The Voices in Her Head

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[Revised*]

On March 15 of this year, FIFA approved the use of Video Assistant Referees (VAR) in the Women’s World Cup. This is, in general, a good thing. VAR was used in last year’s men’s tournament without too much trouble. But the implementation of VAR in the Women’s World Cup has not gone very well at all. Today, Pierluigi Collina, the chair of FIFA’s referee committee, hosted a press conference and reviewed this tournament’s refereeing statistics and fielded questions — if you are down for 90 minutes of VAR spin, you can watch it here. The questions (which start about an hour in) were pretty hard hitting and the panel dodged them – one gentleman, for example, asked why Asian, African and South American teams have seemed more vulnerable to VAR decisions than European teams. He was told to read the rulebook.

Like many people watching this tournament, I’ve been wondering why the VAR use has been so particularly awful. Luis Paez-Pumar, writing for Deadspin, provides an excellent overview of the misery caused by the combination of the last minute institution of new rules of the game, the amplified power of VARs, and FIFA’s general contempt for the women’s game. He writes:

FIFA listened (belatedly) to calls for VAR at the World Cup, and it gave its unprepared referees the unwanted responsibility of properly implementing new rules that were only made official six days before the first game of the tournament. These changes were made under the name of equality, but it’s hard to imagine FIFA implementing similarly dramatic changes so haphazardly coming into a men’s World Cup. FIFA set its referees up to fail at the Women’s World Cup, all in the name of technology no one fully understands and rules no one particularly likes

I have something to add to the running list of shitty FIFA things informing this situation. Every one of the 15 people initially listed as working this tournament as a Video Assistant Referee is a man and not one (as far as I can tell) has a history of working in women’s football.* (By the way, the latter may mean they don’t have much of a history of working with women, in general.)

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Before I dive in, let me be clear: I do not think that having women leading the VAR Room will necessarily fix things. What I do think is this: the fact that the VAR list did not include women or people with experience refereeing women’s matches is symptomatic of the sexist rot which plagues FIFA’s involvement in the women’s game. [Women are working in the VAR room as Assistant Video Assistant Referees: one woman per match team.]

There is a reason why those fifteen VARs are men and why they do not have experience officiating at the highest levels of the women’s game. This is the outcome of FIFA’s practice of maintaining separate referee lists for men’s and women’s football. It was not always this way. In a 2002 post on FIFA’s website, Sonia Denoncourt (the former head of referee development) explains:

In 1994, FIFA took the unprecedented step of appointing the first four female assistant referees in the world. These women were included in the universal (read: male) list. In 1995, FIFA followed this up with significant changes for women referees and assistant referees, by introducing FIFA’s first ever list of women referees just in time for the Women’s World Cup in Sweden.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for the conversations in which FIFA administrators debated the benefits of a universal (meaning all-gender) referee list! Denoncourt’s brief article suggests that the misogyny of national federations was so intense that it was hard to imagine working in any of its contexts and getting an education in much beyond one’s capacity to endure harassment. More than implied in this article was the necessity of this separation in order to create a space in which women might have a chance to gain experience and to do so in a minimally sexist environment. (The article also expresses some really quite regressive views about the differences between men and women athletes; it’s worth reading as a document of what I imagine was one of the more forward thinking perspectives on the sport within FIFA structures.)

There are manifold problems, however, with the total segregation of referee pools.

There is a tendency, in sports, to treat girls and women’s sports as a training ground for inexperienced referees. (In the United States, Civil Rights law actually makes it illegal to do that in most contexts.) This expresses a broad devaluation, in sports and in the world, of women’s capacity to lead and govern men.

Furthermore, women’s sports are held at a sub-professional level by governing institutions run by men whose misogyny is often worse than that one finds amongst the general population. So, if you only allow women to referee women, and those women work in countries with an amateur-level game at home, those women will hit a glass ceiling hard and early. Women’s leagues, furthermore, currently do not use VAR. The only referees with experience working with VAR are those working in the men’s game and in those leagues using it, VAR is still new.

