An Ultimate XI for the Women's World Cup Final
Posted 15 July 2011
Popayán, Colombia — During the Women's World Cup I have been in Colombia and, while soccer is a daily reality, both on the streets and on the television screens of corner shops, Colombia's participation for the first time in the women's tournament, taking place in Germany, was a distant rumor. My article on the contemporary reality for women's soccer players, "In Colombia, a Soccer Paradox," appeared July 1 on the New York Times soccer blog (http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/in-colombia-a-soccer-paradox/).
My principal informer was Beatriz Vélez, former anthropology professor at Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín. For decades she has chronicled football "from the grandstands." For her and many others, whether they be poets or novelists or journalists, to write about sport is not to participate in it. Athletes themselves, with a few exceptions, are poor narrators of their experience. Even male writers who have played soccer — Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov, Orhan Pamuk, and many others — make clear that they stand apart from the fray.
Women writers on soccer are doubly removed from their subject. They tread on sacred ground. In some cases, they acknowledge that they feel like voyeurs, trying to divine clues to the male psyche. One of my English students in Popayán played futsal—the salon variety of the game—in university and loved to watched Colombia's national team on television. That interest dwindled in 1994 after the murder of Andrés Escobar, a Colombian player, in Medellín. His own-goal in the World Cup that year, against the United States, led to Colombia's elimination. My student lost her passion after seeing, in her words, the "dark face of soccer."
Women's presence as commentators usually is not welcome. Their words are cast aside, then forgotten. "Women have written about sport throughout the ages in disparate eras and cultures, yet most of their writings remain shrouded in obscurity," write Susan Bandy and Anne Darden in introducing their 1999 collection, Crossing Boundaries: An International Anthology of Women's Experiences in Sport. "Like women themselves, these writings have been ignored and marginalized, their voices drowned out by the dominant male voices in literature."
For women to produce written testimony of their experience is exceptional. To position their testimony on the terrain of football is heresy.
Before the Women's World Cup final July 17 between the United States and Japan, I offer a list of pioneers and experimenters — my ultimate XI — in a subgenre of women's sport literature that is still being shaped and discovered. All eleven deserve a spot on the pitch of language and life.
Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, goalkeeper, Iceland: She takes her place in goal based on having trained her sons, Kristjón, Garpur, and Jökull, as a stand-in goalkeeper following her divorce. Jökull became one of Iceland's top youth players.
In Football Stories (Communicate Lads), she illuminates male emotion and sensitivity that the game extracts from men who, in Jökulsdóttir's words, "are not supposed to have feelings." Players' relationships with women sometimes surface as they discuss their personal troubles with the team's physical therapist.
In "The Wall," one of the book's paragraph poems, Jökulsdóttir explores one player's distractions before failing to execute a free kick. He thinks about a woman he is too scared to approach. "Every time he thought about calling her thoughts piled up in front of him like a wall, and he felt like she was standing on the other side ready to hang up on him if she should so much as hear his voice so the only thing he had been able to do thus far was dream about her in front of the wall and think about the roses he wanted to kick into the goal."
My interview with Jökulsdóttir appears in the May–June issue of WLT.
Lady Murasaki, defender, Japan: The first evidence of women playing and watching soccer-like games comes from Asia. In her eleventh-century work, The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki makes among the first references to women as bystanders in kemari, the Japanese kicking game in which courtiers participated for aesthetic pleasure. She writes reverently of Kashiwagi for his beauty and athletic skill.
"He had not been in the game for more than a few moments when it became apparent, from the way he gave even the most casual kick to the ball, that there was none to compare with him. Not only was he an extremely handsome man, but he took great pains about his appearance and always moved with a certain rather cautious dignity and deliberation. It was therefore very entertaining to see him leaping this way and that, regardless of all decorum."
Clarice Lispector, defender, Brazil: Meditating on football in 1968 in her one crônica (chronicle) devoted to Brazil's national game, Lispector feels that her distance from the sport — she watches it, but she claims not to understand — amounts to spiritual poverty. "No matter how much love I have for soccer," she writes, "it would never occur to me to play it." When she has to ask her son about details of a match, only to be patronized and silenced, she feels "dispirited by my smallness."
She ends the column, however, by tweaking fellow columnist and esteemed soccer writer Armando Nogueira. She challenges him to stop hiding behind football. She asks him to write about life, even in soccer terms, "about what soccer means for you, personally, and not only as a sport."
Lispector's crônica, "Armando Nogueira, Soccer, and Me (Poor Thing)," appears in a translation by Richard V. McGehee in the May–June issue of WLT.
