Passions United, a review

The bored room.

A FIFA boardroom, in which passions are united.

United Passions is fascinating. Not as a movie, of course. FIFA’s 30 million-dollar self-portrait is, instead, fascinating evidence. FIFA leaves its fingerprints on every aspect of the work’s form and content.

Structurally, the film stages a bold intervention against story-telling practice. United Passions demands that cinema catch up with the times: the dominant narrative form used by the people who govern our lives from conference rooms is that of the bullet-point presentation. This biography of a corporation thus appropriately takes the form of Powerpoint Cinema.

Blocks of information are presented in a static visual form, usually in a manner that is not entirely unlike this sentence: a passive presentation of the way things are. Randomly-generated transitions move the viewer from one information block to the next. A cause-effect relationship will be implied by the flow of one slide to the next. Sequencing is, in and of itself, all one needs in terms of structure. Information flashes across the screen; the audience is spared the burden of understanding and insight. This presentation of information is usually accompanied by an image grabbed through a google search.

One might call this a “lie-back-and-think-of England” approach to one’s audience.

This phrase, “lie-back-and-think-of England,” for the reader lucky enough to not know, refers to the advice given to women regarding the inevitability of sexual coercion in their married lives. United Passions gives us a new spin on that phrase, as several bullet points are dedicated to demonizing the men of the English Football Association. The English FA’s pomposity is here developed as a background — perhaps the only available background — against which FIFA leadership might indulge the idea that they are merely humble servants to the beautiful game. FIFA/the English FA: this the film’s most compelling face-off. Or perhaps I should say, “most compelling bullet-point sequence.”  The only thing that unites the passions of FIFA’s founding characters is their shared hatred of that other imperialist congress of entitled white assholes. (To be clear, true to its form, this is indicated in the film, rather than, say, written and acted.)

Passions United is admirably open about the scale of self-serving ambition that lies at the root of the organization. FIFA was founded, we are told, for the sole purpose of having total control over the game everywhere such control matters, mainly because a few European men were annoyed that a few English men were bitchy to them. Men in suits, largely indistinguishable from each other, declare that the only rules of the game that will matter are their rules, that the only associations that matter will be FIFA associations. Voilá! FIFA Article I: Football will not exist outside of FIFA. This naked desire for monopoly is presented by the film’s swelling score as a “win” for the game.

Sprinkled throughout Passions United (I can’t get enough of this title) is imaginative thinking which presents FIFA’s so-called political neutrality as a simultaneously anti-fascist and populist politics — e.g. a party sequence in which an English FA executive spews racist and sexist nonsense at a horrified woman (Rimet’s daughter, more on her below), a bizarre boardroom scene that recycles debunked myths regarding wartime matches (these stories are also so badly told that one can’t actually follow them anyway, so their veracity is perhaps less an issue than their coherence). These moments are reassuringly familiar as staple elements of FIFA’s pantry: bad faith and pure bullshit.

Of course, as a feminist football critic, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that women are not only not forgotten by United Passions, they are all over its Powerpoint script, as is, shall we say, the idea of Africa.

The film confirms something we have long suspected: women and Africa occupy similar, even perhaps the same symbolic territory for FIFA. The film wonderfully maps out FIFA’s psychopathology so that we might better understand the exact roles that women and Africa play in the organization’s self-understanding. Women and Africa appear in United Passions as spaces of conquest, ownership, and creepy intimacy.

Africa functions as a scapegoat for FIFA’s corruption. One scene (one bullet-point) identifies Africa’s increased participation in FIFA as a “pandora’s box”—Africa functions in this film at once as a territory to be rescued, the locus of all foul play, as cash cow, and as a trophy. Women operate as both an alibi guaranteeing FIFA’s good intentions and, also, as evidence demonstrating the nature of FIFA’s bad intentions.

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The daughters of Jules Rimet and Sepp Blatter are given a shocking amount of screen time.

Nary a scene happens without one or the other fille: they are represented as essential conversation partners—the people with whom Rimet and Blatter talk out all of their ideas—within the script they are, really, the only people that these patriarchs can trust. This creates a little confusion. Normally, when a man talks this much at a woman in a film, it is because she is the object of his sexual interest; possession of her functions as an affirmation of his phallic power.

