“Welcome to Russia”: Gwendolyn Oxenham

By | April 16, 2018

In the chapter “Welcome to Russia” from Gwendolyn Oxenham’s book Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer, she reinforces soccer’s ability to lift a player and their family out of the depth of depravity, a narrative our class has explored throughout the semester. Omolyn Davis, a Jamaica and Dani Foxhoven’s fellow teammate on FC Energiya Voronezh, grew up in a rough borough of Kingston. Davis grew up playing football in cutthroat street games— “the kind of games where every guy brings his knife.” She was the only girl on her school team, and as a result, landed a scholarship to attend Excelsior High School, a private school known for its sports. Oxenham writes that Davis “has no doubt that football saved her life: ‘Anything the guys wanted to be doing, I probably would be doing too—the drugs, the violence. If it weren’t for football, I probably wouldn’t be here.’” Soccer was an escape from Kingston and a gateway to countless opportunities; therefore, when she arrived Russia, had to shovel snow, and her teammates didn’t want to be friends or acknowledge her existence, she wasn’t going to let that stop her from playing nor was it going to scare her off.

When reading Omolyn’s sub-story in “Welcome to Russia” I didn’t really think that much of it, other than categorizing it with the similar stories of talented players that had come from underprivileged backgrounds, until I read one player from the former Soviet state Georgia’s story, which is later in the chapter. Oxenham writes that the Georgian was “in her late thirties, never played a minute; and endured the brunt of Vasilich’s verbal [and sometimes physical] assaults. Dani Foxhoven and Vero Boquete, two non-native Russian players on the team, were repeatedly stunned by Vasilich’s, the coach of FC Energiya Voronezh, treatment of his players. After one of Vasilich’s routine verbal assaults, “Boquete asked Terekhova and Danilova [, two native Russian players,] why the Georgian put up with it and proceeded that Russians didn’t have to be treated so badly” by their coach. Terekhova and Danilova responded bluntly that without soccer where would she go, stating: “She has no family, no job skills, no education. You don’t understand all of the situation…You are only here to make money. As foreign players, you don’t have to accept it. Always, you guys complain about the conditions—if you don’t like it, you can leave. We can’t. We have no other options.”

I found this quote to be incredibly compelling, especially when juxtaposing it with Omolyn Davis’s story earlier in the chapter. When thinking about soccer, I often think of an Omolyn Davis-like story. Soccer provides not only people with the chance to play on an international stage and an escape from poverty, but also allows for so many people, those who go professional or not, the opportunity to receive a solid education. Because these stories of players coming from humble backgrounds are so inspiring, it becomes easy to focus on all the positive aspects of football, so much so we forget that, beyond the corruption, there are also stories of players being mistreated, as seen in “Welcome to Russia.” I had never really thought about how soccer can sometimes trap you into a life you can’t escape, and even if you had the opportunity to leave, you would have no skills to support yourself with. Oxenham does a wonderful job of showing the negative aspects of a sport that can often be overlooked, as football is all the Russian players know, and it is unhealthy for them mentally and physically.

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