Friday, August 10, 2012

Happy Together

On July 20th, someone tweeting as Pia Sundhage - and I do think it might actually be Sundhage - wrote the following:
Happy Players have a tendency to make good decisions on the field - together.

Something shifted about 18 months ago. The USWNT looked very shaky. They barely qualified for the World Cup - they lost a game to Mexico (a historic defeat), they had to qualify for the final tournament in a play-off with Italy. In the first round they didn't score a single goal until Alex Morgan struck deep into a complicated injury time extended by the Italian coach's bizarre decision to sub a player (which added at least 30 seconds to match). It should never have come to that.

They squeezed out wins against much less developed teams. Those matches weren't fun to watch. They were stressful, the team appeared stiff and play was stingy. But then last year they played a thriller of a game against Brazil at the World Cup. Then they fought against the run of play and snatched a win from France. Both of those matches were engaging. Even though the team was fighting - they looked so into it. Last summer something broke open. They seemed happy on the field. Joyful.

This past march I spoke with some women in Brazil about soccer. We talked about why it is so hard to get women's soccer off the ground - whether you are organizing a recreational or a professional league.

Instead of talking about sponsorships etc., we started talking about pleasure. About how hard it is for a lot of women to advocate for their own joy. How crazy you can seem when your only reason for doing something is the pleasure it gives you. How often our pleasure is minimized and diminished by others. How we do that to ourselves. Someone hypothesized that the spectacle of women expressing this kind of joy was itself so unsettling in Brazilian culture that this was perhaps one of the game's biggest obstacles. (Which raises the question as to why that joy is so celebrated in other aspects of Brazilian life, but not this one.) I was surprised by that conversation's rapid turn to a certain raw honesty about the thing inside the game. Deep game. Joy, happiness. Happy players play better football.

To extend Sundhage's axiom: A great football team advocates for the happiness of its players. For a profound and communitarian happiness cultivated in the pursuit of a great game. Thus that word "together." One happy player isn't enough. An individual happiness only works in relation to other happinesses.

It's the thing that a lot of people miss from the men's side. And even when we see glimpses of it, our pleasure as spectators has been so ruthlessly exploited I think a lot of us feel alienated even when we, say, watch Spain cruise to another elegant victory. Maybe those men are happy - but that happiness comes at a high price. Maybe we enjoy watching them play - but what is our happiness supporting if not the business of it all. It's long been true for me that the joy I might experience watching the men's game has been compromised. It's the sugar in a Coca-Cola. Tastes good, but toxic.

There were so many matches in this tournament to remind us of the romance that draws fans to the stands. Team GB's win over Brazil was joyful. Brazil has looked distinctly unhappy for a long while now - they've taken on a tragic air. Their game is so obviously rooted in pleasure - without it things just fell apart. Canada's performances across the whole tournament - they have a right to be upset, devestated - this team dialed into each other's game in a way that made them play. Sinclair plays with the dark, slow-burn joy of a great athlete - I want a velvet painting of her post-goal scoring face. At times France seemed more dutiful than joyful in their play. Like they knew what they were supposed to do but couldn't quite feel it.

Japan's had this pleasure vibe for a long while - they are famously not so showy but the affection they feel for each other and for the game itself is evident in every detail. From the moment they walk on the pitch to the moment they take the medal. They might in fact be setting a standard on this front for the world game.

All this was happening in the region that invented the ban against women playing the game - a region that cultivated such a deep hostility to the idea of women playing that it isn't at all unusual to find women who've been mocked - even beaten - for playing when they were girls. Season ticket holders for Arsenal or Tottenham, who were told by school teachers that girls weren't "allowed" to play football - because it was true. The joyful spectacle of an exciting women's game in that context does real, very meaningful political work.

Four years ago I wrote a melancholy, sour post about the final match between Brazil and the US. I'd grown tired of the exchange of trophies between USA and Germany. I'd fallen in love with Brazil's technical skill and attacking game. But then the US shut them down by parking a bus in front of the goal. And Brazil did the same, but not quite as well. Carli Lloyd cracked their defense and scored a goal in the opening minutes of extra time and that was that. 1-0. It wasn't particularly fun to watch. At least not for me. But in the tournament you could see shadows of another world out there - of girls and women growing up with the ball at their feet, playing pick-up soccer just for the hell of it. Of girls who can seriously freestyle. Four years ago there were glimpses of this joy in sides like Brazil, Nigeria and Japan. And more at the 2011 World Cup. France, Equatorial Guinea. Mexico.

This has made the whole game better. So much better. Who would have thought that we'd have tournament finals played to win? Exchanges of leads? Breathtaking attacks and defending by the seat of your pants - or, in Solo's case, by the very tips of your gloves.

It seems like the culture of football cycles from the generous spectacles (full of goals and real drama - bad calls, unlucky breaks) to the miserly (a constipated game producing one lone goal forced out over 90 minutes of a well-executed plan). I'm loving the upswing in this wheel of spectatorial fortune.

I fell in love with Brazil in 2007 (sacrilege to admit!) because (I now see) I fell in love with the game they played. Full of swagger and bravado. Excess. Drama (which could be in fact quite cynical, but they seem to enjoy their own theatrics). When Brazil plays well it's with improvisational genius. For me - in my limited experience - they were the first international women's side to bring that to the broadcast game. More teams are showing the capacity for that kind of game. More teams are putting their signature on it. Entertaining women's football is not an exception, and it is not a surprise. It is, at least right now, the rule.

With that, I offer my deepest thanks to the teams who played for us in London. From South Africa, making it's first appearance in the tournament to the USWNT taking its fourth gold medal.


  1. Thank you for this lovely entry. The tweet--whether it's truly from Sundhage or not--really sums it up. Yes, it was obvious to the USWNT followers that they were very tense on the run up to the WWC, and not having fun at all (resulting in dull playing). Suddenly Sundhage's always sunny demeanor makes perfect sense. Yes, that is what's she's been trying to achieve all along, except somehow something went off course before the WWC. But what do you think broke this tension and turned it around for them? The pep talk from Wambach? Heroics of Rapinoe and Wambach in scoring the tying goal against Brazil?

    And yes, it makes total sense for happy players to play better football, and for this joy to somehow be transmitted to the spectators. I hope that we find a way to enable that happiness to more female players and teams around the world.

  2. I think the opponents are a part of it. One part. Teams with a good grove make you find yours.

  3. Many many thanks for this great piece. I too have deeply enjoyed watching these Olympic soccer matches and witnessing such excitement in the games. And thank you for putting words to the disappointment of France, a team full of stylish players who in crucial moments seemed incapable of finding each other seeing that play through.

    I loved watching much of women's sports these past 2 weeks. Women's team handball: bravado, swagger, joy? For sure.


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