08 December 2014

Marimachos*: On Women’s Football in Latin America

Note: this post first appeared on The Football Scholars Forum. The Forum is hosting a discussion on women's soccer on Thursday, Dec. 11 at 2 pm. For more information on how to participate via Skype, contact Alex Galaraza at galaraza.alex@gmail.com

By Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel
Dr. Brenda Elsey is an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth Century Chile. Follow her on twitter @politicultura. Dr. Joshua Nadel is assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history and associate director of the Global Studies Program at North Carolina Central University. His book Fútbol! Why Soccer Matters in Latin America was published in 2014. Follow him on twitter @jhnadel

Not to complain, but it’s not easy to be a feminist and a scholar of sports. On the one hand, many researchers are hostile to feminist scholarship. On the other hand, many feminist scholars express disgust at the mere mention of studying sport, seeing it as an overdetermined site of sexism. Even scholars who have embraced the study of masculinity and recognize the importance of gender often neglect to discuss how it shapes women’s lives. In practice, this has meant that men remain the protagonists of history.

In Latin America, there is a further criticism from our peers. Some argue that feminism is an imperialist imposition, an import that has distracted from the need to analyze economic and political inequalities, despite the fact that gender is a prime determinant of one’s position in both of those hierarchies. It is surprising how otherwise critical and brilliant minds react to this work. Several of the reactions can be grouped and, when taken seriously, reveal important assumptions that need to be overturned. In her excellent post, Jean Williams mentions similar misconceptions. We think it’s worth reflecting on them at length.

The first cluster of responses can be categorized as a “defensive reaction.” Instead of recognizing that the history of women’s sport sheds light on broader histories of the body and gender, a common reaction is to defend the neglect of women in previous studies. This line of argumentation features phrases such as, “it’s a different game altogether,” “women’s football doesn’t have a long history,” or the related, “not that many women play.” These unsubstantiated declarations require the feminist sport scholar to re-hash examples of women’s presence in football since the late nineteenth century. In Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador, women’s teams formed in port cities shortly after the first men’s teams. Scholars too frequently adopt the rhetoric of sportswriters to come to such conclusions.

Another problematic reaction is a discussion of the supposedly inherent inferiority of women athletes. It is problematic, firstly, because it is not a research question posed by historians. In other words, it is a tangential point. Furthermore, the assumption is that because women are less skilled than men, “no one” watches women’s team sports. This response falls flat on at least three counts. Firstly, academics do not study cultural practices only if they are popular. If we did, there would be much less scholarship out there. The inferiority argument assumes that preference is objective and rational, rather than relational. Long ago, Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated that taste is not created in a vacuum. Unfamiliarity and preconceptions shape the way we view women’s sports.

The more writers naturalize difference and taste, the more they support a ridiculous intellectual fallacy. It is easy to think of sports teams that are beloved, though not successful (the Detroit Lions and Chicago Cubs stand as two examples of this), or where truly inferior play is tolerated and televised (low-ranking Premier League teams). The rhetoric that no one cares about women’s sports because they are inferior should be recognized for what it is, a sexist exercise, in which the writer enjoys hero worship of male athletes, while dismissing women’s accomplishments.

Finally, the argument is ahistorical. Not only have women been playing soccer since the 19th century, people (gasp!, men too) have been watching women’s soccer for a long time: roughly 8,000 people showed up to watch two Costa Rican teams play in 1949, while average attendance at the 1971 Women’s World Championship in Mexico hovered around 25,000 per match.The finals saw the Estadio Azteca packed to capacity--over 100,000 people. This in spite of the fact that the Mexican Football Federation threatened professional teams with sanctions if they let the tournament play in their stadiums.