In short, the father-daughter partnerships of United Passions are startlingly incestuous. This is in no small part because Rimet, played by Gerard Depardieu, constantly puts his hands on his daughter (played by Jemima West), and because in at least one scene, in which the two are standing in an empty, large open public space, they stand so closely that Depardieu’s belly touches poor West. It is also because both women “characters” (that is really not quite the right word for them) function as fluffers: their sole function is to pump up Daddy’s ego. Take one of the most infamous lines of the film—as Rimet worries that playing a World Cup during the Great Depression might be wrong, his daughter says: “When have dreams ever been appropriate?” Indeed.

I appreciate the way that United Passions re-envisions Hollywood casting practices, in which women young enough to be the daughters/granddaughters of the male lead will be cast as their romantic object of interest as if such sexual relationships were fun to watch. Here, at least, that romance is called out as fundamentally incestuous—and it is presented as extremely uncomfortable viewing.

But this perhaps also reflects FIFA’s actual world, in which women can never function as equal partners, or should I say co-conspirators? The only appropriate position for a woman is as a “daughter” to FIFA’s “daddy.” Lie Back…

[I now have to wash out my eyeballs and scrub down my brain.]

Readers totally unfamiliar with the most banal conventions of the sports film might be surprised to learn that the film’s narrative superstructure is provided by a joyous pick-up game, played by children who have taken over a dusty pitch in a worn-out stadium on the edge of a city in an “emerging” nation. They are the children of the world—one of every color, and even one of the “other” gender (fair-skinned, of course). This sequence, which opens and closes the film — a “bullet point” which declares the game’s universal appeal — was filmed in Azerbaijan, whose government generously funded Passions Uniting Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, and is therefore listed as a production partner.

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This sequence, ironically depicting exactly the kind of game over which FIFA has no control whatsoever, as well as a kind of match (mixed-gender football) that FIFA explicitly prohibits, is the part of United Passions that one might equate with the google-search-produced image dropped into a Powerpoint slide. Of course, at first the lone girl resigns herself to playing goal. And she doesn’t know how to defend, apparently, because she makes barely a gesture to blocking shots—accepting humiliation and uselessness as her gendered lot—until, at the last moment and for no particular reason, she takes the ball, dribbles it up the field, shoots and scores. Her teammates are overwhelmed with joy. “Who would have believed this!” The film’s audience is asked this in a voice-over—an editorial accident superimposes the surprise that FIFA has lasted as long as it has, “accomplished” as much as it has, over an image which suggests a community’s surprise that a girl knows how to kick a ball.

Embedded below, the film’s conclusion. “Enjoy” it while you can.

I Hate FIFA More Than You Do, a poem

I hate Sepp Blatter

as much as I hated Jesse Helms, may that homophobic, racist monster rot in hell.

I hate FIFA

like I hate the contemporary art market, which is run by bankers and assholes.

I hate Sepp Blatter

more than I am disgusted by rotten meat.

I hate FIFA

in exactly the same way that I hate Capitalism.

I hate Sepp Blatter

without the pleasure of hating a villain in a movie.

I hate FIFA

because FIFA hates women.

I hate Sepp Blatter

more than I hate Manchester United, a club I don’t hate as much as one should.

I hate FIFA

with a white-hot passion that seems to know no scale.

I hate Sepp Blatter

only slightly less than I hate the assault on structures that do not service the rich, which is still a high order of hate.

I hate FIFA

more than I hate the sexism of my workplace, which surprises me.

I hate Sepp Blatter

more than you do, unless you aren’t on FIFA’s payroll, in which case

You hate FIFA as much as, maybe even more than I do.

FIFA can’t even handle its SEXISM right

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Most sex discrimination complaints break down not around the original discriminatory action, but around retaliation. Threats of retaliation escalate the problem created by the defendant’s sexism. They demonstrate a disregard for the process; they are easier to track and to prove. They are, also, against all sorts of laws.

So how does FIFA respond to the sex discrimination complaint filed by 40 women players, regarding FIFA and CSA’s decision to play the Women’s World Cup on artificial turf?