Antioquia; used by permission)
Beatriz Vélez, defender, Colombia: From June 17–22, Vélez accompanied me around her home city, Medellín, and we danced salsa in the streets following the triumph of Atlético Nacional, a local club, in the national championship. For more than twenty years as a professor of anthropology at the Universidad de Antioquia she studied the masculine zone of exclusion that defines Latin American soccer. Women to date have made only small breaches in this protected territory of male emotion and communication. In the opening chapter to her new book, Football from the Grandstands: Passions and Fantasies, published in June in Medellín, Vélez assesses how football, accessible only to her one brother, shaped her identity as a woman and influenced her writing.
"I was surrounded by football practiced daily by men, who showed me the enormous significance of this game in the masculine universe. ... This was how I came to understand that football represents for boys an inexhaustible fountain of stories and a means for them to reconstruct their past actions and to project them into the future, and that this practice seems to ease some of the social and existential threats that cast a shadow over their tender youth."
Ana María Moix, midfielder, Spain: When I included Moix in a Literary XI for the New York Times, she responded, through her translator Sandra Kingery, that it was better than winning a Nobel Prize. In an interview with Kingery in WLT (May–June 2011), Moix said that as a teenager she felt part of the spectacle at Barcelona matches in the Camp Nou stadium. Her mother and a female friend hurled curses toward the field, the mark of spectators who feel that they belong.
As great writers do, Moix provides additional detail. She looks down, following a match, at the floor of the Camp Nou where she sat. There she beholds a carpet of peanut shells that she created during the game. "It made me feel partly ashamed, for getting the floor so dirty, but also happy."
Anna Enquist, midfielder, Netherlands: Since 1995 Enquist has contributed to the Dutch journal of soccer literature, Hard gras. She explains Holland’s underachievement in major competitions — up to their loss, to Spain, in the final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa — as an extension of the country’s Calvinist heritage.
Her collection The Injury: Ten Stories (2000) has soccer as leitmotif. In the title piece, Enquist narrates an eighteen-year-old’s recovery from a potentially career-ending tibia break. The character’s depression is so deep that “he didn’t even want to come downstairs for Ajax-Feyenoord.”
Tapuwa Moore, forward, South Africa: I met Moore in Johannesburg in 2009 when she was coaching Chosen Few Lesbian Soccer Club (see http://www.theglobalgame.com/blog/2010/06/from-johannesburg-lesbian-footballers-chosen-to-play-choosing-to-live/), a project of the Forum for Empowerment of Women that helps victims of domestic assault or homophobic violence rebuild identity through football. I learned that, in addition to coaching and playing basketball and football, Moore is a performance poet who can rap in five languages.
Thinking her linguistic facility insufficient, she started learning Spanish in anticipation of Spain's World Cup victory in South Africa. Moore represents a new generation of black, gay South African women willing to address in poetry and dramatic monologue her own background as a victim of sexual assault and to oppose homophobic violence against women in black townships.
While the 2010 World Cup produced religious fervor, Moore wrote that she wished for different passions. "If I were religious I would have prayed for my fellow people to engage in responsible sexual behavior / Thus preventing more HIV infections. Prayed for the man on the street to get a job, to be employed. Prayed for the girl next door to get an education and stop being a baby factory. / To stop rape and murder of lesbians."
Calixthe Beyala, forward, Cameroon: Before the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Beyala participated in a writers' symposium in Berlin, “Kopfballspieler” (Headers), during which, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung, she offered a "hymnic comparison of the ball with the earth, the sun and a mother's womb." Despite years of inquiries, I have never found the text.
Rare for an author of serious fiction — especially for a woman —before the 2010 World Cup she prepared an ode, a collectible volume, to the national team of Cameroon. Les Lions indomptables: Cinquante ans de bonheur (The Indomitable Lions: Fifty Years of Happiness, 2010) was published by Albin Michel in France.
Cube Bonifant, forward, México: Writing well before Clarice Lispector took up football in her newspaper column, Bonifant on September 15, 1921, attended a soccer match in Mexico City and wrote about it in a crónica in El Universal Ilustrado. Bonifant, born Antonia Bonifant López, had started writing for the paper only months before as a seventeen-year-old.
Viviane Mahieux, assistant professor of Spanish at Fordham University, compiled and edited as part of research into Latin American urban chroniclers the first collection of Bonifant’s columns.