The narrative of inferiority fits conveniently into the narrative of women being uninterested in the sport, which is the story that FIFA and national federations like to tell. In this version of history, women began playing only in the 1980s, and when they did they found a supportive FIFA. This is a particularly cynical version of history, as it ignores successive attempts by soccer institutions across the world to impede the development of women’s soccer. In soccer terms, the English FA was the first to ban women’s soccer, in 1921. There are other well known prohibitions of women’s soccer, including Brazil. In the case of Latin America, where professionalism officially began later than Europe, women’s teams were part of the broader expansion of amateur clubs (see Brenda’s Citizens and Sportsmen). In addition, women took the lead in organizing official fan clubs. Football club statutes always stipulated categories for women, either as participants, or as “madrinas,” or godmothers.

Beyond the official exclusion of women, men have marginalized them, seeking an escape from domestic obligations within football. In the stands, fans insult the masculinity of opposing teams, characterizing them as feminine and questioning their heterosexuality. They have hinged weakness onto femininity, so women players invert one of the basic building blocks of the sport. Thus, female players are viewed as threatening, not only on the pitch and in the clubhouse, but in society more broadly. While Costa Rican women’s clubs gained respect throughout the region by the 1950s, they also prompted congressional hearings about the sports’ threats to public health. Brazil’s ban rested on the same “science”(see Josh’s Futbol!).

National football associations, which liberally use public funds, have neglected women athletes in Latin America. For example, the Argentine Football Association has not provided the thirteen professional women’s clubs with technical support, decent facilities, or publicity. To make matters worse, female coaches are terrified of being accused of improper sexual behavior towards others, and report that their community is on “high alert.” The result is that there is a reluctance to support female leaders. Mexico has had the same coach for the women’s national team since 1998, and he has retained his position after a year in which El Tri lost three times to its main rival, the United States, by a combined score of 15-0. No men’s team coach would survive.

On the eve of the draw of the Women’s World Cup of 2015, there has been even less media interest than four years ago. No television station picked up the Women’s Copa America, the qualifier for the Women’s World Cup, until after the tournament started, even though rights were free. When Argentina failed to qualify for the tournament, none of the major newspapers covered it. Last Tuesday, Ecuador played Trinidad and Tobago for the final spot in the World Cup 2015, but to find any mention of the Ecuadorian women, one has to dig below the headlines: English Premier League rankings or Barcelona players’ debt. On a regional level, despite the failure of the Boca Juniors’ women’s team to reach the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the South American club tournament, sportswriters had no comment. Instead, the following day El Gráfico picked up a story that ranked the “hottest” girlfriends and wives of male players.

If we place the blame on ourselves and journalists, it’s because fans are conditioned to care about people they know and to watch the sports they read about. For every writer like Grant Wahl, who has done a great service to women’s soccer by telling the stories of the USWNT and focusing attention on the sport, there are many more who think it’s unimportant. Worse still, many media outlets continue to belittle women athletes by commenting less on athletic prowess than on physical beauty and questioning women athletes about their desire for family life (which are never asked of men). Some, in fact, only discuss women in the context of botineras--wives and girlfriends--and always accompanied by sexualized imagery. And even coaches discuss the potential “benefit” of using “sex“ to market the game. This last link, just to be clear, is to a 2008 article originally published in Soccer Journal, the official publication of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

Radical ways of thinking about women and football are frequently dismissed as impractical, but are worth considering. Title IX, for all of its value, has consecrated segregation in sport. But If sport is indeed an idealized version of the world, why wouldn’t we want that place to be integrated? So we could argue in favor of integrated teams--like mixed doubles in tennis--at least at the Olympic level or as a stand alone event. Also, as Jean Williams and Jennifer Doyle have argued in the British and U.S. context, Latin American women may do better, so long as segregation is the rule, to form independent associations. Finally, we think that masculinity, as traditionally defined in the Americas, needs to be critiqued from the perspective of its harm to women. Allowing stadium violence, forgiving fans for misogynist chants, and ignoring the domestic violence abuses perpetrated by players, encourages homophobia and sexism. Despite its claims to care about women, FIFA showed no qualms about awarding a World Cup to Russia and Qatar, neither of which can claim to adhere to human rights protocols in regard to women or LGBT communities.

