Monthly Archives: September 2011

Women and Children First

Turkish football authorities have pioneered a remarkable anti-hooliganism tactic: allowing only women and children to watch a game. Initially — after violence and a pitch invasion marred a recent Fenerbahce match — authorities had decided to ban all fans from two games. Then someone instead suggested only allowing certain fans. So it was that over 40,000 women and children packed into the stadium, producing an event that seems like it represented a kind of beautiful alternate reality of fandom. “This is a historic day,” one member of Fenerbahce’s board declared. It’s not clear whether the experiment will be repeated. And yet one can imagine, thrillingly, the example being followed all over the world — at PSG, Liverpool, even the NFL. And why not?

After all, watching this video (shared with me by our friends at A Football Report), you can’t but want to participate in such an atmosphere (even if, like me, you wouldn’t have been allowed to). There is, frankly, something revolutionary about the scene.

I was reminded of a testing joke once shared with me by a friend — a geneticist — who asked: What if there was a chromosome that you could find in the overwhelming majority of violent criminals? What if you could isolate it, and perhaps genetically engineer people to remove that chromosome? An eerie, sci-fi, but intriguing idea. Well, he told me, there is such a thing: the Y chromosome. Take it away, and you’d reduce violent crime dramatically. The Turkish FA had the same insight, it seems: if you don’t have any men around, that solves a lot of problems.

Reading this story, I thought back to the brilliant film Offside, which shows the travails of women in Iran who want to watch football but are banned from the stadium, and so attempt to sneak in dressed up as men. (You can watch the entire film on Youtube, starting with the segment below; I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it: was actually filmed during an Iran match, essentially under the nose of Iranian authorities who were not aware of the way the film critiqued their policies).

The mirror image offered here between Turkey and Iran, two neighbors, is striking. And the whole story has the brilliant effect of suddenly making us realize that what we think of as natural — the stadium as a largely masculine space, defined by certain forms of behavior — could be changed as easily the strange rules of the game played in the stadium itself.


An interesting story is shaping up in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying games with two consecutive victories by Haiti. They’ve now followed up a 6-0 trouncing of the Virgin Islands with a 2-0 defeat of Curacao, and are at the top of their qualifying group.

Haitian football has, of course, been through a lot during the past years, including the death of key personnel during the earthquake, a harsh post-earthquake 9-0 loss to the U.S. women’s team in early 2010, and the quarantining of the men’s youth team in Jamaica. They didn’t make it into the Gold Cup this year. But the dreams of Haitian football are still there, always kept alive by the shared memory of the nation’s one appearance in the World Cup, in 1974, and of a particular goal made by Manno Sannon against Italy in their first game.

Haiti lost that game 4-1 and didn’t get out of the group stage: but no matter, Sannon was and is a national hero: one mural portrayed him alongside Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in a pantheon of Caribbean heroes. Might a new set of heroes emerge from the national team’s current roster? Already, fans have been delighted by the recent games, a needed respite and challenge to the discouraging news that surrounds them.

James Montague wrote a nice piece about Haiti’s recent trouncing of the Virgin Islands for CNN, alongside a second piece in The National.

Meanwhile Laura Wagner, our intrepid Haiti football correspondent, contributes this narrative of her attempt to see the game with her friends Claudine, G-Love, and a new friend named Jean:

Claudine, G-Love and I arrived at the stadium at about 1:30 pm for the 3 pm match, just as the rain began to pour.  We stood for some time under a street merchant’s tarp, where we bought a little bottle of cheap Roi de Coq rum and chatted as the rain poured down.  Fans wearing Haitian flags and red and blue jerseys streamed down the street, lined with tarp-and-sheet-metal homes, beauty salons, and businesses.  While G-Love ventured off to try to by some more tickets from scalpers, I went and checked out the line, and was stunned to find that it stretched all the way from the stadium entrance up past the Ministry of Public Health.

“We have to go stand in line,” I told Claudine.  She put a plastic bag over her hair, and off we went.

This was smart thinking, as it turned out.  After the rain let up, people moved en masse into the line.  It stretched from Rue de l’Enterrement all the way up Rue O. Durand, up to the Champ-de-Mars.

At least standing in line was not boring.  It was, rather, an active process requiring constant engagement and vigilance.  People wedged their way into any gap in the line, so everyone had to “kole” against the people next to them.  Claudine was pressed against me, while I was pressed against a chubby middle-aged guy in a red T-shirt.

“I’m all up against you and I don’t even know your name,” I told him.

He smiled, displaying a gold tooth.  “I’m Jean.”

“Pleased to meet you.  I’m Laura.”

The line moved incrementally.  Vendors hawked water, sodas, ice cream, conch in spicy sauce, fried plantain chips, Haitian flags (both on sticks and in bandanna form), red-and-blue banners with “Haiti Chérie” on them (five gourdes apiece), fresh coconuts, hot dogs, and so on.  “What do you want to eat when we get inside?” I asked Claudine.  Wet from the rain, I was thinking hopefully of a cold beer and a bag of salty plantain chips.  Claudine, G-Love and I bought Haiti flag bandannas, which we tied around our heads.

A smallish man appeared to our right.  “The back of the line is no good for me,” he said in a quiet reasonable voice.  “Let me in here.”  We all squished together again, immediately and instinctively, to firm up any gaps between people.

Claudine laughed.  “For whom exactly is the back of the line good, monchè?”

