Nov 08 2014

On the precariousness of women’s soccer in CONCACAF

Under the radar of our sports inundated country, two weeks ago the United States hosted a World Cup qualifying tournament that culminated last Sunday night at PPL Park in Chester, PA. The women’s teams of the United States, Costa Rica, and Mexico all qualified for Canada 2015, while Trinidad and Tobago face Ecuador in a playoff series starting tomorrow. In theory this event showcased the best women’s soccer teams in the region. In reality it brought into sharp relief the resource gap in women’s soccer and highlighted the continuing challenges faced by women’s soccer worldwide. Simply put, while some teams get support from their federations, others receive almost none. Women’s soccer, and support for it, is still in a precarious state. Institutions support it, but many do so grudgingly and under duress.

First, the good: Costa Rica’s fifteen-year investment in women’s and girls’ soccer bore fruit with the team’s first World Cup berth. Mexico, though it has stagnated since World Cup 2011, still receives substantial support from its federation. And the United States…well, the US women’s team is the best funded in the region (even if it suffers in comparison to the resources given to the US men). Not surprisingly, the three teams that receive the most financial support advanced.  Funding means—at a minimum—full time coaches and staff, training camps, and equipment. Most teams in the region fail to provide even these basic needs for their women’s teams.

Indeed, the five other teams in tournament—Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago—showed clearly the problems that women’s soccer faces. Guatemala practices only two times per week, in part because the players need to work or study; the team receives no money for stipends. The Haitian team has no funding from the Haitian federation, and has an all-volunteer staff. Trinidad and Tobago also has a volunteer coach—Randy Waldrum, the former Notre Dame women’s coach. His pedigree aside, the Trinidad and Tobago federation has shown little actual interest in the team. When the Women Soca Warriors arrived in Dallas, they had been given $500 to last for a week: from when the team arrived until the tournament began. Waldrum took to Twitter for help, managing to raise nearly $17,000 from a crowd-funding site established by Jen Cooper (including $658 from Haiti, which was returned).

Jamaica too took to social media to fund its team—the Reggae Girlz. But unlike their Caribbean rivals, Jamaica’s campaign was spearheaded by the Jamaican Football Federation and Cedella Marley. Marley, Bob Marley’s daughter and head of the House of Marley enterprises became involved when her son brought home a flyer about the Jamaican women’s team. She initially offered “a donation” to the Reggae Girlz, but the federation had different ideas. It proposed instead that Marley become the face of the team, someone who—in her words— could “get… the word out there about the program, and…bring some sponsors to the table.” For her, the choice was easy: given her belief that “every girl should get the chance to accomplish whatever their dreams are” she said, “I just wanted to give them a chance to represent.” Without intending to, Marley became the Reggae Girlz global ambassador. With the blessing of the federation, Marley quickly put together a fundraising campaign, both inside and outside of Jamaica. Tuffgong Records produced a series of videos to introduce the team, and Marley hired an independent sports marketing firm to create an Indiegogo campaign in the United States. Over all, the team raised about $200,000.

Trinidad and Tobago’s coach Waldrum noted that the crowd funding of women’s soccer shows that “we can all come together in time of need.” And while stories of teams helping each other and “five dollars here, ten dollars there” donations are heart-warming, handouts do little to help the sport in the long run. Indeed, the unconventional and short-term nature of crowd funding could even undercut institutional support for women’s soccer. Financing teams through emergency appeals—much like appeals for humanitarian aid—is neither healthy nor sustainable. Federations cannot adequately budget for coaches and training staff, stipends, meals and housing, if they have no control over the funding stream.

