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.

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.

A People’s Cup

Each broadcast of FIFA’s World Cup opened with plastic samba and cartoon favelas—the actual streets of Brazil were off-limits as far as FIFA’s marketing department was concerned. They are not up to standard, and so they were replaced, like so much else.

Around the world, however, people practice the sport according to a different set of guidelines.  Las Futbolistas, for example, offer a weekly kickabout where “anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, liberation-minded lovers of the sport [can] go to relearn the game.” This past weekend, the Los Angeles collective staged a small game in Skid Row, a neighborhood in downtown LA with a large homeless community. They then marched to the Federal Detention Center, and projected the 3rd place match on a wall across the street from the building. Las Futbolistas were kind enough to share video highlights from the day.

 

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.

The Last Minute

Godfried Donkor, SANTO MARADONNA vs SIX OPPONENTS, 2006

Godfried Donkor, SANTO MARADONNA vs SIX OPPONENTS, 2006

At the knock-out stage of the World Cup we march through 90-minute deserts, or we are teased with the possibility of another world only to have those hopes dashed by a victory which asserts the relentless stability of the order of things.

A match may take the form of a siege. Opponents wear each other down with a negative effort. Play feels slowed down or sluggish. As one gets deeper into a tournament the fear of losing overcomes the desire to win until, finally, the latter asserts itself in the form of a late substitution (Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, in the 91st minute, against the US) or cynical play (Netherland’s Arjen Robben, in the 94th, against Mexico). Did Argentina and Switzerland play a match? It was hard to tell.

The conservative smothers the creative. Is this why the stadium was nearly silent as Brazil sank into a quagmire of anxiety? For the host country, even fans are done in by this particular form of dread—the misery of the winner who is really a loser, the most spectacular loser of them all, afraid the world will suddenly discover this ugly truth. What do we do with the fact that Brazil advanced not on the back of its play, but by virtue of being the luckier party in a Russian roulette penalty shoot-out? Even the one point they scored during the match was negative: although attributed to Luiz, it was at least partially an own-goal, having been deflected by poor Jara (who would miss his penalty and thereby sacrifice Chile to the Order).

If we are lucky, we see action in the form of the save. A team strikes at the goalie, over and over again. This excites us but it also distracts us. After we relaxed into the delusion that Tim Howard’s goal line is a wall (perhaps because it is past the point at which the match should have ended)—a new player pops onto the field and shows us that all along his team was only toying with us. We—by which I mean not the players so much as the fans—were always cannon fodder. Our delusions, food for the television camera.

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.

A More Perfect World

Daniel Lara’s An Imperfect Universe is a beautiful project. We pass by pick-up games and local league matches every day; small communities of futbolistas are a part of our lives and our sense of home. If you’ve observed these games or played in them, you know that the balls are often worn. They are worn because they are in constant use and carry the traces of their travel across packed dirt and cement. Lara exchanged old balls for new ones; he carefully dissassembled and then patched together the worn balls to make sculptures. Each is an appreciation of the local; lo-fi love for the game.

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The Art of Conversation: Portugal – USA

conversationSoccer is a dialogic sport. It is shaped by opposition and struggle, by action and counteraction. There are no absolutes in these kinds of sports. The things that make for a great match, for example, are not the same things that make for a great race. A race is structured by a standard measurement of time, as well as by the idea of absolute performance (“the fastest human”). But a match is measured by the quality of the conversation.

Opponents will sink and rise to each other’s level – every fan and athlete knows this experience. A match might be halting and uneventful, or lopsided and boring because the two sides never connect in play. Very talented, organized and competitive sides are not always open to talk. Spain played like a team that was tired of talking. A team that had been the life of the party for too many years, and now just wants a quiet night in once and a while. England and Portugal gave their own versions of this kind of performance. Their play has been characterized by a weary narcissism – they are not tired of the party; they are tired of themselves.

Contrast that disengagement with Germany, France, Ghana, Chile and Colombia. It’s no wonder that Germany and Ghana’s match was so tremendous: the two play with an interest in the opposition. No gesture is unremarked upon; their conversation was fluid and elegant. Each side has the capacity for a certain brutality; each has the capacity to engage and diffuse the other’s attack. Like Dorothy Parker and Gore Vidal trading barbs.