Women refereeing this World Cup work in men’s leagues, however, and a few work as referees in leagues using VAR. To name just two — Bibiana Steinhaus (Bundesligue), Stéphanie Frappert (Ligue 1). Just a few months ago, in fact, the FFF assigned Frappert as the center referee to a Ligue 1 match. The federation explained that they did so in response to a request from FIFA to support her exposure to top-flight matches in advance of the World Cup. Frappert, one learns with just a little more googling, has experience working for Ligue 1 as a Video Assistant Referee. She worked 8 matches this past season. I point this out to emphasize the fact that it is not the case that there are no women with VAR experience. There have not been, until this World Cup, women with experience working in the VAR room at a World Cup — which is the result of FIFA’s unwillingness to use the men’s game to support the development of women referees.

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FIFA’s request of the FFF strikes me as interesting — it’s a sign that the people governing refereeing know that they have a pipeline problem, as is the language of its press release describing an all-male VAR team (“VAR will be part of a remarkable project as it will unite women and men referees in what we are certain will be a successful tournament.”) It’s also a sign that FIFA treats the Women’s World Cup as an afterthought. There should have been no question about whether VAR would be used in the Women’s World Cup, and women should have gone to Russia specifically to train with it last year. There is no reason why the men’s game can’t be a platform for the development of the women’s game.

Referee development is a big part of FIFA’s discourse about the World Cup’s function as an instrument for lifting the level of the game globally. From what I can see from my admittedly limited research on this issue, it looks as if in the 1990s and 2000s, FIFA punted the project of developing women referees because FIFA executives were not interested in taking on the misogyny of its national federations. The gender segregated list was one way of addressing that as it forced national federations to start working with women at least in women’s games; but it also tied the project of the development of women referees to the same federations that inhibit the development of the women’s game.

Basically, with that gender segregated list, FIFA extends the women’s game a hand while keeping its boot on her neck.

If FIFA is actually committed to supporting the development of women referees, it should have a universal referee list and work towards gender parity at every level of the sport. The minute FIFA started working with VAR, it should have included women referees in that process.

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In the press conference today, officials could not deny that governance of the match has been more aggressive that it was in 2018. Statistically, however, it is not out of line with the recent U20 tournament, a fact that raises more questions than it answers. In this tournament, if feels like VARs have micromanaged the referee, interfered with the match’s pacing and turned the game in a direction that seems unfair.

Perhaps this is just a sign of the times — so much of what passes as technical advancement makes the quality of our lives so very worse. VAR has made it harder to trust the technical apparatus — it amplifies the lack of trust we have in FIFA itself.

Returning to gender: in the imbalanced optics of this situation we have a great expression of one of the very biggest contradictions shaping FIFA’s governance of the women’s game.

About fifteen years ago, in rejecting a woman player’s request to transfer to a second-tier men’s club in Mexico, FIFA explained that “there must be a clear separation of between men’s and women’s football.” They’ve stuck to that line ever since.

But the truth is that the separation of women’s football from men’s football is not at all clear. If that were true, women would have total executive authority over the game. They would determine its funding levels, they would make decisions regarding player salaries and support, they would negotiate endorsements. They would govern the game’s rules — they would make the decisions about things like hijab, for example and set guidelines regarding who is eligible to play on a women’s team. If we take the players themselves as the center of the women’s game, we needn’t step very far at all from that center to find the game being run by men.

That situation is visualized in this tournament by images of (mostly) men sitting in what looks like a war room as they supervise a game played and refereed by women.

The contradictions in FIFA’s logic regarding the necessity for absolute clarity in the difference between the men’s and women’s game is made manifest in the fact the men in that VAR room do not work in women’s football. If the differences are so clear, so important to the sport’s integrity then how are those men actually qualified to do this supervisory work? And if they can do that work, then why couldn’t women work as VARs in Russia? Or at the U20 men’s tournament in Poland?

