A Pitch of Her Own

Author (standing, first from left) with Ethiopia's national women's team. National Stadium, Addis Ababa, 2011. Photo: Saavedra.
Author (standing, first from left) with Ethiopia’s national women’s team. National Stadium, Addis Ababa, 2011. Photo: Saavedra.

By Martha Saavedra

Martha Saavedra is Associate Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of California Berkeley. Trained as a Political Scientist, she has taught at St. Mary’s College of California, UC Berkeley, Ohio University and the Escuela de Estudios Universitarios Real Madrid. Her research has ranged from agrarian politics, development and ethnic conflict in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan to gender and sport in Africa to a collaborative project on representations of Africa in Chinese popular culture. She has been on the editorial boards of Soccer and Society; Sport in Society; and Impumelelo: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Sports in Africa. A veteran of Title IX battles, she has played soccer for over 30 years and coached boys teams for 12 years.

On Tuesday at the University of California, Berkeley, I attended a panel discussion on Gender for a New Century: Countering Violence and Social Exclusions. The panel focused on important issues that the international community will be addressing in 2015 via United Nations’ assessments of efforts derived from the Millennium Development Goals and the Beijing Platform for Action frameworks. Faculty from UCB raised a number of really important topics including transnational labor markets, migration, sustainability, water & sanitation, disability rights, 2+ genders systems, culturally embedded gender-based violence, economic policy implications, nationalism and education. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Executive Director of UN Women, the featured speaker, responded to these points and suggested how gender might be addressed given the convergence at the UN of post-2015 MDG and Beijing 20+ discussions. It was an invigorating discussion setting out important aspirations, points of leverage, and boundaries for upcoming high level and impactful debates. Yet, nary was intimated about sport, physical activity, or, that all important endeavor, football.

Earlier that day in the office, before the gender event, a couple of us watched the United Nations sponsored ‘Africa United’ videos on youtube featuring Idris Elba as well as Carlton Cole, Yaya Touré, Andros Townsend, Patrick Vieira, Kei Kamara and Fabrice Muamba. (Also dubbed in Krio and French.) You’ve got to watch them if you love football, and ‘007 Idris, and if you are at all involved in efforts to confront the fears, misconceptions and realities of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Idris says “Its key strength is passing.” How can you not believe? “We are not heroes.” The health workers – “you are the true heroes”. The world’s most important team. Kudos to them. Not much to argue with there. But, of course, the UN does not call upon women footballers to help carry this message.
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The National Teams We Know Nothing About


By Gwen Oxenham

Gwen Oxenham is the author of Finding the Game and coproducer of the documentary film Pelada. A Duke University soccer alum, she played professionally for Santos FC in Brazil in 2005. Gwen received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame and currently teaches English and plays in pickup games in Southern California.

In 2004, I played futebol feminino for Santos FC. We hitchhiked to practice, shared our field with a horse, slept four or five girls to a room, wore XL hand-me-downs from the men, did plyometrics over make-shift cardboard hurdles and often ran sprints on the main highway, occupying a lane, cars swerving around us.

This experience made me wonder about the women’s football happening in the rest of the world: If this was what futebol feminino looked like in Brazil, the mecca of futebol, what does the women’s game look like in other countries? What’s it like to be a female player in Ecuador? In Côte d’Ivoire? In Argentina? Like Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel noted in “Marimachos: On Women’s Football in Latin America,” television networks and newspapers are slow to cover even big events like World Cup qualifying tournaments. If media outlets don’t even cover outcomes, how little is out there about the actual experiences of women footballers?

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When Two Elephants Fight, It is the Grass That Suffers

A meeting of two great football minds

Dr. Jean Williams is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Sporting History and Culture De Montfort University in Leicester England. Having written on women’s football since 1998, Jean has recently published A Contemporary History of Women’s Sport 1850-1960 (Routledge, 2014). She is currently writing Send Her Victorious: A History of Britain’s Women Olympians 1900-2014 (Manchester UP, 2015).

In 1998 I spent some time in Namibia for the second World Conference on Women in Sport. I had a dual purpose to collect information on women’s football in Namibia for my PhD thesis and to raise my awareness of the issues facing African women who wanted to participate in sport. Several national women’s football teams were represented at the conference and they met as a group to protest at the lack of support from FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the world governing body of football. Being present at the meeting of the African women’s national teams and FIFA representatives, I was invited to advise FIFA how the Women Sport International 1994 Brighton Declaration on Women’s Sport, a commitment to increase the number and visibility of women in world sport, could be applied specifically to international football. My research therefore anticipated pledges to increase gender equity in the football industry. The Los Angeles Declaration on Women’s Football was launched at the second FIFA World Symposium to coincide with the Los Angeles Women’s World Cup in 1999.  At the symposium, my academic work was showcased on a panel with presentations from the head of the Football Association of PR China, Zhang Jilong; the French Minister for Sport, Marie George Buffet and Anita De Frantz, a Vice President of the International Olympic Committee. All 203 FIFA member national associations attended, with over 500 delegates. It seemed like real change was about to come for women’s football and I was optimistic.

