Friday, July 30, 2010

Regime Change: Africa in the World Cup Final

Fifa's match reporters seem surprised that Nigeria made it to the U20 Women's World Cup finals. They write:
Few...would have predicted that Nigeria, representatives of an African continent which had never before sampled life beyond the quarter-finals of any FIFA Women’s World Cup or Olympic Games, would be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Sunday’s final in Bielefeld is therefore full of intrigue and fascination.
I must be one of the few. If you watched the women's games in the last Olympics, you might remember that Nigeria drew the toughest group - playing Germany, Brazil, and North Korea in the first round. The Super Falcons gave all three teams a tough time - they played some of the most entertaining attacking football in the tournament.  Watching Nigeria play Brazil, you couldn't help but think you were watching the future of the women's game - neither squad enjoys the institutional support they deserve from their football federations, and they compete well against teams lionized for not only the talent on the field, but for the organizational commitment behind the players. Brazil and Nigeria's senior squads would be contenders for next year's World Cup championship were they supported at even a quarter of the level awarded to their male counterparts. (Boy am I tired of writing sentences like that one.)  Both have fans in their home countries, and both play in styles that reflect the ethos associated with South American and African teams, but which seems lost in the men's game these days.

The Nigerians have not scored the outrageous number of goals that other squads have managed in some of the tournament's ill-matched confrontations.  But the Germans, who have 18 goals in their column, played the woeful French and Costa Rican squads in round one and rolled over the S. Korean squad, with 5 goals to their 1. And the Nigerians have kept the number of goals scored against them low - at 4, they have given up one fewer than Germany.  Furthermore, the Nigerians beat the US youth squad - symbolically, I can't think of a better result for the international game.

In the wonderfully titled article "Our Women Rule the World," Nigerian journalist Ikeddy Isiguzo writes,
USA is the most dominant country in global female football and its U-20 team has never failed to reach the semi-final since the competition started in 2002.
It was the defending champion, and had garnered two wins, a third and fourth place in the four previous competitions  no other country has a record close to this.
Another article, on Nigeria's semifinal win over Columbia is headlined "What Our Men Couldn't Do."  Ghana getting past Uruguay would have been historic. But Nigeria's women beating USA? Or Germany? That would be a ground-breaking victory for not just Nigeria and indeed for Africa's women's teams, but for all women's teams that aren't USA or Germany.  When so few teams play in finals so often, it makes victory for the rest feel impossible - it makes the whole system feel rigged.  It furthermore feeds the defeatist attitude that defines the approach of the vast majority of national FAs (which think: women's football sucks, women don't play well, nobody cares about it, and they will lose anyway).

So, yes, Germany should be favored in this match. But I think anyone who sees the Falconets as unlikely finalists or accidental contenders has not been following the women's game very closely. And I guess that includes FIFA itself.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

U20 Women's World Cup: more questions than answers

This photograph was posted yesterday on the US Women's National Team blog, without comment. I am going to follow their lead, and say nothing about it - turning instead to the questions raised by the results of the first round of play in FIFA's U20 Women's World Cup.

Can someone please explain how the English women's U20 squad ends up in the bottom of its group?  And how Japan, which has a great senior squad, doesn't advance? Mexico made it through - this is fantastic news - is anyone talking about this? What is women's soccer like in Mexico, anyway? Columbia is in the quarter finals too? (Is it just me, or did their group look, well, like a cakewalk?) North Korea eliminated Brazil from contention - huh? What? And why did South Korea keep their superstar Ji So Yun on the bench for the first half? 

And what is up with Korean women's soccer, anyway? They have been a strong side for a while, and both North and South Korea advanced out of their groups. An educated guess: Strong support for women's soccer in the national football associations of these countries is manifesting in these young sides showing us who is developing their talent, and who isn't.  Is it just me, or do Ghana and Nigeria play a version of the game that looks, well, fun? When I see them play, I want to join the team.  Why is that?  Is it just me, or do some of these less heralded squads have unreal talent on them - where do those women play when they aren't playing for their national squads?