The tone of Bonifant's soccer crónica, "La victoria pedestre" (The pedestrian victory), is cheeky and ironic. Bonifant attends the match at the urging of a girlfriend and immediately notices the gender dynamic. "Gentlemen were smoking and did not remove their hats even to greet the ladies," she writes. Like Lispector, she watches and claims not to understand. She perceives that women's interest in football is a dance of attraction. At the same time they apply face powder women study the players and cultivate, around soccer, a helpless quality. "If you act lost," Bonifant says, "he will love you more. Because it is beautiful to comfort the fallen."
Winifred Holtby, forward, England: David Goldblatt in the best English-language history of soccer, The Ball Is Round (2006), quotes Holtby's appraisal of football in The Radio Times. Best known for her novel South Riding (1936), Holtby is classed, with George Orwell, among Britain's interwar "radical eccentrics." While dedicating much of her work to women's equality and to Britain's suffragists, she was also fascinated with technology and, in her Radio Times essay, with the radio transmission of football and its passion to the masses. The first match broadcast on radio was in 1927.
Her celebration of football recalls Ukrainian writer Yury Olesha's description of soccer decades before as a "new culture." “I was excited... I wanted more goals. I didn’t care who shot them. I didn't know who was playing, or where or why. But I wanted to feel my spine tingle and my pulses beat, and my hair stir gently at the roots with suspense as that voice cried out from somewhere near our drawing-room curtains.”
Frankfurt Book fair on 10/17/2008.
Fatou Diome, forward, Senegal: In her novel The Belly of the Atlantic (2006), Diome opens with close description of the African "show houses" in which proprietors rig a TV set for big matches and charge a small fee for communal viewing. The narrator remembers watching a 2000 European Cup semifinal between Italy and Holland and how it contributes to a yearning for the West.
"The owner of the only TV in the area generously sets it up in his yard and all the neighbours flock unannounced. The place is open to everyone; the sex, age and number of spectators vary according to the programme. This afternoon, 29 June 2000, the weather's good, the sky's a perfect blue and the TV isn't crackling, even if the owner had to bang it with his fist to get it going. The eyes trained on it have all the freshness of innocence. Boys in the flower of youth, their bodies formed by long years of running after balls made of rags, then unhoped-for footballs, jostle and press together, liquid energy streaming down their smooth foreheads."
Table of Contents
SPECIAL SECTION: German Crime Writing
Guest edited by J. Madison Davis
- Introduction, J. Madison Davis, guest editor
- FICTION: Lisa Lercher, "Forty-three-year-old woman seeking..."
- ESSAY: Beatrix Kramlovsky, "Show Your Face, oh Violence"
- ESSAY: Almuth Heuner, "Germany's Crime and Mystery Scene"
- FICTION: Nina George, "The Light in the West"
- ESSAY: Hughes Schlueter, "The Grand Duchy Strikes Back"
- ESSAY: Paul Ott, "Murder in the Alpenglow: Swiss Crime Writing in the German Language"
- ESSAY: Thomas Przybilka, "A Resource for Lovers of Crime Writing: The Bonn Archive of Secondary Crime Writing Literature"
SPECIAL SECTION: World Cup/World Lit 2011
Guest edited by John Turnbull
- Introduction, John Turnbull, guest editor
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Nalinaksha Bhattacharya"
- FICTION: Nalinaksha Bhattacharya, "Hem and Football" an excerpt
- POETRY: Mona Nicole Sfeir, "Laws of the Game (adapted from FIFA 2010-11)"
- INTERVIEW: Sandra Kingery, "A Conversation with Ana María Moix"
- ESSAY: Jennifer Doyle, "Soccer, Art and Desire"
- INTERVIEW: John Turnbull, "A Conversation with Elísabet Jökulsdóttir"
- ESSAY: Clarice Lispector, "Armando Nogueira, Soccer, and Me (Poor Thing)"
- WLT Online Book Club: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky
- Author Profile: Jonas Hassen Khemiri
- Czesław Miłosz Centennial
- City Profile: Tallinn, Estonia
- Raquel Chalfi, "Double Exposure in the Black Forest"
Q&A: WLT INTERVIEWS
- Ray Taras, "A Conversation with Carsten Jensen"
WEB EXCLUSIVES: MARITIME READING
- READING LIST: More Maritime Reading
- PHOTO GALLERY: Marstal Maritime Museum Photos
- EXCERPT:Vi sejlede bare (2009; We just sailed) by Carsten Jensen
- POETRY: "The Castaway"by Alessio Zanelli
OUTPOSTS: Norwich, Norfolk
- Norwich, Norfolk