Portugal and the US – they gave us a good dialogue but not a great one. The US, on a good day, will rise to an opponent’s level. But Portugal wasn’t interested helping them along. So Portugal exploited defensive errors, and did little more than that. Yes, CR7, when left completely alone, will send in a perfect cross to just the right person. In this case, it was a witty remark made on the way out the door to suggest the fun we might have had, if he wasn’t so utterly bored by us and the world. The US was a more entertaining guest. One got the sense that they were playing through fear and disorientation. Glad to be at the table, not quite sure what they were supposed to say and do – every now and again, they’d reach across the table to fill their wine glass, wash the anxiety down and throw themselves into the fray.

Yolanda de Sousa’s Mundial Scrapbook

 

Yolanda de Sousa has been keeping a watercolor diary of this year’s World Cup. She has a painter’s eye for the ‘man of the match.’  As it happens, the Goan artist is an important figure in football history. In the late 1970s and 80s, she enjoyed a storied career playing women’s football in India. She was a real pathfinder. In 1980, she was voted player of the decade by India’s Women’s Football Federation. Sport-related work is not the mainstay of her practice, but every now and again she documents a match (football or cricket) with these player-portraits. (I wrote about her 2002 series a few years back.)

I’ve reproduced the bulk of a 2009 Times of India’s profile of the artist-footballer below. The brief article contains lots of information about her career as a player.

“It’s time for all of us to face the truth,” she says, sifting through memories when she was queen of the 100m field and the continent, her kingdom.

At a time when FIFA has struck off the Indian women’s football team from its world rankings for being out of sight or rather action for more than 18 months, Yolanda reminds us of the late seventies and early eighties when women’s football bettered the best in the continent and matched the rest of the world.

“Taiwan had an exceptionally strong team and was number one in Asia, but we always gave them plenty of problems. We were so strong in our belief and quality that we took the field knowing we could get the result we desired against most of the teams in the world,” says Yolanda, voted the player of the decade in 1980 by the Women’s’ Football Federation of India.

Yolanda’s story deserves to be told more so because it has the ability to instill the belief that women’s football still has the ability to enchant, entertain and inspire a generation.

It may not be the case elsewhere, but at least in this part of the world, many equate football with masculinity. But, as Yolanda’s story would demonstrate, that was never the case when she got enveloped by the magic of the game at a very young age.

“I would play along with my brother (Francisco) and his friends, but most of the times I was shunted to the goal. Whenever I got a chance to play up front, I would really put my best foot forward,” remembers Yolanda, who grew up to become one of Goa’s exemplary, if not, finest footballer.

Yolanda scored a goal in the first ever recorded women’s football match, playing against a men’s team appropriately called Adam’s in 1973, but it was not until 1976 when Goa took part in their first Nationals at Sultanpur and Yolanda scored a bag full of goals – 15 in all including two hat-tricks – and announced her arrival on the big scene.

“We lost in the final against Bengal by the narrowest of margins,” remembers Yolanda, dubbed the Madonna of Goan football.

The 1976 Nationals at Sultanpur was the first Goa ever participated in, and for the first time got to know what other players thought about Goa and Goans. “Since the facilities were not good enough, we wanted separate accommodations. This led to rumours that we sought a hotel elsewhere because the players wanted to enjoy their drinks! They believed we played well because we were drinking,” laughs the Calangute-based artiste.

Goa hosted the 3rd edition of the National football championship in 1977 and, true to expectations, won the tournament in style, defeating twice-champions Bengal 3-0 in front a lustily cheering capacity-crowd at the Bandodkar stadium at Campal.

Goa dominated the championship from start to finish, scoring an amazing 49 goals that included roaring wins over Madhya Pradesh (25-0), Punjab (10-0), Gujarat (5-0), Manipur (6-0) and, finally, Bengal (3-0).

Goa’s deadly strike pair of Succorinha Pereira (19 goals) and Yolanda (18 goals) scored 37 of the 49 goals, but often it was such a bore to score goals against the hapless opposition that even the strikers played the ball amongst themselves instead of taking aim at the goal!

“We were too strong for the other teams during Nationals. We used to score early in all the games since most of the goalkeepers remained clueless,” says the stylish striker.

Yolanda’s international debut came in 1976 when she, along with the likes of Rekha Karapurkar, Succorinha Pereira and Helen Fernandes, found a place in the Indian team against the visiting Swedish club BET.

She set all the venues on fire, ensuring seven victories and in the process becoming the first woman to score a hat-trick for India.

Since that memorable debut, Yolanda remained a permanent member of the Indian team until she was forced into premature retirement after the World Cup of 1981.

“Injury cut short my career. I was too scared to undergo an operation to correct the damage and instead opted to call it a day,” says Yolanda, who gave up hockey and badminton which she excelled at the highest level to nurse her football dream.

The artist with a photo from her playing days.

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