I am all questions - no answers, because I am on the road. It isn't like I can pick up a local sports paper to get this information. I managed to catch a few minutes of a streaming live broadcast of Japan's 3-1 thrashing of the English squad.  It was a European sports channel which had - gasp - a FEMALE CALLING THE MATCH.  She was awesome - very witty, in a deadpan girl-jock sort of way. When the guy announcer said that the English side needed to do something, she said, "Uhm, like, score?"  I split my sides laughing.  I am suffering from World Cup burn-out, and have had my fill of the utterly meaningless chatter filling up space, and I'm done with acrobatic statements avoiding the obvious. Another question: Who is she?!

Boy would I love something besides the FIFA reports to read - thank goodness for All White Kit. For some answers to the above, check out AWK.  (I'm following The Girls in the Cheap Seats, too - a new podcast covering all sorts of soccer stuff - hilarious statement about the USWNT U20 team's underwhelming performance against Ghana - "I felt like I was watching the men's team.") But before you hop over there, I am hoping a few of you will fill in these gaps in our collective knowledge in the comments section....

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Art of Erasure: from one World Cup to another (USA Ghana)

A few weeks ago, I dared to complain about Nike's "Thank You" video. It is a lovely idea. It features young players thanking the US National Men's Team for "paving the way" - but it excluded girls. Girls support the team, too, and are inspired by their example.

My point then was simple: Girls are inspired by male athletes. Girls and women are fans of the team.  The ad is quite clearly about inspiration (and nationalism). The ad also mimics a Gatorade spot, produced on the occasion of Mia Hamm's retirement. That video opens with a little girl, and cuts to Landon Donovan. It features men and women, including her teammates and Michael Jordan - all thanking the legendary player for inspiring them with her passion, drive, and competitiveness. 

When it comes to women's sports, we don't ask that boys and men be kept out of the frame. We want their support to be visible. Why, then, when it comes to showcasing the fan base for the men's game, must girls be excluded from the picture? 

The logic used to cast that video underscores a growing problem in sport media - the decreasing visibility of women, in nearly every capacity. A recent study demonstrated that roughly 98% of mainstream sports media space is devoted to men's sports, to male athletes and their doings.  Less than 2% is devoted to women.

This issue reared its ugly head today, in the most unlikely place of all.  I sat down today with my niece to watch the US National Women's Team play their opening match in the U20 World Cup, which kicked off this week in Germany.  Amazingly, they played Ghana.

At the half, incredibly, Ghana led 1-0.  The US looked disorganized against a scrappy team playing a ragged defense which nevertheless seemed to neutralize the US's attacks. Were viewers allowed to enjoy a discussion exploring how the heavily favored US gave up a goal, and failed to equalize, in spite of what seemed like a dozen shots? No - instead we got a lame discussion of the state of the men's game in the US.  For real. It was infuriating. I would have settled for a discussion of the senior squad's draw against Sweden the previous day.  But a tired, worn out and totally half-ass debate about what the US men's game needs?  Really?

I spent the day imagining what it would be like if we heard about the WNBA during NBA matches, how the women's league was doing during EPL broadcasts, and if we were offered a history lesson on the suppression of women's baseball during the All-Star game. It would be amazing.

Representations of female athleticism, of the accomplishments of women's teams, are so few, so rare that girls must look to people like Landon Donovan for inspiration - he's a LOT easier to see on TV than Sydney Leroux (who scored the second half equalizer today).  Girl players look up to him and his teammates, even though they aren't nearly as competitive internationally as the women's squad.  They should admire Donovan, Howard, Gooch, Dempsey et all.  They are great players. And they should admire Leroux, Rodriguez, Wambach, Solo, Kai and their teammates too.