I was a little daunted about telling all those FIFA representative countries assembled at the symposium in 1999 about the institutionalized nature of sexism in the world game. In the end I should not have worried. I only spoke fifteen minutes and it was not as if my audience were going to be enlightened or challenged by my presentation. Kevan Pipe of the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) was one of the most supportive and friendly of the national representatives in LA. Some years later, I applauded the decision to host the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, thinking of Kevan’s support for women’s soccer.  However, he has since retired from the CSA and I became gradually aware that some of the institutional attitudes towards women’s soccer I had spoken out against in 1999 were still very much in evidence almost sixteen years later.

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The Indiana Jones of Fútbol Journalism

Christened the “Indiana Jones of soccer journalism” by Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, James Montague had barely survived the interminable journey from Australia to London only to plunge into a place without time or space–the Football Scholars Forum online.

What ensued was a vigorous discussion of his 2014 book Thirty-One-Nil: On the Road With Football’s Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey. Montague revealed the African sources of inspiration for the project; the challenges of writing an ambitious travelogue on the unglamorous edges of world football; the pleasures of lessons learned and insights gained. One big surprise sprung by the Skype conversation and Twitter backchannel was the discovery of Next Goal Wins, a documentary film about American Samoa’s World Cup team chronicled so evocatively in 31-Nil. (Click here to watch the trailer.)

Participants: Danyel Reiche, Alex Galarza, Roger Kittleson, Andrew Guest, David Kilpatrick, Martha Saavedra, Chris Henderson, Tony Adedze, Steven Apostolov, Alejandro Gonzales, Liz Timbs, and Peter Alegi.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of the session.

FSF’s next session is a roundtable on the state of the women’s game internationally, on the pitch and in the literature. The discussion will pivot around pre-circulated blog posts on this website by Jean Williams (@JeanMWilliams), Martha Saavedra (@tricontinental), Gwendolyn Oxenham, and Brenda Elsey (@politicultura) and others. The event will take place during the week of December 9-11, with a final date and time to be determined soon!

Brand Brazil: Past as Prologue

Brasilidade, class, gender, futebol força versus futebol arte, tropical modernity, the 2014 World Cup, and globalizing “brand Brazil” were just some of the topics discussed in the Football Scholars Forum’s inaugural event of 2014-15 with historian Roger Kittleson.

Joining the author of The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil, were: Danyel Reiche, Christoph Wagner, Lindsay Krasnoff, David Kilpatrick, Rwany Sibaja, Andrew Guest, Brenda Elsey, Javier Pescador, Austin Long, Chris Henderson (all via Skype), and Nubia Rodrigues, Liz Timbs, David Glovsky, Alejandro Gonzales, and Peter Alegi in the Michigan State University History Department‘s new LEADR Digital Lab.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of the session.

FSF’s next event is on October 30. James Montague (@JamesPiotr), aka the “Indiana Jones of soccer journalism,” will participate in a discussion of his new book Thirty-One-Nil: On the Road With Football’s Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey.

Kittleson's The Country of Football To Open 2014-15 Season

9780520279094With the 2014 World Cup circus come and gone, and students beckoning, it’s time to announce the fall schedule for the 2014-15 season of the Football Scholars Forum.

Our first session picks up where Germany left off, in Brazil! On September 25, 3pm Eastern Time (-5 GMT), historian Roger Kittleson (@rogerkittleson) joins us to discuss his new book The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil.

To participate in the 90-minute Skype session, please send Alex Galarza (galarza.alex AT gmail.com) your Skype name (if Alex doesn’t already have it) so you can be added to the call.

In our second event, on October 30 (time TBD), we are pleased to welcome the “Indiana Jones of soccer journalism” (Grant Wahl’s words): James Montague (@JamesPiotr), author of Thirty-One-Nil: On the Road With Football’s Outsiders: A World Cup Odyssey.

The third session will consist of a roundtable on the state of women’s football internationally. It will take place during the week of December 9-11, just after the 2015 Women’s World Cup draw (on Dec. 6). Jean Williams (@JeanMWilliams), Martha Saavedra (@tricontinental), Gwendolyn Oxenham, and Brenda Elsey (@politicultura) are among the confirmed participants who will pre-circulate blog posts on this website to spark discussion and stimulate debate.

