Monthly Archives: October 2009

Honduras Uses Soccer Triumph in Crisis

We have talked a great deal about political leaders exploiting key soccer victories (and losses), creating points of national honor, using soccer as a form of colonial control, or misguidedly glorifying it to the point where it acts as a veneer for a country’s deeply ingrained social and economic problems.   And Honduras is no exception: it is perhaps the most extreme example of intertwined destinies and complex historical interactions.  A coup stemming from a longstanding political crisis is dividing the country’s two rival leaders, and the leaders have been exploiting soccer – and more specifically the most recent win – as they mollify celebrations amid their own political ploys.  The ploys are aimed purely for their own short-sighted progress.

Honduras beat El Salvador on Oct. 14 and the U.S.’s tie with Costa Rica has propelled Honduras into a guaranteed spot in South Africa.

The players thought they were heading to  Tegucigalpa’s cathedral right after their win, but instead they made a “detour to the presidential palace where Micheletti has set up his government.”

“We had no idea the bus was going to the presidential palace, we thought it was headed to the church,” Turcios said.

More worrisome is the fact that the head of the national team selection committee, Ferrari, is also the owner of the largest media outlets in Honduras and a supporter of Micheletti.  It seems as though the media has not yet discovered its boundaries and is still a pivotal force in many Latin American countries.

There has been speculation that the team’s directors are actually part of the coup themselves because they see personal gains in the results.

What if this type of underhanded ploy were discovered in the United States, in a conspicuous league?  What kind of vicious reaction could it generate, and could any sort of “negotiations” fix the crisis?

Still, Honduran citizens would rather not get entangled in the political vines:

“You ask ten people what they would rather talk about — soccer or politics, nine out of ten will say soccer,” he said.

Soccer Project Screening

We had the pleasure of hosting a screening of the work-in-progress Pelada (previously known to most of us as “The Soccer Project”) here at Duke on October 29th, and got the chance to talk to the filmmakers, three of whom are Duke alumni. As John Turnbull, editor of The Global Game and also a Duke alum, put it after the screening, the film somehow captures that football game many of us carry around in our heads — a pickup game, played in a random place with strangers, that can open up a space for community, communication, even communion. I thought it was a wonderful movie, as did the large crowd, which gave it a standing ovation. And we had the treat of perhaps the best question I have ever heard posed in a university setting, from a young boy who asked the essential question: “Why did you do it?”

I hope we’ll be able to host a local premier of the film when it is released next year, and I (along with the filmmakers, I’m sure!) would love to hear comments about the film from those who were there.

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Possible South African Grandmother Team Exhibition Match

A South African football team made up of 35 grandmothers may have the possibility of playing in a “curtain raiser” for the 2010 World Cup this summer. The team gets together twice a week to play in a local league made up of 8 teams. The grandmothers range in age from 40’s to 80’s and they credit their improved health to the football matches.

I think its great to read about the impact the sport can have outside of what we normally see on television. Too many times professional footballers take the spotlight away from what the sport can be.

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World’s Most Expensive Team Crushed by Semi-Pros

Today, in the Copa del Rey (Spain’s Cup, a knockout tournament that goes on at the same time as the league), a tiny, tiny team, Agrupación Deportiva Alcorcón, hailing from the outskirts of Madrid and competing every week in the Segunda B (the third tier of Spanish football), crushed Real Madrid, the most expensively assembled football team in the history of humankind. 4-0, in the bizarre theater that is a lower-division stadium: floodlights, bleachers, an incredulous, pipa (sunflower seed)-munching crowd. The kind of “stadium” that only draws the small-team hardcore fans. Families, locals, the sort that doesn’t want to (or can’t) shell out the cash for season tickets at one of their metro area’s more prominent clubs.