I wonder what the men working as Video Assistant Referees for the Women’s World Cup are thinking about women footballers and referees. I wonder what they are thinking about the difference that gender makes. How might race and gender be impacting the way that the VARs are reading the screens? Who does a freeze frame help, or hurt? We do not see the game through a race and gender neutral lens unless we’ve made a commitment to unlearning how racism and sexism pattern how we see what we see. I find it hard to believe that the decisions made by a group of men charged with reviewing the decisions of a team of women are not shaped by their attitudes about the women and the women’s game.

This, hopefully, will be the first and last world cup to give us this optic of a battery of men with no history in the women’s game supervising women referees. Maybe this situation will force FIFA to give up its antiquated policy of segregated referee lists. Maybe we are inching towards a more gender dynamic environment in the sport.

As it happens, during his press conference Collina reviewed a VAR call from (I think) last night’s match. When he showed a short clip of the VAR team at work, I spied a pony tail, two seats from the left: is that a woman referee in training? My bet is that it is Sian Massey-Ellis, getting herself ready not just for the next World Cup, but for next season’s Premiership. Oh, check that. It’s Scotland’s Kylie Cockburn! Screen Shot 2019-06-26 at 8.01.54 PM.png

 

*I first drafted this working off of FIFA’s own press releases re VAR. I’ve been watching matches in person, in bars and missed that there are women working in the VAR room as Assistant Video Assistant Referees — eg Oleksandra Ardasheva, who worked the France-Brazil match. My first draft didn’t reflect this fact; I’ve gone through the post and edited to finesse my main points, which still work. Thank you Twitter for sorting me out!

 

 

 

 

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

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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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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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Michael Sam: Welcome to the Family

Joe Sola, Saint Henry Composition, 2001 (still)

It is a marvelous thing when an athlete tells the world that he is not going to bargain with his happiness.

It is marvelous thing that Michael Sam, a serious NFL prospect, has announced to the people who run the show that he’s gay – it’s just plain wonderful that he made this announcement as publicly as possible through mainstream and LGBT media. Michael Sam is daring the sports world to turn its back on him. Daring the suits to defy the (relatively) easy acceptance shown him by his teammates and coaching staff.

“And, by the way, I’m GAY” is something that gay men in the most macho of sports usually say on their way out the door. Retiring as a player is accompanied by a release – for many LGBT athletes, participation in a sport is synonymous with the suppression of one’s life as gay, lesbian or transgendered. A robust professional career becomes a straight-jacket. Hanging up the uniform is done with a certain joy, and a lot of bitterness.

In 2009, the Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, a real star in an international game, asserted the possibility of a different story for men. Thomas came out to the media in 2009 (he retired in 2011). He was already out to his teammates and his coach: he was in his late 30s and in the rare position of being so loved, so admired that his coming out could not  have unsettled people’s understanding of his value as an athlete. Most queer folks walk away much sooner. As teenagers. They walk away from the track, they walk off the field. If they read as gay to the people around them – they get kicked off the team, they don’t get selected for national development programs, they are bullied and shamed and never get to a place where they might be offered a spot on a big college team. Most say something like, FUCK THIS BULLSHIT and do something else.

A few of these young people find it within themselves to fall on the sword and file lawsuits, and it is thanks to them that we have any legal tools for confronting the intense homophobia that shapes lesbian and gay athletes’ experiences of sports. Penn State basketball stand-out Jennifer Harris did so in 2007 when she was bullied by her coach – Rene Portland had a “no lesbians” policy which she advertised to the media for 20 years. Portland didn’t think there was anything wrong with her policy, it felt totally natural to her to ban lesbians from her team (lesbian, here, meant any woman who doesn’t appear feminine). Those people never get to take their sport up again – people who fight for social justice are not, according this side of the sports world, “team players.” That kind of attitude still prevails among the corporate drones of the sports world. The people writing endorsement contracts, making media deals – the people in the business of selling the game, the people who make selling out into a profession – they are the ones holding us all back. As Chris Kluwe told the New York Times:

The men in charge will pose problems, Kluwe said. “It’s the general managers and coaches who are going to say it’s a distraction.”