The study of sport from a feminist perspective, regardless of the challenges it faces, requires optimism: the study of oppression opens opportunities to explore how it can be overturned. Those who reject studying women’s football ignore strong evidence that athletic activity in young women’s lives improves their health, expands educational opportunities, and lessens their susceptibility to drug addiction and eating disorders. When we care about women’s football, we care first about women. That’s why the constant diminishing of its importance continues a long tradition of sexism.

* marimacho is a term that can be translated as tomboy or butch lesbian, depending on the context. For many years, it was an epithet thrown at women and girls who played soccer in Latin America. While less common than it once was, women’s soccer players still contend with embedded attitudes about sexuality and soccer.

07 November 2014

On the precariousness of women's soccer

Under the radar of our sports inundated country, two weeks ago the United States hosted a World Cup qualifying tournament that culminated last Sunday night at PPL Park in Chester, PA. The women’s teams of the United States, Costa Rica, and Mexico all qualified for Canada 2015, while Trinidad and Tobago face Ecuador in a playoff series starting tomorrow. In theory this event showcased the best women’s soccer teams in the region. In reality it brought into sharp relief the resource gap in women’s soccer and highlighted the continuing challenges faced by women’s soccer worldwide. Simply put, while some teams get support from their federations, others receive almost none. Women's soccer, and support for it, is still in a precarious state. Institutions support it, but many do so grudgingly and under duress.  

First, the good: Costa Rica’s fifteen-year investment in women’s and girls’ soccer bore fruit with the team’s first World Cup berth. Mexico, though it has stagnated since World Cup 2011, still receives substantial support from its federation. And the United States…well, the US women’s team is the best funded in the region (even if it suffers in comparison to the resources given to the US men). Not surprisingly, the three most well-funded teams in the tournament advanced. Funding means—at a minimum—full time coaches and staff, training camps, and equipment. Most teams in the region fail to provide even these basic needs for their women’s teams.

Indeed, the five other teams in tournament—Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago—showed clearly the problems that women’s soccer faces. Guatemala practices only two times per week, in part because the players need to work or study; the team receives no money for stipends. The Haitian team has no funding from the Haitian federation, and has an all-volunteer staff. Trinidad and Tobago also has a volunteer coach—Randy Waldrum, the former Notre Dame women’s coach. His pedigree aside, the Trinidad and Tobago federation has shown little actual interest in the team. When the Women Soca Warriors arrived in Dallas, they had been given $500 to last for a week: from when the team arrived until the tournament began. Waldrum took to Twitter for help, managing to raise nearly $17,000 from a crowd-funding site established by Jen Cooper (including $658 from Haiti, which was returned).

Jamaica too took to social media to fund its team—the Reggae Girlz. But unlike their Caribbean rivals, Jamaica’s campaign was spearheaded by the Jamaican Football Federation and Cedella Marley. Marley, Bob Marley’s daughter and head of the House of Marley enterprises became involved when her son brought home a flyer about the Jamaican women’s team. She initially offered “a donation” to the Reggae Girlz, but the federation had different ideas. It proposed instead that Marley become the face of the team, someone who—in her words— could “get… the word out there about the program, and…bring some sponsors to the table.” For her, the choice was easy: given her belief that “every girl should get the chance to accomplish whatever their dreams are” she said, “I just wanted to give them a chance to represent.” Without intending to, Marley became the Reggae Girlz global ambassador. With the blessing of the federation, Marley quickly put together a fundraising campaign, both inside and outside of Jamaica. Tuffgong Records produced a series of videos to introduce the team, and Marley hired an independent sports marketing firm to create an Indiegogo campaign in the United States. Over all, the team raised about $200,000.

Trinidad and Tobago’s coach Waldrum noted that the crowd funding of women’s soccer shows that “we can all come together in time of need.” And while stories of teams helping each other and “five dollars here, ten dollars there” donations are heart-warming, handouts do little to help the sport in the long run. Indeed, the unconventional and short-term nature of crowd funding could even undercut institutional support for women’s soccer. Financing teams through emergency appeals—much like appeals for humanitarian aid—is neither healthy nor sustainable. Federations cannot adequately budget for coaches and training staff, stipends, meals and housing, if they have no control over the funding stream.