And it was quite a victory for little Alcorcón, who out-hustled, outran, and outplayed the “new” galácticos. Their gut-busting performance knocked the wind of out of the millionaire superstars. Jerzy Dudek, the hero of Liverpool’s last European Cup, looked like he was in mourning after each goal. Guti, Spanish pretty boy, completely lost his cool and was taken off at halftime. Arbeloa, Spanish international and a regular in his own Liverpool days, was a statue. Raúl and Van Nistelrooy couldn’t hit the backside of a barn. Gago gagged. Diarra, well, you could imagine as well.

The nature of the Copa del Rey is that there are two legs, meaning that in a couple weeks’ time, little Alcorcón (I like to add that diminutive to make them sound like a Dickens character) has to visit the Bernabeu, Real Madrid’s home, where they will attempt to visit revenge upon the minnows who beached them. Difficult it shall be, even for a great team, to win by 5 goals in order to advance.

Traditionally, cup competitions have always afforded such opportunities to small clubs. The Copa del Rey has always been a great example. Last year’s final pitted all-winning Barcelona against Athletic Bilbao, Spain’s all-Basque club (no foreign or non-Basque players). Though Bilbao lost, it was a compelling final in which a team like Athletic had the chance to be the “kings” for a night.

In the old days, they could have been “generalísimos,” as the cup was named for the dictator of Spain after the Civil War ended in 1939 (it was known as La Copa del Generalísimo from then until 1976). As you could imagine, the importance of the cup was so great that it had propaganda value reflecting the politics of the ruling power. Before the Spanish Civil War, it was the Trofeo Presidente de la Segunda República, named for the president of the leftist, anarchist and socialist influenced (yet democratically elected) government that was bloodily overthrown by Francisco Franco and his nationalist faction by 1939.

Technically, these cups are often all-encompassing, incorporating teams from the lowest divisions, and giving them the chance to reach later stages in the tournament where they can play bigger teams. Back in the old days, there was a European competition (now defunct) called the Cup Winner’s Cup, featuring cup-winning teams from all of Europe (in Spanish it was called the Recopa, literally the “re-cup”). By now, UEFA has made attempts to streamline their competitions for money-generating purposes. The Champions’ League has been ridiculously expanded, to the point that the first-round games are so meaningless that I feel like I am watching them through the reflection of a puddle. The UEFA Cup is now the Europa League,

Previously, the crisis of the small team has been discussed here, and I am adding to that lament. I lament the diminishing importance of the cup competition, which has always been a staging area for upsets; where teams that are poor can be lords over the wealthy, if even for a few games. It seems like today, the market-owners of football prefer for dominance to be an established and regular paradigm that guarantees cash production and glamor as the fuel for loyalty. It seems harder and harder to find fans willing to sit through thick and thin for a club. Imagine how many people pick their team for its image alone.

Watching Madrid get it handed to them this afternoon reminded me of the pleasures of unpredictability, not to mention the value of loyalty to one’s team, no matter how small, as I watched the fans and players of Alcorcón celebrate into the unforgettable night.

Hope Solo

Today in class a few people (including myself) raised questions about the “Hope Solo Incident” at the 2007 Women’s World Cup.

I don’t have a whole lot to say in this post (maybe more in a future post), but to start I wanted to share some links to articles I found interesting and insightful.

A brief summary of events:  Hope Solo started in goal for the US for the first four games of the 2007 World Cup.  In those four games she gave up 2 goals and had 3 shutouts.  For the semifinal match against Brazil then-coach Greg Ryan opted to play Briana Scurry in goal.  Scurry was heroic in the US victory in the 1999 Women’s World Cup.  She had a history of good performance against the Brazilian team (our semifinal foe) in the past but had not played a full game in over three months.  In the end, the US lost to Brazil 4-0.  During a post-game interview Solo voiced her frustration with Ryan’s decision.  “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is it’s not 2004 anymore. It’s not 2004. And it’s 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. And you can’t live by big names. You can’t live in the past. It doesn’t matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that’s what I think.”  Solo was kicked off the team and was not permitted to be in attendance for the consolation game (which the US won 4-1 against Norway)…more fall out ensued.

Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated says “Her World Cup outburst violated the team-first ethos of women’s sports and made her an outcast.  Now Hope Solo is the U.S. goalie once again, bound for Beijing–and still trying to figure it all out.” June 30, 2008. Read more here.

George Dohrmann nominated Hope Solo for 2008 Sportsman of the year.  November 11, 2008.  Read more here.

Jason Zengerle of The Atlantic calls Hope Solo “The Bad Girl of Women’s Soccer” and says “[she]–loudmouth, showboat, jerk–may be the best thing that’s ever happened to her sport.” September 2009.  Read more here.

Can a United Kingdom team truly represent the United Kingdom?

As an Englishman, I was relieved to see England negotiate their World Cup qualifying group with relative ease, thus banishing the demons of the calamitous Euro 2008 qualifying campaign fought under the tragic stewardship of a hapless Steve McClaren. As an Englishman living in Scotland, I took great pleasure in seeing the Scottish national team fail to make it; tantalisingly close but once again falling short. I have to admit that I laughed when I heard the result.

Such a confession leads me to the point of this post; the United Kingdom Olympic football team for 2012 – who does it represent? There hasn’t been a UK team in the Olympics since 1960 and the vast majority of the players were English. As hosts of the 2012 Olympics, the UK automatically qualify for the tournament, yet the sticking point has been getting the four football associations of the home nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) to agree to such a team. While the FA has been pushing for a united team, its Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts are understandably against such a move, afraid that it would threaten their independence and set a dangerous precedent. FIFA have not exactly helped matters. Sepp Blatter has claimed that a UK team would not endanger the existence of the four nations while also saying that the reasons for having four teams instead of one will be questioned. It seems that no-one can win this.

If such a team could genuinely exist, who would be in the team? Apart from Ryan Giggs (even in the twilight of his career) and Darren Fletcher, would the rest of the squad be English? The Northern Irish Martin O’Neill could be manager, thus making the team ‘representative’. I readily admit that this is a somewhat Anglo-centric viewpoint and some might argue for the inclusion of Manchester United’s Jonny Evans or Sunderland’s Craig Gordon. However, it would still be a predominantly English team, although seeing as the English comprise the vast majority of the population, this could be a moot point. In the end, there has been a political fudge, allowing an English underage team to represent the whole country.

South of the border, many English cannot understand the resistance to a unified team, that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish are being petty. Yet for many, being English is synonymous with being British. The national anthem of the UK, God Save the Queen, is appropriated by England at most sporting events (but not the Commonwealth Games), whereas the others have their own separate anthems. Many English fans will support the other nations; a form of benevolent paternalism, yet condescending. They will support the other teams when competing, wanting them to do well but not expecting them to do as well as England. When they beat England, the shock is palpable (the most recent example was when Northern Ireland beat England in a World Cup qualifier 1-0 in 2005). The smaller nations metamorphose into younger siblings, junior members within the union in the eyes of the English. Head north of the border and you realise that being British comes a poor second to being Scottish. Finding a Scot that will support England in the forthcoming World Cup will be rare, although not impossible. Dislike, even hatred of the English can sometimes rear its ugly head during these tournaments. With Scotland not in the 2006 World Cup, the Tartan Army had snapped up large numbers of Trinidad and Tobago shirts with “Scotland, 20” on the back (Jason Scotland, a T&T striker then plying his trade at St Johnstone in Scotland). This took on a greater significance when T&T played England in the group stage (England won 2-0). There is little sense of being British up here, especially in the highlands. With the Scottish National Party in government in Scotland, albeit a minority one, the question of independence from the union remains large. It seems that Britishness is a dirty word.

Come the 2010 World Cup, I will be supporting England. Come the 2012 Olympics, I will be supporting the UK soccer team. The question is whether the whole of the UK will be supporting them or whether it will just be the English? For those of you not from the UK, maybe it seems like just a lot of fuss about a small island…?