FIFA threatens players from a handful of FAs that it thinks it can bully—Mexico, Costa Rica and France (which wants to host the next women’s World Cup). Officials told women on these teams to withdraw their names from the complaint or they would not be selected to play and, in the case of France, their country might risk losing its future bid.

Result: said players withdraw their names—and file a retaliation complaint. And the number of players signing on to the original complaint jumps to 62.

Read the retaliation complaint here: Oct 2014 Letter-to-human-rights-tribunal-re-threats-against-players.

Women: They are all the Same to Sepp

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Grant Wahl’s Sports Illustrated article on FIFA’s sexism opens with story from Abby Wambach:

U.S. forward Abby Wambach tells one from the time she and her now-wife, Sarah Huffman, were backstage in a VIP room in January 2013 before the World Player of the Year awards gala in Zurich, Switzerland. “[FIFA president] Sepp Blattercame into our little area, and he walked straight up to Sarah and thought she was [Brazilian star] Marta,” says Wambach.

“Marta!” Blatter said, hugging a bewildered Huffman, who doesn’t look much like Marta. “You are the best! The very best!”

“He had no idea who Marta was, and she’s won the award five times,” says Wambach. “For me, that’s just a slap in the face because it shows he doesn’t really care about the women’s game.”  Read the rest of Wahl’s story here.

Blatter has not only met Marta Viera da Silva many times; his organization has used her and Wambach as alibis for the “good work” FIFA does for the world. Marta is not just another great player—she functions quite specifically as a poster-image for the world game.

There’s a lot more to say about the incidents recounted in Wahl’s article—but that one moment speaks volumes.  Imagine if Blatter mixed up, say, Kaká and Klose. (Men in suits—who can tell them apart?!) Given the difference in the game’s scale, however, the bar of our expectations regarding Blatter’s ability to recognize women players is actually quite low. One would expect him to be familiar with only a handful of people who look nothing like each other—Wambach, Marta, Nadine Angerer, Birgit Prinz, Homare Sawa and Hope Solo. Sepp Blatter can’t even manage THAT.

FIFA’s Official Poster for 2015: It’s Pretty

Canada 2015 Women's World Cup Poster

Long, flowing hair. Clearly beautiful. At the center of this poster’s story is an ambiguous relationship between a woman and a ball. Something about this reminds me of the association of women with “the land.” The beautiful game is beautiful, we are reassured, even when women play it. Especially if they have long flowing hair. Isn’t the poster beautiful? It’s is! Because I can’t see anything good in anything that FIFA does, I am a wee bit afraid of this:

pocahontas

So some things to celebrate. No ponytail, for example. Some things to furrow one’s brows over: no image of a woman in action.

A reminder of how the men’s game is pictured:

pressrelease_282663_1379007819

Not only are players figured into the design above; they are figured into the design as in competition with each other. It would be interesting to see a similar gesture applied to representing the women’s game—but, from an advertising/marketing perspective, this is one of the “no-go” zones in the women’s game. Women competing directly against each other, physically challenging each other? Not as pretty as flowing hair, pretty eyes and high cheekbones.

That said, the 2015 Women’s World Cup has the best World Cup mascot ever. EVER. Someone please make me a lucha libre version of this:

owl

Goal Deficit: a note on Brazil’s loss and David Luiz’s tears

Luiz

The World Cup is an intensely produced spectacle. Each goal is a world-defining event. The televisual audience watching from home, thousands of miles from the stadium, luxuriates in the experience of proximity to the match. We race down the pitch behind an attack, we are inside the goal as the ball hits the back of the net. Players rush across the field to celebrate, a camera suspended from wires flies behind and above them, like a bird. Suddenly, we’ve parachuted into the celebratory huddle. We are as close to the players’ ecstasy as they are to each other. Cut to views of jubilant crowds watching in public parks and in bars across the country. A goal yields a surplus of joy.

But oh, when the event goes sour!

A goal is only pleasurable in an economy of scarcity. In a match like today’s, in which a team is simply annihilated, a surplus of goals ruins the story. One side takes what it wants; the other is helpless.

There is no suspense, there is no release. First there is only shock, and shame. Then we settle into the grim situation. Perhaps a cold curiosity takes over. A team knows that it is lost, and there are still 70 minutes to play. We watch the rest of the match, bearing witness to the humanity of the losing side.