Girls who support the sport should never be squeezed out of the frame - unless the intention is to give them a jump on mastering the art of self-erasure.

For a recap of USA/Ghana, as well as other matches - including a great one between England and Nigeria - see All White Kit. Highlights below, thanks to AWK!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Looking for answers, in an evangelical World Cup brochure

My favorite World Cup ephemera is this brochure, produced for a "Bible Correspondence Course" in Long Beach, CA. A friend of mine found it on his car windshield, a couple weeks before the tournament's start. 

I'm amazed by the ease with which the authors of this text move from "How about life after death?" and "There is not much time left before the World Cup of Soccer takes place...." The brochure alternates between these visions of the afterlife and practical information about the tournament. It provides a list of previous winners, for example, and a table you can fill out as the tournament progresses as well as the essay pictured above, addressing the sense of emptiness and betrayal we are destined to live with, come Monday morning.

On the brochure's last page, one finds an address to which one can turn for solutions.  Apparently, even the God Squad profits from World Cup fever.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The World Throws Up: On how not to read soccer as symptom

Chéri Samba, Le Monde Vomissant (The World Throws Up), 2004
If recent writing on the 2010 World Cup and (the idea of) Africa is leaving you feel bloated, you must read Supriya Nair's marvelous blog, Treason Stratagems & Spoils.  In her July 3rd post, she calls out western media pundits for their tendency to see in each African soccer team (and, indeed, in each African or non-European or non-white player) a tidy study in "the African problem," the "problem of history", and the "problem of nationalism".

I cite one part of her blog below because I've been looking for someone to properly check the liberal impulse to read in Mesut Özil a redemption of Germany's policies on immigration and citizenship.  Nair's eloquent rant was triggered by Roger Cohen's op-ed piece for The New York Times, which centered on Özil's symbolic meaning ("Özil the German"). Before discussing the Turkish German player, Cohen gives an overview of, basically, Africa's "problems" - in history, politics, and soccer. It's all about the "Big Man," he argues, and national soccer teams do well to avoid them. Nair takes him to school for that, and moves on in her critique. To Cohen's assertion "But the Germany of Özil and Aogo is such a victory over the Big Man who destroyed Europe." Nair replies:
Which is to say, thank you Turkey and Nigeria for bearing the brunt of the history of European imperialism in your own distinct ways. Directly or indirectly, we dismantled your countries in our world wars, plundered your resources, broke up your nations, sold off the pieces, put your worst enemies in power over you, treated your people like shit when they came to Europe looking for work, and continue to do so. But our football teams are now full of brown kids and black kids. So Hitler lost and you lost, but we all won. So we're cool, right? We're cool.
I encourage readers to go to her site and read the whole thing ; "When I Get Older," Treason Stratagems & Spoils.

Writing like Nair's is, at the moment, only found on blogs like the one you are reading right now. Newspapers, stuck a fantasy moment of the 1970s, turn over and over again to people disconnected from the game, people all too happy to project political fantasy onto whatever - people who do not have the knowledge or skills or interest level that would allow them to see the politics in the form of the game - Nair moves swiftly from analysis of tactical errors to political critique, but does not make the mistake of treating tactical errors made on the field as historico-political symptom. 

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Germany, playing for more than a win

Germany's coach Joachim Loew lights a candle in Enke's memory

On the eve of the World Cup, players reminded the press that this tournament was different.  This year, they were playing in the wake of traumatic loss, and would do their best to honor the memory of Robert Enke, the German National Team goalkeeper who committed suicide in November 2009.  In his story for The Guardian, Dominic Fifield explains:
The recognition that they had been oblivious to a team-mate suffering so deeply struck home with Germany's players, who were told the news of his death by the national coach Joachim Löw and the manager Oliver Bierhoff as they prepared for a friendly against Chile.

