I’ve been meaning to do this post for about 100 years. With the furor of the World Cup over and the issues Brazil, Russia, and Qatar are bringing up, I think it’s a good time for me to write this and explain why sport, and particularly soccer for me, is so important. There are many things in this world that are terrible, we can look on Facebook or watch the news and see how awful the world is. Even sport can be associated with the terrible aspects of human behavior, but it also can be associated with the best of us, can save lives, change lives, and make our lives better. I’d like to concentrate on the positives for once and I think soccer has far more positives than the negatives.
I’d like to point out that I’m using soccer. I actually prefer the term Football, but handegg takes that title here in the United States. In no way does that mean I am ignorant of the sport or its history. I probably know more than the guy who watches every weekend in his pub drinking tons of thick beer. I lived, breathed, ate soccer for 25 years. Now I’m limited to watching it on television, or making a trip out of it somehow. But that’s okay. Ex-athletes have little choice in the matter sometimes, and nothing will ever change what soccer has done for me in my life.
I started when I was 6 years old. My mom, who was as obsessive about my weight as she was her own, thought I was getting chubby and needed exercise. I played when Franz Beckenbauer was playing, PBS played Bayern Munich’s games every Saturday and after my games mom and I would watch Bayern Munich and Der Kaiser clobber the other teams. When he and Pele came to play for the Cosmos I was able to see both of them in Oakland when they had a soccer team called the Stompers. We went to see every game they played at the Coliseum and some of us got to meet a lot of the players. it was exciting, but at the time, not the most important aspect of the game for me. In the 1990’s they started playing Manchester United games and I found my team. The beautiful game never seemed more lovely.
Soccer was, in many ways, my savior. Mom was difficult. I still struggle with some of the things she called me as it has left a huge imprint on my life. I still think I’m stupid occasionally, that I will never amount to anything, that I am worthless, and my favorite, a slut. At 12, I was convinced I was useless. Only on the soccer field was I good enough, although even that had it’s limits. I remember being 11 or 12 and playing goalkeeper. I was decent, but not fantastic, but we were losing a game pretty badly and I wanted out. My defense sucked, it was hot, I was done. I got yelled at all the way home for being a primadonna, one of her favorite derogatory terms for someone she had little respect for. I’m not sure I even knew what the word meant, but I knew it was bad.
It was like that a lot. But I could go strap on my boots, put on ridiculous headband (I played in the late 70’s and 80’s), pull on that hot as hell polyester uniform or a t-shirt, and forget about it all for hours. I could go outside and kick the ball with all the anger that I had and forget for just a little while, the sun shining, the grass freshly watered. I still smell wet grass and get a huge lift just from that. And I know there were other girls I played with that had similar experiences. We lived in an upper-middle class suburb, but there were low-income girls who played, and it got them out of that stereotype of drudgery and laziness and uselessness that so many people assign to the poor.
And we were the elite. We played at the highest level women could play at at the time, we had special uniforms, we traveled with bags that had our names on them, the team names on them, with flags and supporters and we won. We won a lot.
But, perhaps the most important thing was that we learned about the world. And what we would have to face as women who pioneered the sport in America for women, sexism in general, as people facing racism, and as people of the planet enjoying something that changed us and the world around us.
I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco. At the time, the city was probably 95% white, but you’d never know it if you went by the demographics of the women I played with. All ethnicities, races, sizes, shapes, sexual orientation, all were represented. I didn’t even understand racism, although I’m sure I parroted some of it when I was younger as it was acceptable. But, I say this with all sincerity, soccer made me liberal. I didn’t look at skin color. Not that I didn’t judge, but it was more of a if you’re good at sports, I like you. Didn’t matter if you were purple, I still liked you.
We also changed the face of EBAL and much of the United States. Title XI gives women the right to play as many sports in high school as men. We had to fight, even with a Federal Law to get to play soccer. We fought for two years, signed petitions, harassed our fellow students, and they finally “allowed” us to play in 1982. Soon, women’s soccer was everywhere, and we all know how well the US women do in the sport. I was part of that revolution, and I’m incredibly proud of that.
I played off and on until I was 35. I wish I hadn’t given it up as I miss it so much I dream about it. Frequently. But life gets in the way and I had a lot of life to live.
But, it isn’t just personal. Globally, soccer can change the world and has. Admittedly sometimes not in a good way. Most times, though, it changes things for the better just as any sport and the spirit of the sport can do. It’s only when humans get involved that it gets tricky.
It’s a symptom and a representation of globalization, one that represents every aspect of socio-economics, tolerance, understanding, and sharing the love for something that is bigger than all of us. It has definite problems; racism is rampant in certain leagues, a war has been fought over a game, and some fans take it far too seriously and actually cause bodily injury or death to other fans. The World Cup in South Africa and most recently, in Brazil, have given us evidence of poorly planned events (in terms of field construction, displacement of citizens, transportation issues) that show that some host countries are greedy and in it for the money at the expense of their own people. And FIFA is corrupt. Again, this is a symptom of larger problems within the structure of human interaction. My point is, however, that is not the sport. The sport, or any sport, can be beautiful, it’s the people that muck it up.
There is some mythology surrounding Didier Drogba ending a war. You can read more about that here: http://grantland.com/features/world-cup-ivory-coast-dider-drogba-yaya-toure-civil-war-legend/.
Of course, it wasn’t just him, and the politics were more complicated. But the idea of soccer, the spirit of brotherhood, and the desire for peace will be forever linked to pride in the sport. The Ivory Coast was changed and the spark started with soccer. Although the author of the article I’ve linked has pretty much argued against the idea that soccer ended a war, he’s missed the main point. It matters little what ended the war; it’s the ideas that matter. Every country has its mythology (Columbus, Washington’s cherry tree, I could go on), and this is a part of the Ivory Coast’s manufactured feel good mythology. But soccer played a part in it, and even this author admits that the sport has given the country hope.
And hope is a huge part of life. Without it, we sort of just shrivel up and die.
I recommend this film :
to everyone I meet. it exemplifies hope for the people involved. There is tragedy, triumph, romance, and change. What other sport does this? What other mega event gives us so much?
Lastly, I’d like to say that there are a lot of things that should have changed before Brazil held the World Cup and before they should hold the Olympics. But again, that isn’t sport, it’s people. And it’s because we allow it to happen. I said to someone who was adamantly against the sport of soccer and specifically the World Cup because of the tragedies that happened in Brazil that the problems were there before the World Cup and they completely misunderstood me. I certainly support the protesters and those hoping for a better way of life for everyone in Brazil. My point was that without the World Cup, most Americans would never have known what was happening. If it did nothing else, it made people who are normally unaware of the conditions of anyone not from Nebraska aware. I also pointed out that five minutes after the World Cup was over that nobody would even be talking about Brazil and their worries anymore. And I was right, they aren’t
Again, this is not the sport. This is people.
And soccer can make us better people and that is what matters.