And herein lies the problem for women’s football. While outside support for women’s soccer is great, it should not be necessary. These federations have money, which can be seen in the support and sponsorship for the men’s national team. The Reggae Boyz, the Jamaican men’s team, reportedly received $7.5 million for their failed bid to qualify for Brazil 2014; we did not hear of desperate funding needs from either Haiti or Trinidad and Tobago in the early rounds of men’s CONCACAF qualifying (though Trinidad and Tobago have historical problems with making payments to players and coaches). Federations receive funds from FIFA and from sponsors, and then set priorities and budgets. Up to now, most national federations have opted not to fund women. In fact, many regional member associations provide only the FIFA mandate $37,500 per year for all women’s soccer programs. Only a few—the United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and (with Cedella Marley’s support) now Jamaica—place res

So what did this tournament show us? In terms of soccer, it showed that the skills gap is closing. But more importantly--and disturbingly--the CONCACAF Women’s Championship reinforced that women’s soccer has a long way to go in the region before it is sustainable. And while in Jamaica Cedella Marley has committed to supporting the Reggae Girlz for the long-term, most women’s soccer teams will have to continue without the backing of national federations. After Trinidad and Tobago’s loss to Mexico, which sent the island nation to a home-and-away playoff series against Ecuador, a journalist asked coach Waldrum how the team would find resources to prepare. His immediate answer was simple: “I don’t know.”

23 May 2014

Divided City, Divided Loyalties?