These are the people who force the lesbian, gay and trans athlete to choose. Sport or sex. And by “sex” here, I mean the whole things – everything that word means. The gender of one’s romantic partners, sexual acts and identities, one’s own relationship to gender and sexuality, one’s social relationships to gendered people, the gender-culture of one’s sport, the sexual culture of that sport. One is asked to suppress and participate; embrace and exile.

That suppression might require that one deep-six one’s happiness, all expression of gender rebellion, all expressions of same-sex love and attachment. It might require something lighter – but still quite heavy – an undercover cop’s level of discretion as one leads the classic double-life – and in which the more successful you are in your sport, the more vulnerable you are for having made even the smallest gesture towards that word ‘gay.’ Maybe, as is the case with a lot of women athletes, one “just” watches the team’s management, the Olympic committee’s administration, and corporate sponsors quash all things that signal “gay” – from the existence of a long-term, live-in girlfriend and the importance of a gay family as part of an athlete’s support team (athletes have gay parents!), to an athlete’s haircut, outfit choices, participation in Pride or mentorship of other LGBT athletes. All of that might be conducted “off-the-record” to make a bunch of out-of-touch assholes feel like they are stewarding the development of your sport. Which usually involves putting women athletes in bikinis, giving them make-overs, and finding stories about teammates who are getting married – to men. To reassure themselves that women are not lesbians, lesbians are not women. If Sam wants to talk to out pro athletes about negotiating all of that – new territory in men’s sports – he’d do well to seek out the women who’ve been out there in sports world’s genderwarzone for decades. Now that he’s out, he gets to navigate the problem of being visible.

It is interesting to watch the straight media struggle to describe the shape of Sam’s life. All media accounts describe him as open in a way that is perfectly commensurate with the lives of young gay men who are in college, who are finding their way through a homophobic world – telling friends, finding the right bars and making more friends. Right now, the media is making a lot out of his family’s homophobia, for example. The New York Times profile dedicates a fair amount to space to his father’s discomfort, and suggests that being closer to friends than family is some sort of tragedy – even given the hundred other things Sam had to overcome, the idea of a homophobic father – especially one who is a black man – will prove irresistible as headline fodder. For queer folks, a family’s homophobia is a misery, but it is often also part of a more complicated story. A family’s homophobia may be just one ingredient in a toxic cocktail, and homophobia has all sorts of shapes, textures and sounds. Sometimes a family just can’t support you for who you are and there might be a thousand reasons why that might be so. Discovering a whole world of people – friends – who are happy to mentor and guide you, who are dedicated to your happiness and to the realization of your potential – who will open up their homes, shelter you and more – that is a magic time in one’s life and queer folks turn away from all sorts of trouble in favor of this other family. The families we choose. Queer friendship, in fact, points out the poverty of the system that only validates relationships that fit a heternormative, reproductive paradigm. We should not look at biological families or friendships through the lens of that paradigm. Friends are not a poor substitute for a “real” family. It seems like Michael Sam is really good at making friends, finding family in the larger world. And that this is the place he’s coming from.

This is what I like about his timing. This is not just a coming out, this is an athlete who is already making a home for himself in the world as a gay man. His announcement to the media is a very public demonstration of the choice that LGBT athletes make every day, especially in their youth – a decision, often made by necessity – as a matter of survival – to live otherwise and to make the world into something different – something better. His message: “This game is asking something of me that I don’t want to give it. A denial of who I am. So I’m going to demand a different kind of game.” Few are in a position to force a game to change. Michael Sam is, and he’s going for it.

