Under the Lights and in the Dark

In Under the Lights and in the Dark, sports writer Gwendolyn Oxenham notes how women’s sport is the antithesis of American sportwriter Gary Smith’s answer to the ‘if you could trade places with any athlete’ question. ‘I probably wouldn’t,’ he famously said. ‘For the most part, they’ve had to whittle down their lives so much to excel at something that their possibility for personal growth is compromised.’

Female footballers (soccer players), however, have to work, study, and generally juggle many, many, many commitments outside football. If anything, their personal growth accelerates.

Under the Lights spotlights some of the challenges women have had—and continue to have—to overcome in order to play football. As she notes in the book’s opening pages: ‘Dozens of players across the world shared their stories and their time. Whether from Liverpool or Lagos, Tokyo or Kabul, Kingston or Paris, here’s one thing that was always true: at an early age, they found the game and held on, driven neither by money nor fame—only the desire to be great. Here are their stories.’

Featuring a mix of well known and periphery players, and grouping tales under some key themes such as low or even non-existent salary, homelessness, and motherhood, Oxenham exposes some of the issues women face simply to play the sport they love.

One of the most striking is the bizarre and terrifyingly powerless experience of playing in Russia, where the team may or may not be run by, and acting as a money-laundering cover for, the mafia. Under these dubious conditions, the players are beholden to a coach and manager who forces them to take ‘vitamins’, both orally and via injections, that one player, on returning to the US and undergoing medical tests, determines to be anabolic steroids.

Another obstacle Oxenham exposes is the decades-long consequences of women’s football being banned in Brazil from 1941 until 1979 courtesy of a law that stated that ‘women will not be allowed to practi[s]e sports [that] are incompatible to their feminine nature.’

Women can now in theory legally play football in Brazil, Oxenham notes, but they’re being prevented from playing by other means. Santos, for example, was until a few years ago the best women’s football team. Was, because the club cut the entire team in 2012 in order to stump up cash to keep male footballer Neymar (AKA he of the ridiculous rolling that inspired countless 2018 World Cup mockery and memes) by paying him one million reals (US$558,000) a month. He was later sold overseas anyway. How Neymar can live with himself allowing the women’s team to be cut for him, I cannot conceive.

Motherhood is another theme Oxenham explores—specifically, how, just as in office-based workplaces, pregnancy and motherhood hampers or more often ends women’s football careers. Of the 24 teams and 552 women who competed at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Oxenham writes, only 11 players were known to be mothers. Most of the national teams have no mothers, due to cost, commitment, the absence of maternity policies, and an all-round lack of support.

But Oxenham also highlights some of women’s football’s triumphs. Portland and its women’s team the Thorns, for example, are the town and the team that shows the rest of the world how women’s football and women’s football support should be. One of the iconic banners its avid supporters have painted is a quote from The Little Prince: ‘It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important’. Where ‘wasted’ can be read as ‘done it for the love of the game’.

About women’s football, but also about much more pervasive issues that affect women in society more widely, Under the Lights and in the Dark is yet another invaluable documentation of the issues women face and the progress they are making. With any luck and a lot of hard work, in the future female footballers will soon just be under the lights.

Dim’s Christmas Crackers List # 2 – Sports Books

I confess, I am not impressive with a bat or ball. Playing sports has never really been my thing. What I have discovered however, is that reading about sports is far more satisfying for me and if even if you don’t have a footy-mad under nine-year-old or even a book-crazy child, the following sports books may be just the ticket to igniting an appreciation for both, this Christmas.

3 – 7 years

Great Goal! Marvellous Mark! by Katrina Germein and Janine Dawson

This is an alphabet picture book with a lovely difference – it appeals to footy fanatical boys and girls who love AFL but also enjoy the thrill and anticipation of team play. Superb alliteration and spirited illustrations take readers from A to Z, through a wet and wonderful day on the field. I love the exaggerated use of letter repetition used to reinforce and introduce new word sounds. Sensational squelchy fun.

Ford Street Publishing 2017

6 – 9 years Junior novels for younger readers

Ballerina Dreams: A True Story by Michaela & Elaine DePrince and Ella Okstad

This is a gorgeous pretty in pink story about prima ballerina, Michaela DePrince. Abandoned in a Sierra Leone orphanage, then adopted by the DePrinces, it tells of Michaela’s rise from poverty and despair to attaining her dream of dancing on her toes and flying through the air after seeing a picture of a woman with pink shoes on her feet on a magazine cover. Poignant and gently inspirational. Highly recommended for those with a dancing dream of their own.

Random House for Children first published, Faber & Faber UK May 2017

Double Trouble Skateboard Stars by Felicity Carter and Louis Shea

Uncomplicated text and a sizzling storyline make these tales of friendship perfect for early primary readers. There are a few titles in this series about twin brothers, Thomas and Cooper, which will claim the attention of little lads but the premise of these identical troublemakers pulling pranks wherever and whenever they can has universal appeal.