And herein lies the problem for women’s football. While outside support for women’s soccer is great, it should not be necessary. These federations have money, which can be seen in the support and sponsorship for the men’s national team. The Reggae Boyz, the Jamaican men’s team, reportedly received $7.5 million for their failed bid to qualify for Brazil 2014; we did not hear of desperate funding needs from either Haiti or Trinidad and Tobago in the early rounds of men’s CONCACAF qualifying (though Trinidad and Tobago have historical problems with making payments to players and coaches). Federations receive funds from FIFA and from sponsors, and then set priorities and budgets. Up to now, most national federations have opted not to fund women. In fact, many regional member associations provide only the FIFA mandate $37,500 per year for all women’s soccer programs. Only a few—the United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and (with Cedella Marley’s support) now Jamaica—place res

So what did this tournament show us? In terms of soccer, it showed that the skills gap is closing. But more importantly–and disturbingly–the CONCACAF Women’s Championship reinforced that women’s soccer has a long way to go in the region before it is sustainable. And while in Jamaica Cedella Marley has committed to supporting the Reggae Girlz for the long-term, most women’s soccer teams will have to continue without the backing of national federations. After Trinidad and Tobago’s loss to Mexico, which sent the island nation to a home-and-away playoff series against Ecuador, a journalist asked coach Waldrum how the team would find resources to prepare. His immediate answer was simple: “I don’t know.”

 

[This post was cross-posted on the occasional blog ¿Opio del pueblo?]

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Jul 13 2014

On the Ends of the World Cup

Filed under World Cup

Excerpt: “… This World Cuphowever we have lived ithas just taught us once again what it always does. Though we watch from many locations, separated from one another by distance, we are brought together during the time of the game. We effuse, we argue, we mourn. And we remember that, most of all, what we want is to be together.”

Read the Full Piece Here.

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Jul 02 2014

On Belgium

Filed under Belgium,World Cup

I wrote this analysis of the U.S. vs. Belgium match for The New Republic.

An earlier analysis of the Belgian team, in comparison with the French team, is here.

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Jun 27 2014

Algeria’s Historic Victory

Filed under Algeria,France,World Cup

For the first time, Algeria moved on to the Round of 16 in the World Cup yesterday. As the game ended, a crowd hoisted a man in a wheelchair up above them to celebrate. Here is what the scene looked like from above in another plaza where a crowd waited out the final seconds of the game.

For more on what this means for Algeria, read my pieces here and here.

Update: after Algeria’s loss to Germany, I wrote this piece mourning & celebrating what they had achieved.

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Jun 14 2014

A Prayer for the Goalies and Referees of the World Cup

(I wrote this for the Goal Posts Blog at The New Republic, to which I will be contributing throughout the tournament. I didn’t realize then I was writing it for Iker Casillas)

Here is one thing I can predict with total certainty about this World Cup: an as-yet-to-be determined number of goalies and referees are going to suffer terrible fates. They will be vilified. They will ruin their lives as we watch. They will shoulder the rage and sorrows of entire nations.

As we saunter into this month-long spectacle, let us take a moment to thank them. For their suffering is what makes this theatre possible.

Read the complete article

 

 

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Dec 15 2013

Moving Forward

A Chat with Sandra Serafini

serafini 

Last week, my classmate Lauren Oliveri and I had the opportunity to have lunch with Sandra Serafini. I was honestly a bit intimidated to meet the former FIFA referee and PhD neuroscientist. (Who wouldn’t be? Only a superhuman has those types of qualifications!) However, my fears were instantly quelled as we dove into conversation – literally. As we sat down to eat, Serafini recounted bets that she would make with her linesmen while officiating notoriously troublesome men’s teams. Before the game, she would wager a free appetizer on how long into the game the first dive would occur. It had to be a real dive – a cautionable offense – not just a weak tumble. The betting would turn into a Price is Right style competition, with the officials one-upping each other by a second. And when Serafini won (as she most often did), she would pull out her yellow card, and then turn and smirk to her linesmen thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m getting the most expensive app on the menu.” From there, conversation bounced between all aspects of Serafini’s career as an official, a neuroscientist, and a professional referee assignor.

 The Referee

The Canadian native began officiating as a means of paying rent through college. In the process, she amassed around 2,000 games, often doing between 15 and 20 games a week. When I asked Serafini whether she always knew that she wanted to become a FIFA, her answer was simple: becoming a state referee seemed like the next logical step and she never looked back. Serafini continued to climb the soccer ranks and became a national in 2005 and a FIFA a year later in 2006.