Not sure why it took me so long to post this, about Kosovo's first official match...But here it is..
A number of people asked me which side I was on prior to the Haiti-Kosovo friendly in Mitrovica 6 weeks ago. I seem to be a rarity among my friends: I lived in both places and experienced soccer in both places—in vastly different ways. 
Two experiences stand out in Haiti. The house I lived in was in a zone of Port-au-Prince called Bois Patate. In the hills above was a religious school called the Grand Seminaire de Notre Dame de Cazeau, which at the time had a dusty soccer pitch that constantly teemed with people playing pick up. A housemate of mine and I would go running, and occasionally we’d end up at the Seminaire, sweating and covered in a combination of diesel and dust, watching the play as we cooled down. The games were always good-natured, but rough in the kind of haphazard way that pick up soccer often is: players have less control than they think they do, so bodies hit the ground with something bordering on regularity. One day after our run we were sitting on a wall watching the proceedings when some young men approached and asked if we wanted to play. We probably tried to beg off playing—having just been running we were tired, we weren’t very good—to no avail. After not playing soccer for more than ten years, I was thrust into a game. I don’t remember much from the game, other than gasping for breath, and Haitian youth running around and over me. And I remember the joy. 
I returned to Haiti in June 1998 to do some research on my thesis. The country was caught in the thrall of the World Cup. To me, the preparations and celebrations around the tournament reflected sociocultural realities. As one traveled in Port-au-Prince or Delmas, residents demarcated their neighborhoods with colors hanging from the telephone wires and electrical poles. The yellow, green, and blue of Brazil by far dominated the cityscape, with smatterings of Argentina’s blue and white. But the second most common flag was the tricolor of France. Especially as you drove up the hill into the posher neighborhoods around Petionville, Brazilian flags gave way to the blue, white, and red of La France, displaying the cultural affinities of many wealthier Haitians. I watched the final at a beach resort, surrounded by French supporters, and celebrating with them as if I had wanted les bleus to win. But with the end of the World Cup, as so often happens, victors and vanquished came together in celebration. 
Working with the International Rescue Committee in Kosovo, I lived in a couple of different cities, but I eventually moved to the southern part of Kosovo, to Gnijane/Gjilan. The region was divided into ethnic enclaves—Serbian villagers travelled to the gas station in heavily protected military convoys—and each Serbian town had a small military post on the main entrance roads. Yet , one of the signal successes of IRC in Gnjilane/Gjilan was the creation of a multi-ethnic youth center in town. And the opening celebration happened to coincide with the semi-finals of the 2000 European Championship. Along with the usual self-congratulatory speeches, the event had food, a dj for dancing, and—crucially—inside a small 8x10 room was the one thing that everyone wanted: a television to watch France-Portugal. The night was marvelous. Serbian and Albanian youth—male and female—gathered together to watch a sporting event whose outcome mattered little to them. But the force of the event, more even than the youth center opening, brought them all into close proximity for the first time in months, even years and gave them a sort of common ground. 
But sometimes soccer outcomes mattered in Kosovo. The Kosovo soccer league is serious business. Not because of the quality of play, but because it is a business. Outside of FIFA auspices at the time, the league was riddled with corruption at all levels, and the outcome of games could be accurately predicted well before kickoff.  I attended one game when I lived in Gjilan/Gnjilane, a local derby between Drita K.F. and Gjilan K.F. that would go a long way to deciding that season’s Kosovar Cup. As with all local derbies, tensions ran high in town for days in the lead up to the match, even though there were no ethnic affiliations on the line: both clubs comprised Kosovo Albanians. Security was tight. The local UN civilian administrator had ordered the UN police out in force, so a unit of Turkish police lined the front of the stands on either side of the pitch. I attended with a co-worker of mine whose brother would go on to captain the Drita to the Cup championship the following year. 
I admit that I don't remember the details of the match. Drita took the lead in the first half to the delight of our section, and people around me began shaking the chain-link fence at the front of the stands. The second half started 2-0 Drita. But then a goal for Gjilan brought them back into the match. Drita fans and players alike called for offsides. The goal stood. The Drita players began focusing on the referee more than on the game, with the Drita goalie refusing to go back to his goalmouth. A yellow card. He walked back towards his goal. Five minutes later, the referee gave a penalty kick for what was a clear dive by Gjilan’s striker. The entire Drita team rushed the referee, complaining about the call. He walked away, Drita followed. The Drita stands shook with rage while across the field Gjilan supporters celebrated their good fortune: all they needed was a tie to move on in the competition.  After another ten minutes of complaints, threats, and yellow cards handed out by the referee, it happened. 
Out onto the pitch walked a man in a suit. He was flanked by U.N. police and carried a microphone. As the UN municipal administrator spoke, the fans sat in stunned silence. What was happening? Then the translator spoke and the fans erupted: due to the attitudes on the pitch, the U.N. representative canceled the game and gave the victory to Gjilan KF. 
Somehow the teams—and the referee—made it off the field safely. But then pandemonium broke loose. On our side, the Turkish police extended their collapsible metal batons to full length and began beating the hands of fans shaking the fence. They used mace on the people closest them. Meanwhile, the Gjilan fans streamed across the field, provoking even more rage from the Drita fans. UN police seemed unable to stop the advance of the Gjilan crowd, which would have spelled disaster had they reached Drita. Sensing the impending danger, the unarmed Kosovo Security Force—the fledgling security force made up of former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters—made a line at the edge of the field, linking hands to keep the surging Gjilan crowd back. Suddenly, the situation defused. The Gjilan fans respectfully stayed behind the KSF line, while we in the Drita stands began to tend to fingers and faces. Within a half-hour, the whole crowd was walking back through town, amid U.S. armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles that had been called in as back up. 
It’s hard to imagine what members of the Haitian national team thought about Kosovo in March. I spent a couple of very long, very cold months in Mitrovica, then as now a city divided physically and ethnically by the Ibar River. At the time, the only way to cross from the Albanian dominated southern Mitrovica into the Serbian northern portion was through French military checkpoints over a bridge thick with brambles of barbed wire. Certainly, the Haitian players would have picked up on the tension in the air. I remember it as palpable, and the name of the soccer stadium—Adem Jashari Stadium—suggests that reconciliation remains a long way off. Jashari is considered the father of the Kosovo Liberation Army and was killed, along with over fifty members of his family, in 1998. 
And, for those who care: my heart was with Haiti.