A realism shadows the broadcast. It is the shadow of an alternate world to the World Cup—the shadow cast by the world in which we live.

David Luiz, in a post-match interview, cries openly. (The women in Émile Zola’s novels grow more beautiful as they are beaten by their lovers; something about this scene reminds me of this.)

Through his tears, Luiz apologies. He “wanted to bring joy to the people who suffer so much.” He and his team failed—of course they did. Not even the people running this event—the show runners—believe that the success or the failure of the World Cup rides on any single team’s performance, or even that it will be measured by the quality of the spectator’s pleasure. It will be measured by the seamlessness of the production and the direction of capital flow.

As Luiz cries, he and his teammates are carried away by the tide.

Mexican Gothic (puto is a curse!)

Mexican Gothic

In honor of today’s match—at once startling and completely predictable—I share Ángel Zárraga’s gorgeous 1927 portrait of Ramón Novarro as a futbolista. Novarro (who moved to Los Angeles early in his career) was one of the original Latin Lovers. He starred in Scaramouche (1923), Ben Hur (1925), and Mata Hari (1931). He played Juan Diego in La virgen que forjó una patria (1942), a film celebrating one of Mexico’s origin stories: the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Diego in 1531. Diego was beatified and canonized only recently; he is the first indigenous person in the Americas to be recognized by the Roman Catholic church as a saint. But I digress.

Ramón Novarro was gay, and he was murdered in Los Angeles by two (white) men on, of all things, October 30, 1968 – the day before Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations. The murder was a grisly, awful affair.

This brings us to today’s match. The ESPN broadcast opened with an awkward explanation of the “puto” situation. It was, perhaps, the first trigger warning issued in sports broadcast history.

Fans of El Tri shout “PUTO” every time the opponent kicks a dead ball (goal kicks, free kicks, etc.). After Mexico’s first match, a watchdog organization filed a complaint with FIFA regarding the use of the word by fans in the stands. FIFA, unable to use the word “homophobic” in a sentence, decided that the chant is “not considered insulting in this context.” Obviously it is insulting; the question is whether “puto” is homophobic. No one can defend the word itself as never homophobic. Juliana Jimenez Jamarillo (writing for Slate) explains:

Fans yell puto, which roughly means gay prostitute, at the opposing team’s goalkeeper as a tactic to distract him from his task, a common enough practice in all sports. In this case, the chant is a very specific, homophobic double-entendre, playing on the concept of letting someone “score a goal on you.” In Spanish, to score a goal is meter un gol. That translates literally as to put a goal in, so when a goalie fails at his job, he dejó que se la metieran, or allowed someone to stick it in. You see where this is going: The embarrassment of allowing a goal in your net is akin to being on the receiving end of anal sex—you know, like a gay guy. (Jamarillo, “What’s the Puto Problem?”)

There wasn’t much anyone could do, ESPN host Bob Ley explained. The feed isn’t controlled by ESPN, and who can control fans? (One might say FIFA—they bans drums and trumpets and changed Brazilian law so that alcohol—Budweiser!—might be sold in the stadium.)

Lest we shrug off a stadium of (mostly) men shouting “puto” as merely a jinx on the opponent, let us remember gay men who have been brutally murdered at the hands of other men. Maybe by inviting men into their homes, or maybe by simply walking down the street.

For a couple weeks, we have listened to tens of thousands of fans chanting a word that means gay, but also “fucked.” And we’ve had little good commentary about how that situation is fucked up. It isn’t new (I’ve heard “puto” at Chivas USA matches, for example), but that doesn’t make it OK. Behind that word are quite specific histories of violence, aimed at quite specific people.

Also not new—Mexico fans exiting, with their team, at exactly this point of the World Cup.

Were I in the stands supporting El Tri, I might choose a different word when taunting the enemy. Not only for how “puto” works in a homophobic lexicon, but for how well it predicts Mexico’s path through every international tournament. If understanding the word’s homophobic resonances does not work for fans, perhaps a vocabulary shift might be made in the name of superstition.