Throughout her refereeing career, Serafini traveled around the world, officiating CONCACAF games and other international matches. Many of her fondest memories occurred off the playing field. In Mexico fans asked for autograph; in Holland, she shared post-game beers with Dutch spectators, and in China, she worked with an all-Chinese crew where communication consisted of more charades than English.

While at the international level, Serafini only officiated women’s matches, she worked in men’s leagues domestically. We discussed the challenges of being the female authority on a field of all men, and Serafini found that players and coaches are more willing to test the waters when they see a woman in the yellow uniform. Every new team required Serafini to prove herself as an official and demonstrate her command on the laws of the game. Serafini has a self-proclaimed “strong personality,” and that certainly aided her player and coach management skills. On the field, Serafini had a strict “no screaming” policy. When players would lose control, she would tell them matter-of-factly, “There will be no screaming today. Let’s have an adult conversation.” And Serafini would listen. She smiles as she explained to Lauren and I at lunch, “Maybe they’re full of it, but maybe I’m full of it.” Serafini realizes, like all referees, she is human and capable of making a mistake. In the case that she missed a call, she would do everything in her power to listen to the players’ complaints and blow the whistle on the next one.

Serafini takes the same approach with coaches, especially when she’s placed on the sidelines in between the teams’ benches as a 4th official. When a coach would spout off at the head referee, Serafini approached him calmly and told him, “Whisper anything you want in my ear. I’m your therapist for the game.” Coaches were generally surprised but they took Serafini up on the offer. Serafini recognizes that coaches jobs are dependent on results and every call and no-call counts at the professional level. Coaches face extreme pressure during games, so while she occasionally used humor to defuse tense situations, her main aim was to give them a person who would listen.

The Neuroscientist

Outside of the refereeing world, Serafini works as a PhD neuroscientist at the Duke Hospital, specializing in functional intraoperative and extraoperative mapping for neurosurgical patients [1]. She laughed as she explains that in season, she doesn’t really sleep. Her schedule consists of: waking up around 5 am, going to work, catching up on emails between OR cases, heading home and spending “quality time with the spouse,” then working until 11:30 pm, and repeating it all the next day. Luckily, Serafini currently works in a lab that is understanding of her hectic schedule. Her former lab thought refereeing was “something you could just do on weekends,” so she was forced to leave.

The Changemaker

Although Serafini has given up her whistle, she is still very much a part of the refereeing world as a Women’s Referee Coach and NWSL Assignor of the Professional Referees Organization (PRO). Not only does Serafini assign and coach referees, but she also works to make the path easier for women following in her shoes. In Serafini’s day, all female referees had to pay for their own training out of pocket. Serafini now works with PRO general manager, Peter Walton, to acquire the same benefits for female referees as professional male referees. She has also been working to add guidelines for pregnancy-related time off.

When Peter Walton stepped on board, he openly invited women to all men’s professional leagues. This hasn’t always been the case, and Serafini feels that opportunities for women have waxed and waned at the discretion of the person in charge. Serafini is proud to see that times have changed:

“When I go around to the tournaments or when I bring the officials into the NWSL, I’m able to say if you do the training, get the qualifications and demonstrate the ability, which they are all capable of, they have the same chance as anybody else. It may seem minor, but it’s really big for this country.” [2]

At the conclusion of our lunch, Serafini reiterated that women’s refereeing truly is “moving forward.” In recent years, professional women referees have made significant strides in numbers and level of assignments. Serafini has been a both pioneer and a changemaker in this process, and with her continued involvement in the PRO, I do not expect this forward motion to stop anytime soon.

References

[1] Sandra Serafini PhD, MA. Duke University School of Medicine. http://surgery.duke.edu/faculty/details/0271401

[2] “PRO and NWSL breathe new life into US female officiating.” Professional Referees Organization.  http://www.proreferees.com/news-pro-and-nwsl-breathe-new-life-into-us-female-officiating.php

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Dec 11 2013

Soccer as an Escape in Brazilian Favelas

WLANL_-_elefteria1_-_Favela_and_'Canary'_soccer_shirts,_Brazil_Contemporary_Rotterdam_(05-30-09_until_08-23-09)

Favela and ‘Canary Soccer Shirts’
Photography: Brazil Contemporary Rotterdam/Wikimedia Commons

 

With all of the recent conversation about favela destruction, drug gang violence, and a supposed World Cup of Terror in the running up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, one very unexpected Dutch immigrant is providing a ray of hope to many of the impoverished children in the favelas, through the game of football.