Goal Tending

For the past couple weeks I’ve been posting artwork centered on women’s football, partly in response to the exclusion of such work from curatorial projects on “the beautiful game.” I have a professional responsibility as a feminist art critic and as a feminist sports writer to point out when the marginalization of women’s sports is extended into the art world, to educate people as to how one might counter that tendency, but also to explain why it is important that we do so.

As I talk with people about this kind of artwork, and the condition of women’s football globally, I’m constantly reminded of cultural attitudes about the women’s game. For most people, women’s football is an obscure subject. It’s an obscure subject, in fact, for most women sports fans. People are committed to the idea that women’s football is slow and boring. They might enjoy the Olympics, or the Women’s World Cup – but what they seem to relish is the surprise that they liked the tournament. Sports media feeds the fan this narrative – that anytime a women’s game is exciting, it’s a “new” thing. It’s a surprise because mainstream fans of football are committed to the idea that women just don’t have the skill, strength, or speed to play an “entertaining” game. When not enthralled by an international tournament in which women are somehow possessed by demons and play well, those (sexist) fans entertain (comfort?) themselves with stories of women’s monstrosity and ineptitude. These people sit at home and make video montages, evidencing what they already know. Women can’t play.

This gross problem is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than in popular ideas about women goalkeepers. The above youtube video has been, since 2007, the first video that appears in a google search for “women goalkeepers.” The first (at least from my computers and in my locations). Not season highlights of the first goalkeeper (male or female) to win FIFA’s World Player of the Year (Germany’s Nadine Angerer) but a weird compilation of low points in the early rounds of an old tournament. Ask the world what it wants to know about women goalkeepers, and you will learn that the world cares only about how awful they are. This is the story that world is determined to see. The question “Why is women’s goalkeeping so poor?” takes as a given the idea that women are inherently bad at goalkeeping; it assumes that the limits one might see in the early rounds of an international tournament reflect a biological limitation. A deficiency. In fact, any mistake a woman makes in goal at any level is likely to be read as the result of her having a vagina. 

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But ask the world what it wants to know about goalkeepers – who are assumed to be men – and you will see that the world wants a definition of the position and it wants to know which ones are the best. Given the ruthlessness of the sexism of the sports world, I think it’s important – necessary – that when we take up football as a subject in our research, writing and cultural programing we actively refuse the impulse to take the men’s game as a universal standard, and the women’s game as some form of deviation. We need to think them both together, and in relation to one another.

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scene of a crime (football stadium)

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This weekend The Independent published a story about black lesbians in South Africa who have been raped, gang raped, murdered by men who claim this violence as a means for making women “straight.” Sexual violence is often presented as some kind of “punishment.” In these cases, the “punishment” takes the form and intensity of a lynching. Football often appears in these news stories, as gender non-normative women are found on the pitch, coming home from training, or in the stands – and assaulted. (See, for example, this 2009 Guardian story.) The above image is a photograph of the football stadium in Gauteng where Mvulina Fana was “left for dead” by her attackers. It is part of the artist Claire Carter’s series documenting the community targeted in these assaults. (The artist Zanele Muholi has produced a large and very moving body of work on this subject; there is, South Africa, an community of artists responding to this terrible crisis.)

The opening of “Crisis in South Africa”:

Mvuleni Fana was walking down a quiet alleyway in Springs – 30 miles east of Johannesburg – on her way home from football practice one evening when four men surrounded her and dragged her back to the football stadium. She recognised her attackers. One by one, the men raped her, beating her unconscious and leaving her for dead.

The next morning, Mvuleni came round, bleeding, battered, in shock, and taunted by one overriding memory – the last thing they said to her before she passed out: “After everything we’re going to do to you, you’re going to be a real woman, and you’re never going to act like this again”. (Patrick Strudwick, “Crisis in South Africa“)

To learn more, see, for example, Inkanyiso.org, a blog established by Zanele Muholi as a platform for people affected by this violence.

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