tomorrow with Gustavo Arellano (KPFK 90.7/4:00pm) about David Beckham, one of my favorite subjects. [Archived show can be found here.] Becks, of course, is much in the news for his reappearance on the LA Galaxy roster in an exhibition match against the other team in his life - AC Milan. (See Nick Green's match report.)

While watching the game on television this afternoon, I couldn't help noticing that the man seems happier. He looks great and seems generally more fit. At the moment, he makes a great case for sleeping around.

It's a foreign concept for the American sports fan, but in the global economy of the beautiful game, players are loaned out all the time. The motivations for such deals are complex, but at least two desired effects can be seen plainly in this case - the guy seems happy, and playing the field drums up interest.

As one sports writer after another leaps on the booing Galaxy supporters as a sign of his failure, Becks manages to do what no other MLS player can: force U.S. mainstream media to pay attention. [For more on this side of his abilities, read this great When Saturday Comes story about Beckham and media coverage of his transfer from Man U to Real Madrid.] Of course, some complain that not enough attention is being payed to the game itself - but, well, you could say that about media coverage of the sport globally as transfer rumors, crazy club finance and WAG antics dominate headlines from London to Rio.

Watching this youtube video of Beckham reacting to booing fans (one of whom responded to Beckham's taunt by trying to scramble onto the field), I couldn't help but think that the Galaxy and the MLS have let themselves be cast as the staid, uptight American housewives (Carol Brady) to AC Milan's dynamic, knowing, and confident Italian lover (Sophia Loren). As if to confirm this, at 50 seconds you can see one fan holding up a sign displaying the word "COMMITMENT" (and something illegible) to scold Beckham for his bad behavior.

I don't know about you, but that'd have me checking out flights to Milan pretty quick.

Of course I have more to say about Beckham & his continental lovers - but I'll save it for the interview.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Night Games: Playing in Los Angeles After Dark

L.A. is hot. The sun bears down on you like a controlling parent. League games can start as early as 6:00am as players try to escape its glare. At night, untaxed by the heat, our bodies feel twice as fast, twice as strong. Surrounded by the glory of night lights (not only floodlights, but the glow from apartment buildings, street lamps, headlights, and the moon), playing is just that much more fun - you feel like you are escaping something, from somewhere. And we are. The city seems like another city.

About six years ago, I was at a bar on my own and met a bunch of musicians from Minneapolis. It turned out that they were former cross-country runners. They invited me to join them on a night run.

That was my first and only run in the dark. I almost always run alone. Until that night it had never occurred to me to run after the sun had gone down. I run through a quiet neighborhood, and around the edges of a park and a lake. Women have been regularly assaulted on the route I take - but only at night. I'd never thought about it directly - until I ran with those guys at night, I hadn't known it was something I'd want to do.

Los Angeles is a beautiful city at night. My neighborhood can be spooky with its lush gardens that spill over onto the sidewalk, half-falling-down houses tucked behind magnolia and banana trees, mysterious lights of case study homes perched behind evergreens, and the air thick with jasmine and skunk.

That night run remains one of my nicest memories of Los Angeles. I found myself running in a pack thanks to the easy sociability of a city that hosts so many recent arrivals, so many of whom seem to be their way somewhere else. (At its best, L.A. has the cruisey generosity of a metropolitan train station.) It also gave me a unique sense of freedom - sortof like what it feels like in the desert, where the sky is so open that it doesn't seem to matter which way you decide to go. This is a wonderful feeling to access in the middle of a city - as if you could go anywhere, freely. Of course, in a city crisscrossed by neighborhood boundaries that mark the front lines and trenches of an ongoing and intensely racialized class warfare, this sense of freedom of movement is an illusion, but it is a necessary indulgence when it can be had. It's what allows us to imagine other possibilities, other ways of moving in, through, and across this place.

The pleasures of that night-run pale in comparison with those of playing soccer in Lafayette Park or Vista Hermosa after the sun goes down and the flood lights come up. Fulfilling the promise of its name, from Vista Hermosa you can practically kiss the downtown skyline. Lafayette Park used to leave its lights on all night long - I played for months in games that started around 10:00pm and could go on until 1:00am, or later.

Those midnight games at Lafayette are over: somebody in one of the apartment buildings behind the park complained about the noise, and, incredibly, that was that - the voice of one "stakeholder" shouts down a whole community. Elsewhere in the city, though, people have kept the lights on.

Angelinos have found that night games are an effective way to combat violent crime. This is the basic insight behind Mayor Villaraigosa's "Summer Night Lights" program. This year, 16 parks that had been places to avoid - to skirt and fear (even in daylight) - have become sites of nighttime pleasure.

These night games show that Los Angeles - endlessly miscast in the movies as either an eternal gangland battleground or a space of cozy suburban privacy - has the capacity to be a different sort of place, and to create a different sort of public.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Why police the border between women's and men's sports?

In 2004, Mexican National Women's Team superstriker Maríbel Dominguez was signed to a two-year contract with Celaya FC, a second division men's team. FIFA stepped in with an official prohibition and the assertion "There must be a clear separation between men's and women's football." The memo furthermore forbid her from playing in exhibition games with the men's squad. (See Jo Tuckman's 2005 Guardian story.)

My question today is why "must" the separation between men's and women's football be "clear"?

