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?

A teammate on my has-beens adult league here in Southern California mentioned that her friend, Allison Scurich, a fellow Californian, currently plays for the Croatian women’s national team. The Croatian women’s national team? Who knew Croatia even had a women’s team? And how did an American wind up playing for them? (John Scurich was born in Croatia in 1898. More than a century later, his granddaughter looked up the Croatian women’s roster on Wikipedia, found out the captain’s name, and facebooked her. The captain then contacted the coach, who then invited Alison to come tryout. Three months later, her citizenship papers were finalized and she was starting at center back. That haphazard process alone fascinates me.) I looked into stories of other Americans who play for the countries of their heritage. In the upcoming edition of Howler magazine, I cover the experience of three American exports – Gabriela Iribarne (Argentina), Alison Scurich (Croatia) and Nataly Arias (Colombia). I’m fascinated by the cultural exchanges – by the idea of an American who speaks not a lick of Croatian, sitting in a semi-circle in a locker room during pre-game, dancing the traditional kolo dance; by an American on a team bus in Buenos Aires, bewilderedly listening to her teammates as they chant traditional Argentine songs loaded with slang, hands pounding on the bus seats; by an American who works a full-time desk job in D.C. and then uses all her vacation time to represent the Colombian national team. I love the idea of Americans immersing themselves in other cultures, and I also love that these players are windows into national teams we would never otherwise hear about. As a journalist and story-chaser, I can only imagine how many incredible stories are out there – stories of teams and stories of players’ lives beyond the field.

One player’s story from my time at Santos: Nene, the leading goal scorer, had grown up playing on a court in a small, dangerous favela on the outskirts of Sao Bernardo. This court, an arena of talent and dreams, was also home to most of the favela’s drug deals and a large amount of violence. One of Nene’s six brothers was killed on this same court where he taught her how to play. She identified her brother’s body in the morgue. The next years of Nene’s life were tumultuous – she wanted to kill those who killed her brother, and she turned to theft and crime as a means to get by. Soccer helped her out of this – while she didn’t have the same opportunities as the male players in her favela, many of whom went off to countries like Portugal and Germany, she did have chances to play for women’s teams in Brazil and earned a small salary that she sent back to her parents to help support her family of eleven. Ultimately, she gave up the game, earning more money working at a toy factory, painting Shrek dolls.

I perhaps naively believe that the public would care about stories like Nene’s.

I was interested by the recent outpouring of public interest in response to a tweet from Trinidad and Tobago coach Randy Waldrum: “I need HELP! T&T sent a team [to CONCACAF Championship training camp] last night with $500 total. No equipment such as balls, no transportation from airport to hotel, nothing…I don’t know how I’m going to feed these players starting at lunch today! If you know of anyone in Dallas area that will help with food, etc.” As this ESPNW article reported, the tweet “embarrassed the tiny, oil-rich country into action,” each player receiving $8000 from the Ministry of Sport. Beyond financial support, the tweet created public support. Lasana Luburd writes:
…throw in one Twitter session — and Trinidad and Tobago’s women’s team is a national sensation. The morning after Waldrum’s tweet, scores of Good Samaritans showed up at the team’s camp in Dallas with water and food. And for Tuesday’s pivotal match with Ecuador, the TTFA declared that 22,000-seat Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, the nation’s capital, will be sold out, the first time that has happened for any sporting event since the national men’s team qualified for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.
Maybe this incident demonstrates that when the public does get wind of women’s football teams, and their often insane experiences, people do care.

When the 2015 World Cup arrives, what kind of features and profiles on players from countries like Ecuador, Thailand, and Nigeria will we see? And what as writers, scholars, and storytellers can we do to make sure that we do hear those narratives?