The schedule for spring 2015 is also coming along nicely. More news on that front as it becomes available. See you on the pitch!

Navigating the Study of Sports in the Academic World

wahl-grant-with-fan-scarfGrant Wahl writes for Sports Illustrated and is the author of The Beckham Experiment, the first soccer book ever to become a New York Times bestseller.

In the spring of 1995, during my junior year at Princeton, I met with the head of the politics department to pitch an idea for my senior thesis. I wanted to spend three months in Buenos Aires studying the political culture of soccer clubs. It seemed like a worthwhile topic. In a still-young democracy like Argentina, the nation’s soccer clubs had been a thriving part of civil society for decades. With memberships ranging from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands, the clubs often had multiple political parties (agrupaciones) and election campaigns that received more attention in the media than governmental elections. What’s more, the function of soccer clubs in civil society had barely been explored by academics at the time. In Making Democracy Work, a classic study of Italy’s political culture, the Harvard professor Robert Putnam had mentioned the nation’s hundreds of soccer clubs before dismissing them in a single sentence, never to return to the topic again.

It was though the academics I encountered viewed anything sports-related as somehow not worth their attention. And, sure enough, the meeting with my university professor—a somewhat fossilized character named Paul Sigmund, the department’s main Latin American expert—did not go well. He called my thesis project “a silly idea,” dismissing it in a single sentence.

Fortunately, I met with another professor who did like the idea. His name was Carlos Forment, and it only took him a matter of minutes to volunteer to be my thesis advisor. We discussed the topics I might research, and I made plans to live in Argentina from June to late August that year. Forment always wanted to go big on projects—this is a guy who titled his own book Democracy in Latin America—and he had some great ideas. Spend a lot of time in the archive of Clarín, the big Buenos Aires daily, he suggested, and you’ll find a trove of material on the history of the soccer clubs. (And so I did, piecing together a chronicle of associational life in Buenos Aires.) Visit a smaller club, he added, to understand how the membership works together. (And so I did, interviewing people at Banfield and conducting a survey at their club elections to find out if the club’s political parties diverged from governmental party divisions. It turned out they did, which was a good sign.) Finally, interview the members and leaders at a big club like Boca Juniors, he suggested. (And so I did, sitting down with Boca presidential candidate Mauricio Macri, who would go on to win that election and later became one of the country’s rising political stars.)

While I was in Buenos Aires, I also researched topics that hurt the development of the clubs’ democratic political culture: the fan violence that plagues the sport and influences club elections; the corruption of club officials; and the shortage of women involved in the clubs. It was by far the most rewarding experience of my years as a student. Not that there weren’t difficult moments. My apartment got robbed in Buenos Aires, and the university denied my request for funding to attend the Boca Juniors elections that December. (That old prejudice: One of my professors, who was on the funding committee, said they viewed my application as “someone who wanted to go watch soccer games over winter break.” Facepalm.)

In the end, though, everything came together. My thesis—Playing the Political Game: Soccer Clubs in Argentine Civil Society—won the prizes of the politics and Latin American Studies departments. Forment, the adviser who believed in the project from the start, started doing his own research on the topic. And I learned that I wanted to write about sports and soccer for a living if possible. The experience showed me that not only could academics and sports co-exist, but so could academics and journalism. What I was doing in Argentina was just as much one as the other. And yet part of me still wonders: Is there still a bias against sports in the academic world?

Long Live WG Grace. The Past and the Future of Sports Writing

photo-156_john-footJohn Foot is Professor of Modern Italian history at the University of Bristol. He is the author of several books, including Calcio: A History of Italian Football and Pedalare! Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling, and writes regularly for a variety of newspapers and magazines.

Both of the fascinating blogs so far (by Simon Kuper and Peter Alegi) have discussed the differences between sports writing from an academic and a journalistic perspective. I work as an academic but I also write “as a journalist,” so perhaps I can offer a contribution which crosses across these professions. Simon wrote about his academic family. Well, I come from the opposite background. My father, mother and great-uncle were all journalists, and my brother is a journalist now. I grew up surrounded by newsprint and hacks and to the sound of a typewriter and the panic of deadlines. I would often go into the huge Daily Mirror building in the centre of London (tragically now demolished) to meet my dad for lunch. I remember seeing the papers roll off the presses in the basement of the building, and all the printers having huge breakfasts in the cafe. I wanted to be a journalist but things took a different term and I ended up spending a lot of my life—very happily—in libraries.