Scholastic Australia February 2014

Continue reading Dim’s Christmas Crackers List # 2 – Sports Books

Footballers’ Favourite Books

Artemis FowlThere’s this bizarre disconnect in my life where my work spans multiple, discrete fields, but the people who know me in a work sense tend to only know me in one field. For I write about social and environmental issues, football (soccer), and the arts and, for reasons both obvious and not, these worlds don’t often overlap.

I don’t, for example, think I have often managed to bring in football here.

Until now.

The Guardian just published a photo gallery of footballers’ favourite books. While some of the footballers’ selections could, without deeper examination, lead to quips about them not reading particularly grown-up books, it’s probably more a reflection of the audience they’re trying to encourage to read. That is, people struggling with literacy issues.

The Guardian article is part of a Premier League Reading Stars Online Challenge facilitated by the National Literacy Trust, an organisation that works to reduce the fact that one in six people in the UK struggle with low literacy. (The figures are likely similar in Australia.)

It does so by such actions as establishing literacy project in some of the UK’s lowest socioeconomic communities. Getting footballers—heroes—on board to encourage literacy is another step (and a powerful one at that, for who else to make reading look aspirational than your football heroes?).

It’s fitting, then, that none of the footballers are standing there touting (and putting people off with) something of the ilk of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. That’s a book I have to admit I’ve never gotten more than a few chapters in on either. Instead, we see a mix of adult and children’s books, most of them mass market and accessible. There were even a few in there that inspired me.

Artemis FowlAston Villa’s Shay Given, for instance, loves Artemis Fowl, a series I’ve read sporadically myself over the years, but never managed to get round to reading in full.

True story: I used to read snippets of Artemis Fowl books while eating my lunch in the stockroom out the back of a bookstore where I used to work. The Artemis Fowl books seemed to be housed near where I sat and, intrigued and also keen to improve my product knowledge, I one day started flicking through and was hooked. I began to look forward to those Artemis-filled escapes.

Arsenal’s Emiliano Martinez’s choice of fellow footballer Sergio Aguero’s biography is a good selection for inspiring people to read—a footballers’ biography is surely a great incentive and entry point to reading if you’re a football fan. So too are the selection of Harry Potters that appear in various footballers’ selections—lose yourself in Rowling’s imaginary world and, if necessary, supplement the books with the films and you’re at least part way on your way.

Former Australian goalkeeper and legend Mark Schwarzer—himself a children’s book author—chose Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. I’d like to know why that Dr Seuss book specifically—I think I’d have nominated the entire suite.

Aguero biographyLiverpool’s Adam Lallana selected The Gruffalo, a book I feel is entirely remiss of me not to have yet read. I actually even have a friend and her young son who regularly perform the tale for family and friends, and I still haven’t managed to encounter the text.

Meanwhile, Swansea City’s Jonjo Shelvey’s went for The Gruffalo’s Child, which prompted me to be, like, there’s a sequel?!

I’ve never actually read Some Dogs Do, which was nominated by QPR’s Joey Barton, but the cover makes me think it’s fun and I should rectify that reading gap, stat. After the Gruffalo books, of course.

Leicester City’s Dean Hammond chose The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a book I have to say featured prominently in my early reading years and one I’ve noticed friends my age now having children buying for their own kids.

Finally, Newcastle United’s Siem De Jong and Stoke City’s Jonathan Walters voted for perennial favourite Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG, respectively. As with the Dr Seuss selections, I’m intrigued. If pressed, I’d probably have gone Matilda myself.

The GruffaloAll of which is to say that I’m getting something out of the footballers’-favourite-books campaign, even though I’m not its target. I have some mighty respect for the charity for the work they do and for the footballers for getting on board to promote literacy.

Seriously, if anyone can make reading seem less scary and more cool, it’s them. If it encourages even one person to get some help improving their literacy, it’ll be a win. I’d love to see something similar extended to the A-League and W-League…

Review – The Damned Utd by David Peace

9780571224333I have tried and failed at reading David Peace before. I’ve have always wanted to get into his books in particular The Red Riding Quartet (which I cheated and watched the films instead, which were superb). For some reason I have never been able to get into the rhythm of his writing and with a writer like David Peace if you don’t have the rhythm you are lost.

A couple of readers, who I really respect their taste, have been going nuts for David Peace’s Red Or Dead and with it being World Cup time I decided I would check out one of David Peace’s football novels.

I have been attempting to get into poetry this year and one of the ways I have found that has made poetry most accessible to me as a reader has been via audio. A poem read aloud brings the words to life which sadly I am unable to do reading them. So when I spotted an audio version of The Damned United I jumped at the opportunity to listen to it. (The fact it was read by John Simm from Life On Mars was icing on the cake.)

9780571239139From the opening lines I was entranced. David Peace is utterly hypnotic. The repetition, the short, sharp visceral use of language had me utterly enthralled. It was like a chant that just swept me up into the turmoil that was the life of football manager Brian Clough.

Brian Clough became manager of Leeds United in 1974 and only lasted 44 days in the job. Peace tells the story of his tumultuous 44 days in charge interspersed with flashback to Clough’s early days as a football manager and the success (and havoc) he wrought up until landing the Leeds United job.