Dominguez played for years with boys - successfully disguising her gender and enjoying a level of play not available to girls of her generation. Nicknamed "Marigol," in 2004 she was a highly ranked international player who went on to play for the Atlanta Beat, FC Indiana, FC Barcelona, and the Girona team EU L'Estartit.

Nearly every feature story on Marta makes a big deal out of how she grew up playing with boys as if this were unusual. (See Michael Sokolove's 2009 NYT profile, for example). Of course it's fun to read about Marta's childhood years fighting macho attitudes on dusty pitches and in the street - but just once I would like to see it acknowledged that her experience is not extraordinary. It is in fact absolutely typical for female players - especially (but not only) those living in places where women's sports is not accepted. In the U.S., girls play with boys, by the way, and many also find themselves combating patriarchal attitudes about sports when they lace up their boots. Brazil hardly has a monopoly on machismo.

Playing with boys as you grow up is totally ordinary, in other words. Where girls don't have to sneak into boys games, they start off playing organized youth soccer together. There is much debate about at what age girls and boys should separate. As girls mature earlier it can be to their advantage to play with boys through much of adolescence - in Germany, they play together until they are 17 (I am not sure if this is true for the highest level of U-17 teams - I suspect the rule is that girls are only forced off boys teams at 17). Clearly this hasn't hindered the development of the men's or the women's game. Germany's NWT holds the World Cup, and are consistently ranked in the top three.

All of this is to say that Marta is unique not because she played with boys, but because she was one of the very best players on every boys team on which she played.

To return to FIFA's intervention against Celaya's inclusion of Dominguez on their roster: If a female player can handle herself in a men's professional league, why shouldn't she be allowed to play? What would be the harm?

I don't buy that FIFA is interested in protecting the development of the women's game in Mexico - not that I would endorse such an explanation (in which an organization dominated by old, white patriarchs is working to "protect" women against their own desires).

If Maribel Dominguez had played for Celaya FC, and held her own (never mind excelled) she would have profoundly unsettled notions about the difference between men and women.

The difference between men and women's football must be clear because the difference between men and women themselves must be absolute. Gender difference, however, is not absolute, and it doesn't take much research to find soccer stories which raise interesting questions about our investment in gender segregation in sport.

The 2008 Africa Women's Cup was marred by a lot of things (bad referring, overt attempts to undermine press coverage of the games, last minute changes in scheduling of training sessions for visiting teams, etc). It was also packed with major upsets (see FIFA report here). Floating around the blogosphere has been a very interesting story: Two teams (Cameroon and Nigeria) filed complains with the Confederation of African Football accusing the eventual champions (and host team) Equatorial Guinea of fielding two men.

What little information I've found on this is not very helpful - limited by homophobia or ignorance. To this day, a lot of Nigerian players are insistent that they were MEN (one article reports that a Nigerian forward in essence felt a player up on the field). That doesn't necessarily explain the 1-0 loss, though. They'd played the same line-up previously and won and didn't file a complaint then. Their credibility is undermined by this fact.

While the Nigerian players say the two defenders were men, over time the language of the story as it has been reported in African newsletters has shifted to suggest the players are intersex - meaning, born with sexual characteristics that do not conform to traditional definitions of male/female gender.

Sadly, if the players are indeed intersex, they would be banned from the game for having for a physiology that challenges the notion that gender difference is immutable. And, as it happens, one of Nigeria's own players was recently "outed" as intersexed, and banned from the game. She was the second in the national squad's history to be so exiled - talk is that she may undergo surgery in order to become eligible to play women's football again. But should her body be medically altered so she can play football? Does women's football really need her to do so? Medical management of intersexuality is a frightening story of institutions deciding to force a body to conform to its ideas about sex/gender at great cost to the person on whose interests doctors pretend to be acting. Such surgeries are about managing the anxiety of parents and doctors - not about enhancing the life and happiness of the intersexed person.

In response to the scandal caused by the complaints about Equitorial Guinea, the Confederation of African Football will institute a "gender test" - naming a body that menstruates female. This test is notoriously unreliable, as is any other test grounded on a single factor (see "The Gender Trap"). The institution of this test in African Women's Football is a step in the wrong direction.

The policing of these borders creates problems for especially female athletes. The Journal of the American Medical Association explains:
Gender verification has long been criticized by geneticistist, endocrinologists and others in the medical community. One major problem [is] unfairly excluding women who had a birth defect involving gonads and external genitalia (i.e., male psuedohermaphrodism)...A second problem is that only women, not men, [are] stigmatized by gender verification testing. Systematic follow-up [is] rarely available for female athletes "failing" the test, which often [is] performed under very public circumstances. Follow-up [is] crucial because the problem is not male impostors, but rather confusion caused by misunderstanding of male pseudohermaphroditism. (Simpson et al., "Gender Verification in the Olympics", JAMA vol.284, pp. 1568-1569, 2000 - cited in Wikipedia's Gender Verification in Sports)
These cases ask us to consider what it is that we actually want from the gender division in sports. What is it we are looking for in a women's game? Surely not a confirmation of the "femininity" of the people on the pitch. It must be something else - like how the women's game allows us to escape from narrow ideas about who and what women are. Why shouldn't women's football be exactly the game to welcome gender-bending warriors like the intersex athlete, and the transgender warrior? And why should the women's game be the only one to do so? Let's make the borders more porous. Better yet, let's imagine that it is possible to play across them - because the truth of the matter is, people do, every day, and it's not that big a deal.
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