Now, I think journalists are largely responsible for the revolution in football (and to some extent sports) writing over the last twenty years or so. I was inspired by Pete Davis, Simon Kuper, David Winner and Alex Bellos and others when I wrote my book Calcio: A History of Italian Football. I think there are some fascinating trends in footbology (as Peter calls it) at the moment outside of academia – the brilliant Futbologia project in Bologna, for example, which involves writers and others, and is an attempt to talk seriously about football—but also to enjoy the funny and often grotesque side of the game and its superstructures.

As Simon rightly says, journalists are skilled at making academics’ ideas and research readable and available to a wide public (although he is being far too modest about his own work here, of course). This is what makes Soccernomics work so well – it is serious research but made accessible and adapted. Put simply, journalists cut through the crap and the jargon and the absurd long sentences which so many academics love to use and can’t seem to get away from. David Goldblatt’s seminal The Ball is Round is an exception to this rule.

Beyond this, however, I would like to look a bit more critically at my own world – which we can loosely call academia. Firstly, there is still considerable resistance within the academy to research and writing on sport. Time and again, when I am introduced at a conference, people will laugh when my books on football and cycling are mentioned. It is as if football is still seen as a side-show, a bit of fun, a diversion from the real world and real research. So many histories of contemporary Italy, for example, fail to mention sport altogether. Or, if they do, there is a perfunctory reference to Gino Bartali or to World Cup victories. It is still incredibly rare for ‘serious’ academics to actually carry out research into sport. This is, quite simply, an absurdity – a massive historical and social error. How can you understand fascism without understanding its use of sport? How can you analyse post-war Italy without reference to the 1949 Superga disaster, Juventus-Fiat, Berlusconi’s Milan, Fausto Coppi or Ferrari? The calciopoli scandal tells us more about how Italy works than a thousand political corruption cases. The most watched programme in Italian history was the 1982 world cup final. How many people remember were they were that day? Everyone. Who are the uncontroversial national heroes of post-war Italy? Paolo Rossi and Sandro Pertini, both present (in different ways) in 1982. But still little changes. Sport is marginalised and sniggered at. It is time for this to change. Let’s hope a conference like this has an impact.

As C. L. R. James once wrote, in Beyond a Boundary, the best book ever written (not just the best book ever written on sport): the great historians of liberal England “never once mention the man who was the best-known Englishman of his time. I can no longer accept the system of values which could not find in these books a place for W.G. Grace.” Well. I can no longer “accept a system” which simply ignores, or pays lip-service to, the centrality of sport; the way it moves peoples emotions, the way it creates tribes and groupings, the universal languages it uses, its hyper-powerful global reach.

The other problem is simply about trying to write well, clearly and for an audience beyond the specialist one. It is not just a matter of academics not being able to write well. No. It’s much worse than that. Many academics revel in obscurity. The system encourages it. The more obscure the better. If something is popular, if you sell books, you are frowned upon. You are seen as unserious, as “dumbing down” in some way. This snob-culture is everywhere in academia, despite “impact.” Selling books is seen as a bad thing, in itself! The same goes for disciplines. Academics are usually anxious to build boundaries—”

I’m a historian, I’m an anthropologist, I’m a literature specialist.” This turf-marking is another way of excluding all but a small sect of specialists. Exclusionary languages are created to justify your own existence. So, academics have much to learn from journalists . . . but journalists also have much to learn from academics.

Finally, there is the question, which Peter raises, of plagiarism—of the theft of ideas and research. This problem is on the increase, and I think this increase is partly to do with the rise of new sports writing, as well as what Simon Kuper described as the death of the match report. Readers now all know what has happened in the match. They demand more, these days—history, background, stories. These pieces require research, but few people have the time to do this research. Far too much is being written (usually for free) in far too short a time. What happens is that some journalists go to their bookshelves and pick out some of the juicy quotes and ideas from their books. Say, for example, that you were writing a piece for a magazine about the Lazio team of the 1970s. Let’s say, for example, that the piece in question was almost entirely based on the book Calcio. You haven’t actually copied anything (apart from other people’s quotes, which are also part of the author’s research) but the entire edifice of the article is taken from that book—which cost the author years of work in dusty libraries. Do you even cite that book? No. Not even once. And yet you, the journalist, were paid for that piece. This is wrong, but it happens almost on a daily basis.

Finally, we have had the explosion of social media. Now, I love Twitter. In fact, you could say that I am addicted to it. However, I can see its limitations. It encourages (and almost exalts) short-termism, stupidity and under-researched writing (and comments). Last week someone rejected my considered opinion on Arsene Wenger with a tweet which read “the cunt lives in Italy.” Delightful. But there is simply too much stuff—even when it is good. Every day there are numerous excellent articles about my own little niche world: Italian football. Who can possibly read them all? Enough, already. This is unsustainable. We need a moratorium on articles and more quality control. Stop writing. Get down to the library. That’s my motto.