Racial tension in Glasgow

Here’s a link describing an incident in which Maurice Edu, an American playing for Rangers in the Scottish Premier League, suffered racial abuse from his own supporters, despite not even playing in a loss. According to the article, it was not the first time this had happened.  Having written about the Celtic-Rangers rivalry in my paper, this incident was not especially surprising to me given the racially tensionin Glasgow. However, as a  sports fan, it was amazing to me that supporters would do this to their own players; other similar instances have all been instigated by fans of an opposing side.

Año maradoniano: On Emir Kusturica’s Maradona

That Kusturica’s documentary Maradona, chronicling perhaps world football’s biggest personality, begins with shots of the director playing his guitar at a concert, is telling. Introduced by his band as “the Maradona of the guitar,” it is clear, in retrospect, that what comes after is as much a defense of Kusturica as much as it is about the greatness of Maradona.

And this undertone is not surprising, considering the infamy preceding Kusturica–often accused of being a Milosevic idolizer and apologist for the Yugoslav civil war (not to mention the accusations of genocide that go hand-in-hand with it). To give some idea, Slovenian theorist and talking head Slavoj Zizek (evidently, not a fan of Kusturica’s) dedicates a chapter called “The Poetics of Ethnic Cleansing” to Kusturica’s films in his book The Plague of Fantasies.

A subtle moment presents us with this reality: when Maradona comes to visit him in Serbia, Kusturica’s voiceover relates his imperial indignation (specially relating to the Falklands/Malvinas war in which Argentine forces were pummeled by the British) to that of NATO bombing his own country. This feeling of injustice, of being hard done by thanks to the international conspiracy, is a thread uniting Emir and Diego, though, as we see during the film, the footballer’s case is quite a bit more compelling; rather than apology, Maradona shoots from the hip in his clearly stated ideology.

The larger than life Maradona speaks at length about his political stance, especially against imperialism. In some stirring scenes, he speaks before hundreds of thousands in the streets of Buenos Aires at an anti-globalization rally, alongside Evo Morales, Hugo Chávez (who chants Maradona to the riled-up crowd) and other South American leftist leaders. He tells of his audience with Fidel Castro, and his admiration for Che and the Cuban Revolution, his love for Cuba, and his adoration of the proletariat, all with convincing authenticity.

Yet at the same time, there are moments of ambiguity. At one point, Maradona, chatting with a panel, mentions his [now ex-]wife (also in the room), saying “I’ve always been the better looking of the pair.” One is left wondering if we are before a moment of humorous self-deprecation, or whether the man who admits he is God means it. At another point, in a one-on-one interview with Kusturica, he urges the interviewer to “image what I could have been if it weren’t for the cocaine.” Having seen plenty of glimpses of his personality, you wonder if the cocaine was an essential part of his wildly ego-centric character on the field, and if he wouldn’t have been the same, brilliant footballer without being locked in the spiral of self-absorption fueled by substance abuse. Or would he have taken Argentina to even more World Cup glory, or S.S.C. Napoli to European dominance?

At another point in the film, he actually expresses his regret for cocaine and substance abuse, if only because it kept him from being a better father to his two daughters. At the same time, he directly blames the fact that he was caught on conspiracies (quite believable, considering the recent history of Italian football institutions and the farcical refereeing scenes at the 2002 World Cup). His first big drug suspension came in 1991–the year after he knocked Italy out of the World Cup, their World Cup, played in Italy, which, according to “God,” was rigged for Italy to win. His 1994 suspension at the World Cup (for ephedrine use,which he claims resulted from an energy drink) was, according to him, the will of João Havelange, FIFA president at the time, and a supporter of Pelé (naturally, both Brazilians).

This latter face of Maradona, that of the unrepentant, unapologetic, regret-less revolutionary who fights a war against the power structures that try to control the world, is the most endearing face of his. The throngs of fans who follow his every move, who mob him when he returns to Naples just to get a glimpse of him, who founded the Church of Maradona, create a cult of personality whose beginning and end are confused by the infectious stardom of D10S (Dios). This godlike apparition seems to perpetuate itself.