"To have not realised ...well that makes you feel helpless," said Ballack, who had known Enke since he was 13. "There was shock, emotion, lots of tears. The service and memorial were good, a chance to say goodbye to him. We have to learn from this. There is the illness, but also the combination with football and being famous."
Ballack continues:
"He was scared to speak about his problem because he was scared to lose his child, or his job. Or to confess to having a weakness to other players. People have weaknesses. We should accept it. This should never be forgotten. It was a hard time, for everyone close to him and for us, as players. He will always have a place in our team. The players, the staff, the management all knew him, and it's still in our minds, and in the fans' minds. The further Germany go in the, the more emotional it will get." (Dominic Fifield, "Germany spurred on by the memory of Robert Enke" in The Guardian, June 11 2009)
His teammates were devastated not only by his death, but by the realization that someone on their team, a friend, had suffered so much and had not been able to share this burden with them. His death put things in perspective.

It is easy to fall back on stereotypes about the German squad - as clinical, for example - but this particular squad defies such templates not only in the dynamism and vision of their game, but in their public embrace of Enke's memory and in their support for other athletes struggling with depression. The squad has promised a portion of any bonus it earns from the World Cup to the Robert Enke Foundation - set up by the German FA to support research and treatment of depression.

That the team has come together like this, in the wake of such a sad loss, around such a taboo subject (especially in the macho and often heartless world of sports cultures), is truly inspiring.

(See November 2009 post: "On the Suicide of Robert Enke")

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ghana's Elimination by la Mano del Diablo

If la Mano de Dios works in the service of an attack on goal, helping the ball over the keeper, across the line, or to the foot of a well-placed teammate, la Mano del Diablo does its opposite - a hand raised on the line to stop a ball speeding toward the back of the net.  The Hand of God works in one direction, the Hand of the Devil in its opposite.

The special cruelty of the latter was revealed today when Uruguayan striker Suarez denied a last second header from Ghana's Dominic Adiyiah. Suarez drew a red card - it was a hand ball, clearly denying a goal.  It's what's known cynically as a "professional foul," because in this instance, a goal is not automatically awarded. Instead, the offended team takes a penalty. Asamoah Gyan - a truly marvelous player, hit the cross bar.  As we all know now, Ghana then went out on penalty kicks.  Suarez got his team through, though perhaps it cost him a piece of his soul (and his presence in the next match). My post regarding Mexico's loss to Argentina still applies, but here a twist of fate feels more like a knife in the back.

[If you are new to the whole "hand of God" thing, see this BBC interview with God himself.]

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nike tells girls watching the World Cup: You don't count.

This "thank you" Nike Soccer video shows boys thanking the US Men's National Team "for playing like Americans." In casting ONLY boys, Nike once again makes clear that the girls and women who follow the sport in the US don't count. I am trying very hard not to transfer my anger about Nike's sexist and frankly lame ads to the USMNT itself. These ads are approved by someone at the US Soccer Federation and damned if I am not going to call them up myself. Their general number: (312) 808-1300. Please give them a piece of your mind, too. You can also leave a comment on the USSF National Men's Team blog (Paving the Way). They won't know how we feel about this stuff unless we complain.

[I posted a comment on the NMT blog, where the video is posted. My original comment - respectful, but critical - has been removed by readers, and was reposted by USSF. The responses to that post are still up. You can share your opinion with the folks at USSF here.]

The US Women's National Team (also sponsored by Nike) needs to get a divorce, and quick.

Thank you to Amanda of Needs More Kittens for alerting me to this new marketing blunder.

Football, at Sea (reading the World Cup through Moby Dick)

I was challenged to connect The World Cup to Moby Dick.  Readers of the novel and fans of the beautiful game will see points of intersection just as peculiar as what follows here.

Moby Dick: the Jabulani 
"...none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness... "  (from the chapter, "Of Monstrous Pictures of Whales")
Dubbed "the ball of confusion" by the LA Times, Adidas's World Cup ball is fast, unpredictable, and, most importantly for qualifying as Moby Dick's analog, unknowable.