 

Nanko van Buuren, a psychiatrist by trade, came to Brazil in 1987, aiming to lift children away from poverty and organized crime [1]. Since founding IBISS, the Brazilian institute for innovation and social health care about 20 years ago, he has helped over 4,000 children in 68 different favela communities [1]. Van Buuren is using football to change the culture of violence in these favelas, while also directly increasing school attendance and homicide rates in certain areas [1].

 

Read here to learn more about how the beautiful game can connect people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, and social statures and save the lives of hundreds of impoverished children: http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/22951694.

 

This is a truly beautiful story, especially in the months before the World Cup, about how soccer unifies us all. Enjoy.

 

Sources:

[1] Smith, Ben. “Confederations Cup: Rio De Janeiro Slums Offered Rebirth.” BBC Sports. BBC, 21 June 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/22951694>.

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Dec 10 2013

Dissent among former stars about the 2014 World Cup

Filed under Uncategorized

The debate about whether the 2014 World Cup is good for Brazil has now enmeshed former stars.  In many ways, this is areflection of how this debate has divided Brazil. Proponents of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 World Cup say that the protests shine a bad light onto Brazil, while opponents of the tournaments believe that the protests are the only way to make sure that the people of Brazil are not exploited

 

When the protests broke out, Pele issued a statement saying that “Let’s forget all this commotion happening in Brazil, all these protests, and let’s

remember how the Brazilian squad is our country and our blood.” In many ways, this enraged the younger generation of Brazilians. Pele is a legend in Brazil, but the sport is not everything in the nation. Many claimed that because he was rich, he was unable to empathize with the ordinary Brazilian.

 

Far more harsh worlds were reserved for the great striker Ronaldo. Amidst the protests, he gave an interview where he said “A World Cup isn’t made with hospitals, my friend. It’s made with stadiums” In the eyes of  many Brazilians, he seemed to value the sport over the welfare of his own people. Articles calling  him a traitor emerged. People called him out of touch with the common man. http://www.firstpost.com/blogs/brazil-protests-how-ronaldo-pele-betrayed-their-people-894901.html?utm_source=ref_article

 

In contrast, the 1994 Golden Ball winner Romario has come out against the 2014 World Cup vehemently. Now a member of the Brazilian Parliament, he represents a district of Rio de Janeiro. He says that ““FIFA got what it came for: money,” he said. “Things like transportation that affect the public after the tournament is over? They don’t care. They don’t care about what is going to be left behind.” Instead, he has advocated spending the money on health and education.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/16/sports/soccer/romario-a-world-cup-champion-is-now-a-world-cup-dissenter.html?_r=0

Perhaps Romario is trying to channel a populist vein for political gain. However, it remains undeniable that there is some truth to what he says; Brazil has spent 14 billion dollars already on the World Cup, and the cost is expected to rise. In a Country that spends less than 40 billion on education, perhaps the cost of this World Cup is too high?

 

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Dec 10 2013

More Violence in Brazil: Security Fears

Filed under Uncategorized

Riots erupted Sunday night in Sao Pablo in a match between Athletico PR and Vasco de Gama, leaving many World Cup fans concerned about the safety in the stadiums for next summer’s tournament. One man was airlifted to the hospital in serious condition, while 3 others are being charged with attempted murder. FIFA is apparently downplaying the event and telling fans not to worry. FIFA representatives have stated that there will be specific perimeters around stadiums, as well as checkpoints to pass through to ensure safety. Karl Matchett, a World Football Writer, believes that, “inside the stadiums, there is seemingly a different demographic watching Brazil’s national team than the one that cheers on the club sides—at times with violent outcomes, such as that in Sao Paulo.”  Maybe this is true and maybe racial classification will be different inside the stadiums during the 2014 World Cup…or is this just a way for FIFA to hush up the media?