Soon after his return home from one of his health issues, thousands gathered in the street to cheer him while he appears like the Pope at his apartment balcony–though he is a spiritual leader for them, he also appears like a God. The masses begin to chant his name rhythmically in a stadium song, and Maradona, Dios himself, bounces up and down, dancing at the will of his people like a fat little puppet.  In a day and age where liberal, secular, democracy rules the “first world,” the worship of Maradona hearkens back to a time when it was believed that human intervention could convince the gods, when a dance could conjure rain or a curse could sow disorder.

It is at this interstice of reason, this space of unrestrained megalomania, that the cult of Maradona makes more sense than ever. Beyond criticism, beyond political correctness, beyond self-regulation and biopolitics, we are presented with a figure who poses a refreshing, empowering, and revolutionary alternative. At the same time, between the lines, we see the shadows of another figure from this similar vein, and we cannot help but be wary of what accompanies it, from the killing fields of Yugoslavia, to the chaos of the Argentine national team under Maradona.

Beach Balls are for the Beach

Check out what occurred when Sunderland played at Liverpool recently. In second 32 you can see the Liverpool fan hit the beach ball onto the pitch. This beach ball comes back to act as a striker providing a masterful flick past the Liverpool goalie. I have always noticed soccer fields throughout the world (especially in South America) providing home to plenty foreign, fan-supplied objects. I have never seen one have such a tremendous effect on a game. Sunderland 1-0 Liverpool.

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Soccer and Homophobia

Homophobia has no place in sport–though it often finds its way onto the field.  It presents itself in different ways and at all levels.  College athletics carefully tip-toe around the subject and professional leagues don’t know what to do with it.  To those who are unaware of the homophobia rampant in sports culture they may believe that it is only an obstacle for women’s sports who continue to be collectively stigmatized.  For people who’ve spent time in a locker room, a practice or even just witnessed a pick up game between male friends they know that homophobia is a challenge for men’s sports, as well.  Instead of a stigma, however, men’s sports are a breeding ground of hate speech.

Natasha Kai, a Hawaiian forward for the US Women’s National Team, made a small splash leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics when she casually mentioned her girlfriend.  She was one of only 11*  out**athletes who competed in the Olympic games.  Three of the 11 athletes competed for their respective countries in soccer (Victoria Svensson, Sweden; Linda Bresonik, Germany).  Only one of the athletes was a man (Matthew Mitcham – Diving, Australia–eventual gold medalist).

So what’s this have to do with soccer today?  An article published on October 20th on chronicles two amateur level French teams–Creteil Bebel, made up of mostly Muslim players and Paris Foot Gay, made up of gay and straight men.  In short, Creitiel Bebel send an email to Paris Foot Gay refusing to play their scheduled match.  Short and to the point, the email said: “Sorry, but in light of the name of your team and in keeping with the principles of our team, which is a team of practicing Muslims, we cannot play against you; our convictions are stronger than a simple game of soccer. Sorry to have informed you so late.”  A hearing occurred on October 13th and on the 14th the league ejected Creteil Bebel for “refusing the match on discriminatory grounds.”  Looking to make this a learning experience, Paris Foot Gay’s co-founder and current president Pascal Brethes suggested that the teams play on the same side against celebrities and artists in a benefit match against discrimination.  The game was set for November 14th, but Certeil Bebel rejected the invitation.

*This statistic comes from Pat Griffin’s LGBT Sport Blog.  Pat Griffin is the Director of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s It Takes A Team! Education Campaign for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Issues in Sport.  She’s a Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbian and Homophobia in Sports (Human Kinetics: 1998).  She attributes this statistic to AfterEllen and Outsports and it was “frozen” as of August 11, 2008–three days into the games.  Her blog can be read here and the specific entry can be found here.

**This statistic only reflects athletes who were out to media sources.  I recognize that many more athletes are probably out to their friends and families.