Soon after, we began to notice a lot of police cars, and people began to say that Martelly’s entourage would be arriving any moment.  Sure enough, within seconds the president appeared on foot, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt and flanked by armed bodyguards.  People cheered and shouted “Martelly!”  He waved and headed toward the stadium.

A woman walked down the street, clad head-to-toe in the Haitian flag.  Her head was wrapped in a Haitian flag scarf.  Her dress consisted of two flags.  Her earring were flags.  Even her umbrella was red and blue.  I stopped her to pose for a photo.

A bunch of foreigners went straight to a metal gate alongside the main entrance and seemed to get in expeditiously and without hassle.  I was curious about these foreigners and their badges, and how one might get this VIP-blan access.

We moved closer to the stadium, glacially.  As we got closer, we saw men breaking the fence and sneaking through.  A bunch of people in line decided this seemed like a good idea, and hopped out of line to try this new tactic.  Claudine and I stayed in line.

In the end, we, and possibly thousands of others, never made it into the stadium.  As people on the streets said, “Our tickets died in our hands.”  There was so much upheaval and so much shoving that they locked all the entrances to the stadium and began beating people back with police batons.  We don’t know if too many tickets were printed, or if there were counterfeit tickets on the street, or if simply too many people pushed their way in ticketless, but in any case, an awful lot of people who paid for their tickets never made it into the game.  We stood outside as we heard the crowd erupt in cheers with each goal, and bitterly wondered what was going on.  Among that crowd were soccer fans who had gone without food so that they could buy those tickets — those ultimately useless tickets.

As the dezòd mounted and it looked like violence was likely, Claudine and I split.  We found a restaurant with a TV on Rue Capois and watched the second half of the game there.  “Pòdyab Îles Vièrges” we said, sipping our drinks and eating banann pese in peace.  “Poor things.”  6-0 is a pretty sad score.  We were happy not to be at the stadium.

Haiti’s changes of qualifying for the World Cup are, of course, pretty slim. They’re at the top of the group now, and might well hold their position there against Antigua, but the Round 3 of the qualifiers will pose a more serious challenge.

Still, these two victories are nevertheless something significant, and suggest something might be afoot worth following with the team. Last year at the World Cup I saw a few Haitian flags carried and displayed during the games in South Africa, and I know plenty of Haitian fans who would consider it about the highlight of a lifetime to go watch their team play in Brazil in 2014. There would be a nice symmetry to it if, forty years after Sannon’s goal, that happened. If there’s a bit of justice in this world, maybe it will.

The Blues in Bucharest

There was something oddly consuming about the dullness of today’s France-Romania European Qualifying match. It was played in Bucharest, in front of a packed and energized crowd of Romanian fans, who understood that this was probably the pivotal moment in the country’s attempt to get to the European Cup next year. The legendary, shiny-headed Howard Webb was officiating, lending the match a weighty air. The two national anthems were sung with an unusual verve and passion by snappily-dressed performers — the match commentator exclaimed that Edith Piaf couldn’t have done better with the Marseillaise, and I came away humming the Romanian national anthem thanks to the rendition given by the enthused, tuxedoed singer.

The contrast between the care given to the performance of the anthems and that given to the pitch upon which the match was played, however, was a little startling. It was as if the two teams had been condemned to play on some dusty pitch behind an elementary school in Durham. Clods of grass and dust shot up with pretty much any tackle, and you could almost see Ribery and Benzema stumbling around on the uneven pitch. The French team played well given the circumstances, slowing the game down, keeping possession, showing a tactical calmness and precision that was a relief to see — compared, at least, to the various scenes of panic, disarray, and incoherence that French fans have learned are always possible.

The game had a few brief flashes of interesting play, but they usually ended in some lunging shot off to the side of the goal or a play petering out in the midst of clods of dirt and flying grass. A tussle left Evra’s shirt torn, and it looked slightly piratey and glamorous hanging around his neck. When Samir Nasri was substituted in the 75th minute, after having been kept along with Malouda on the bench for most of the game, you could see him kind of listening to what Laurent Blanc was telling him, while members of the French coaching staff yawned behind him. By the end, between increasingly labored bursts of patriotic song from the Romanian crowd you could almost hear the sounds of tens of thousands sighing as they watched their teams run petering out. They booed and hissed at the end of the game, and it was a depressing sound, since it wasn’t clear against whom it was directed: the Romanian team for failing? The French team for allowing them to? Or just the damned world for being the way it is?

During the game, in one corner of the pitch, a gauntlet of black-clad, SWAT-teamish police with nifty headbands stood at the ready, as if at any moment they might have to burst onto the field with machine guns in a last ditch effort to save Romania’s chances, or maybe to save football itself from oblivion or meaninglessness.

Across the continent, Belgium offered up it’s classic, drippy cold weather to the visiting U.S. men’s team, along with a slightly humiliating stew of a 1-0 defeat. Since I was born in Belgium, I took some joy in the victory — it’s been a long time, I’ll be honest, since I’ve even seen the Belgian team play, and I came away looking forward to doing so again. Still, all in all one didn’t end the game feeling particularly excited about anything.

Elsewhere, at Wembley, football had already offered it’s ugliest side with the killing of a Wales fan. Perhaps, in the end, some blah matches are nothing to complain about: at least no one got hurt. As Jason Davis put it succinctly: “Soccer/Football, you’re a terrible bummer today.”