 

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Dec 10 2013

One of the strangest endings in sports

Filed under Uncategorized

As we sit here at the end of another semester at Duke, it’s gotten me thinking about the way we draw things to a close in the sport of soccer. All tie-is-like-kissing-your-sister jokes aside, I’m talking about penalty kicks.

Last week as I was sitting in the press box anxiously awaiting the kickoff of the ACC championship game, I got an ESPN ScoreCenter alert on my phone. Expecting to see something related to college football or the NFL, I looked down and learned that Sporting Kansas City had just beaten Real Salt Lake for the MLS Cup in a marathon, 10-round penalty kick shootout. My first reaction was ‘wow, that must have been exciting,’ but my second thought was, ‘why do we end the most important matches on the world’s biggest stages in a shootout?’

There’s no question that a shootout of any kind—whether in soccer or hockey—is one of the most exciting situations in sports. It’s the ultimate showdown. It’s the attacker against the goalkeeper, and one shot could make the difference between winning and losing. But on a championship setting, ending a grueling 120-minute match in penalty kicks has always struck me as being a bit anticlimactic. I’ll never once pretend to be a soccer die-hard, but I think the players deserve more than the cruel ending of a penalty shootout.

Just weeks before the MLS Cup, I watched anxiously as Duke’s women’s soccer team won not one, but two NCAA tournament matches by way of a shootout. Each time was full of tension and excitement, but even as I celebrated my team’s victory I walked away feeling slightly empty. Do matches that are played so well that they end in ties deserve to end in penalties? By nature, penalty kicks are decided by the choice of the kicker versus the choice of the keeper. Each of them have a 50-50 shot of guessing the right way, so should we be ending soccer matches on what can be boiled down to an immensely skillful coin flip?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore everyone with the argument that a penalty kick shootout in soccer is like ending a baseball game that’s tied after nine innings with a Home Run Derby between the two teams. I’ve never enjoyed that argument—unlike a Home Run Derby, penalty kicks are still a part of the game of soccer, although they occur rarely in the run of play. Rather, I advocate against penalty kicks because I would much rather see a marathon soccer match end in a golden goal—no matter how long it takes.

Opposition would argue that if a soccer match goes on too long, players will tire until scoring a goal becomes nearly impossible due to exhaustion. I understand that 120 minutes of a soccer match is grueling enough for the players as it is. But in a sport where conditioning is essential, does it not make sense that the best-conditioned team should be in a position to win the match? Since we’re getting hypothetical with the whole golden goal thing here, let’s propose that to combat fatigue, the substitution rules in extra time will change. Just like NFL and NBA teams receive additional timeouts in overtime, soccer teams that play past the 120th minute would each receive one additional substitution per 15 minutes of play. This would allow teams to stay fresh and add an interesting new element into the sport of soccer—depth is going to matter a whole lot more as the game goes on.

Now I understand that soccer games are already long enough as is, and matches already aren’t built for television because there are no commercials, but as someone who really enjoys baseball I can tell you that I love staying up late into the night watching a 17- or 18-inning game. As the contest wears on, the tension continues to mount and little-known players have the chance to become heroes. Teams have to go deeper into their bullpens and depth becomes an issue. Just like soccer, there is no re-entry into a game, so sometimes if the game goes long enough people will be forced to play out of position and adapt. All of these contribute to the notion that the stronger team—not the luckier team—wins the game.

I’m really interested to see what more traditional soccer fans think about this idea. Maybe it’s something that is much better in theory than it ever would be in practice, but although penalty shootouts are exciting, I’m just not sure it does a great game justice to end that way. If there’s one thing that learning to follow soccer more closely has taught me, it’s that there doesn’t need to be scoring to drive the tension of a match—ending a match in a penalty shootout seems counterintuitive to me for that reason. All it should take is one goal, one moment, and it should happen with all 22 players on the field.

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