New Internationalist

On football

Issue 380

In 2002, Clint Mathis, US soccer star, announced that his team was going to win the World Cup. It was only logical and natural, he explained, because: ‘We’re pretty much the lead country in everything.’ The leading country in everything finished eighth.

In football, rarities occur. In a world organized around the daily confirmation of the power of the powerful, nothing is rarer than the coronation of the humiliated and the humiliation of the crowned. But in football, at times, this rarest of events does happen.

Indeed, look no farther than last year when an Arab team was the champion of Israel for the first time in history. And for the first time in history a Chechen team was champion of Russia. In the Olympics, the football team of Iraq – convulsed in war – won game after game and made it to the semi-finals, in a series of surprises, against every prediction and all evidence, and was the crowd’s favourite.

A powerful symbol, a great mystery: no-one knows why (though theories abound), but in today’s world many people find football the only area of identity in which they recognize themselves and in which they really believe. Whatever the reasons may be, collective dignity has a lot to do with the passage of a ball flying through the air.

I do not mean only the communion the fan experiences with his team each Sunday from the stands of the stadium, but also, above all, the game played in the paddocks, in the little fields, on the beaches, the few public spaces still not devoured by urbanization run amok. Enrique Pichon-Riviere, an Argentine psychiatrist and passionate student of human pain, can confirm the ef-ficiency of football as a therapy for the illnesses born of scorn and loneliness. This sport is a shared endeavour, played in teams; it contains an energy that can greatly help the scorned to love themselves and save them from the solitude that they feel condemns them to being perpetually incommunicado.

In this regard the experience of Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa is very revealing. There the native languages do not have a word for suicide for the simple reason that suicide did not exist in aboriginal life. A few centuries of racism and marginalization, and the violent eruption of consumer society and its implacable values, have succeeded in making the rate of suicide among aboriginal youth and children the highest in the world.

Given this terrifying panorama, with such deep roots and such broken ones, there is no magic potion that can act as a cure. But the testimony of those admirable people working against death does concur on one fact. Sport, especially football, is one of the few places that can provide shelter to those who have no place in the world. And it contributes significantly to re-establishing bonds of solidarity broken by the culture of alienation/ separation that is dominant in today’s Australia, New Zealand/Aotearoa and the rest of world.

Little by little women’s football has been carving a larger space for itself in the sports media, where for the most part men cover men and don’t know what to make of this invasion of women and girls.

On a professional level, the development of women’s football today has found a certain resonance. But there is no echo, or only enemy echoes, from the game that is played for the pure pleasure of playing.

In Nigeria, the women’s team is a national treasure and source of intense pride. It is ranked among the top in the world. But in the Muslim north of the country men are against it because the sport draws maidens into depravity. In the end they accept it, though, because football is a sin that can bring them fame and save their families from poverty. Were it not for the gold promised by professional football, fathers would prohibit their daughters from wearing these indecent outfits required by a satanic sport that they claim leaves women sterile, because of the game itself or punishment of Allah.

In Zanzibar and Sudan, the brothers of these female players, guardians of the family honour, administer beatings to punish this mania of their sisters who think they are men enough to dribble a ball and commit the sacrilege of revealing their bodies. Football, a game for men, denies women fields to play and practise. The men refuse to play against the women. Out of respect for religion, they say. Maybe so. Or maybe when they play, they lose.

Across the ocean, in Bolivia, there is no problem. Women play soccer in the towns of the high plains without taking off their numerous skirts. They wear over them their coloured jerseys and are still able to score goals. Every game is a party. Football is a free space open to these women, prolific in children, overwhelmed by slaving in the fields and mills, and subjected to frequent beatings by their drunken husbands. They play barefoot. The winning team is given a sheep. So is the losing team. These silent women laugh and laugh more throughout the game and continue laughing uncontrollably throughout the banquet. They celebrate together, the winners and losers. No man would dare set foot inside.

Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan writer and novelist, is the author of The Open Veins of Latin America and Memories of Fire.

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