FIFA’s Gendered Laws of the Game

From the opening page of FIFA’s Laws of the Game (2014-2015): Women appear on the list of categories of disabled players for whom one can modify the size of the pitch, the ball and the goal. And: FIFA’s use of the male gender in all documents really means both men and women. This gets really confusing when considering a 2004 FIFA Executive Committee decision asserting that “the difference between men’s and women’s football must be absolute.” Women, who should not be expected to play by the same rules as men, are not men. Except when we say men and we mean women. That difference is absolute!

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Olympic Blatter: boycott on the brain

Sepp Blatter is going to Sochi. So the FIFA president declares in a recent issue of FIFA Weekly. The magazine includes a two-page selective history of boycott movements. In his “presidential notes” accompanying this weird article, Blatter characterizes the boycotter as “running away” from the problem rather than confronting it. He makes a vague gesture towards FIFA’s even more vague stand against the unpleasantness of “discrimination.”

Image

He can’t bring himself to write words like “homophobia,” or “gay.” It’s OK to acknowledge that racism is bad. But sexism and homophobia? Not fit for print. He says that he is an advocate for social inclusion and participation, but that commitment does not extend to the words one uses in such a “conversation” about said advocacy.

There is no reference in this FIFA Weekly article to Russia’s psychotic anti-gay laws, not one use of a word associated with homosexuality (e.g. “gay,” “anti-gay”) in the FIFA Weekly story on boycotts and the Olympics. Not one. Furthermore, in this piece of half-hearted propaganda, FIFA editors almost exclusively reference the US/Soviet Olympic boycotts as evidence of how boycotts don’t work. There is not one mention of the most famous boycott movement of the twentieth century, one which had a big impact on both the Olympics and the World Cup – and, indeed, the make-up of FIFA: the boycott and divestment movement against apartheid South Africa. Members of the Confederation of African Football and the Asian Football Federation boycotted the 1966 World Cup in response to FIFA’s aggressively colonialist policies limiting African and Asian participation in the tournament; CAF nations in particular also linked their boycott to FIFA’s apologist behavior toward South Africa and Rhodesia. (See, for example, Two Hundred Percent‘s overview of this period.)

That boycott moved African and Asian participation in the tournament forward, and it brought about the end of apartheid South Africa’s recognition by FIFA. This movement was led not by government leaders, but by the people – by students and activists all over the world. South Africa’s invitation to participate in the 1968 Olympics was one of the platforms for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (and that invitation was revoked, in response to political pressure). That movement led to one of the most enduring images in all of sports history (the raised fists and bowed heads of Tommie Smith, John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics). Black athletes in 1968 were fighting for human rights – boycotting events in South Africa, and divesting from South African institutions and companies was a major part of that.

How anyone could have a conversation about boycotts and not mention South Africa is beyond me. That Blatter would describe boycott movements as cowardly (as “running away from the problem”) is despicable. Read that “presidential note” if you want a refresher course on why, whenever Blatter appears in a tournament stadium, crowds unite in a chorus of jeers.

A Thought Against the World

The critic who would try to think of a world outside the World Cup and The Olympics is faced with a unique problem. FIFA and the IOC have a stranglehold on the global sport spectacle, on the presentation of the sporting event as a World Event. Their hold on the idea of the global event is so tight that even their harshest critics imagine that change will be brought about by participation in those events, or by boycotting those events. Within that critical discourse, change is possible if only we provide the right kind of pressure.

But real change will not happen either way. The larger these events become, the more media space they take up, the more public resources they use up – the worse it gets. By “it,” here, I think I mean “life.” Real change – is that a better Olympics? A better World Cup? Does one celebrate a Qatar World Cup or a Russian Olympics in the hope that these events will make Qatar and Russia more liberal environments for gays and women? In calling for that outcome, we enlist “gays and women” as neoliberal alibis, and lend legitimacy to the notion that the Olympic games improve every city that hosts them and that the idea that the World Cup unites the world’s football fans and creates possibilities for social change and better living. We all know that’s a lie.

These organizations are more notorious in sports media for their corruption than for their discriminatory practices. Sports media cares about the former only as long as it doesn’t jeopardize advertising revenue, and it doesn’t care about the latter at all. FIFA and the IOC are happy to deploy female, black and Muslim athletes as alibis justifying their work. That work being not social justice, but the amplification of their hegemony.

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