Ahab: Maradona
Then, tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: "Aye, Aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what we have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it no? I think ye do look brave. ("The Quarter Deck")
The captain of all captains, a man obsessed, a man who pursues the white whale long after his career has finished - a dubious and yet gifted and absolutely inspiring character, he is willing to bend the rules of the game to meet his ends. Team Argentina is rising to his call - they are not playing for a man, they are playing for God.

Ishmael: Call him us
Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan, it behoves me to approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in this enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of is blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels. Having already described him in most of his present habitatory and anatomical peculiarities, it now remains to magnify him in an archaeological, fossiliferous, and antediluvian point of view....Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer's uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me....To produce a mighty book, you must choose a might theme. ("The Fossil Whale")
We see the whale-chase through his eyes, he theorizes the whale from all available angles, and inventories the whaling industry and everything connected to it and more. Ishmael is the blogger and pundit.  It's Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, thinking they can predict a glorious future for India, using the logic of economic markets (ridiculous - the All-India Football Federation's management of the game is so atrocious as to defy all rationalist arguments about the game's development in that country). It's me, arguing with Kuper and Szymanski, and seeing FIFA's black helicopters everywhere. It's Eduardo Galeano, writing his poetic manifesto - seeing in the game a metaphor for all that's beautiful in living, and also all that sucks the joy out of life.  It's Eamon Dunphy, narrating his year of playing disastrously for Millwall.  It's this very post.

Queequeg: Zinadine Zidane
Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw traces of a simple honest heart, and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.  ("A Bosom Friend")
The harpooner is Ishmael's best friend. The novel opens with their "marriage" - before taking to sea, the two share a bed and sit up all night under the covers talking the hours away, "A cozy, loving pair."  He is a figure for the Other, and the Other's magnetism. Melville can't get enough of him, he luxuriates in thick descriptions of his fearsome beauty. His is a complex presence within the narrative - through Ishmael's interaction with Queequeg, Melville launches a sustained critique of Judeo-Christian mores. Ishmael may identify Queequeg as a "savage" and as a "cannibal"(figuratively), but as he also asserts that Queequeg's approach to life is both more ethical and worldly than that produced at the chapel pulpit.

Queequeg must be a player. And a player who is a good friend to the game, one we can't get enough of, too, as a spectacle. But I can't think of anyone on the pitch right now who meets this standard.

Queequeg also figures prominently in one of the crazier passages in Moby Dick, when fellow harpooner Tashtego takes "a head-first accidental plunge into the depths of the oil-case in the whale's head." The whale carcass is alongside the ship, in the water - Tashtego by all rights should have met his end there. But Queequeg comes up with a great save:
How had the rescue been accomplished? Diving down with the sinking head, Queequeg slashed it with his knife near the bottom, reached in, grabbed Tashtego's leg, tried to pull him out -- couldn't -- fished around for Tashtego's hair, and grabbing it, turned the Indian around and effected the delivery! All the while sinking, sinking -- their lungs bursting, bursting for air . . .
He's a rescuer.  One might say, then, that we should pick a defender - but I think the rescue fantasies laid on the shoulders of my nominee are more in scale with the symbolic and literal function of Queequeg within this novel.

Zizou's spectacular beauty is well known (note Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait), and he hovers over squads as a talismanic presence (e.g. Algeria). He represents an "alien" and alienated generation, and, of course, is famous for an unusual incident involving the head.

The Pequod: Fabio Capello

The ship is as much a character in this novel as is the whale. It is the leaky structure all must inhabit.  That could be Fifa. But this is awfully literal, and would lead us to aligning Ahad with Sepp Blatter who does not have the character to merit such a comparison.

I prefer to see in the following description, traces of the England manager:
She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts-cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale-her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed.
I will stop here, and try to think about something else for a few hours. Starbuck, anyone?
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