This was one of those absolutely amazing book experiences. David Peace’s novels are often described as streams of consciousness but after listening to The Damned United I would describe his work more as verse novels. The imagery he conjurors, the sounds and atmosphere he recreates through words is my definition of poetry. I’m going to listen to as many of his novels on audio now that I can find and wish to the book gods that someone records an audio version of Red Or Dead (or maybe have a crack at it myself to see if I now have David Peace’s rhythm).

Buy the book here…

Buy the audio book here…..

How Football Explains The World

How Football Explains The WorldWhen you hear Foer, you think, Jeopardy-style: ‘Who is Jonathan Safran?’ You don’t—at least, I didn’t until a few weeks ago—know Jonathan Safran has siblings. Writerly siblings, no less.

Franklin Foer is Jonathan Safran’s older brother, is also a writer/journalist, and was the editor of The New Republic (for the record, there’s also a younger, writerly sibling called Joshua). It turns out too that Franklin’s a rabid football fan with an outward-looking interest in world issues, having written a book entitled How Football Explains the World*.

I’m not sure how I didn’t know Franklin existed, and how I hadn’t read his work until now. He’s written for such publications I frequent as Slate. He was also The New Republic editor at the eye of the Scott Beauchamp storm.

You remember Beauchamp, don’t you? He was a private in the US army and The New Republic published, with his permission, some diary entries that catalogue the troops’ misbehaviour in Iraq. These included saying that ‘I love chicks [who] have been intimate with IEDs’ and that he favoured a particular type of vehicle because it enabled him and his mates to deliberately run down wild dogs.

The authenticity of the entries was questioned (never mind the impeccably poor taste), with the magazine and its fact-checking coming under fire. As someone who writes and edits and checks facts for a living, I have to weigh in to say that this is not a black-and-white issue—verifying diary entries that document memories of happenings in a warzone is easier said than done. But I’m rapidly digressing—that controversy is not what this post is about. If you want to read more about it, Wikipedia sums it up pretty thoroughly here.

What I’m stoked about is Franklin’s football book, which pins complex, intangible, and very often elusive concepts of globalisation to tangible, engaging, concrete cultural understandings of football, its fans, its players, and its clubs.

Through the book, Franklin aims to answer why some nations, despite foreign investment, remain poor, how dangerous multinational corporations’ influence is, and how the world and its various cultures fits together (or more often doesn’t). It’s a clever idea that provides a compelling and cultural angle to what could otherwise be a reasonably dry, economics-focused read.

He also acknowledges that the book is a pretty good jaunt: ‘Someone needed to write a book on the subject that would require the (oh-so-arduous) task of traveling the world, attending [football] matches, watching training sessions, and interviewing [their] heroes.’

Judging him from his writing alone, Franklin feels something of a kindred spirit. He’s a football lover who lacks on-field prowess (his parents, he writes on the Prologue’s opening page, used to turn their backs to the field to avoid seeing his travesties).

And, with my tastes firmly rooted in non-fiction, Franklin’s is more my type of book than Jonathan Safran’s. (I must be the only person who doesn’t get gushily breathless of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything Is Illuminated. I haven’t read Eating Animals because I’m already vegan and already know the horrors it contains, though I do enormously respect Jonathan Safran’s exquisite bravery for researching and writing it, and for lending his literary weight to bring the issues to the world’s attention.)

With chapters entitled such things as ‘How football explains the Gangster’s Paradise’, ‘How Football Explains the Sentimental Hooligan’, and ‘How Football Explains the New Oligarchs’, Franklin clearly defines each chapter’s intent.

In them, he interviews thugs who will never hang up their hooliganism, but who are mentoring future generations on the best ways to operate—living vicariously, you could say. He meets gangsters who go by the name the Ultra Bad Boys, but who have morals that include not swearing, not using firearms, and not beating their enemies after they lose consciousness.

Jewish JocksHe demonstrates dark undercurrents of football, including fans who scorned Jewish players by hissing through their teeth to mimic the sound of Zyklon B being released in gas chambers.

He then alerts us to football and cultural faux pas, such as when football clothing and boots manufacturer Umbro came under fire for putting out a line of clothing entitled ‘Zyklon’. The word’s actual translation is ‘cyclone’, but its association is clearly, damagingly, with concentration camps.

Franklin also points to some significant historical events and football’s role in them. Romania’s 1990 World Cup qualification celebrations, for example, led to rifles being trained on then-dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Along the way, he relates events to globalisation, such as how football fans became Milosevic’s troops who carried out ethnic cleansing. The fans-slash-murderers weren’t specific to Serbia, though. They can be more widely viewed as men who had lost their industrial jobs when they were outsourced to third-world nations, and who were disaffected and emasculated and desperate to reassert their worth.

Franklin has a fantastic way of conveying these tales that impressed me as much as the tales themselves: ‘In their path,’ he writes of some fierce-fisted hooligans, ‘they left lines of casualties, like the fresh tracks of a lawnmower.’

Jewish Jocks is Franklin’s latest book, released as a hardcover in November 2012. He seems to have contributed to it along with his brother, Jonathan Safran. I suspect it, along with scouring the interwebs for some of his articles, will be next on my reading list.

*There’s another version that substitutes ‘soccer’ for ‘football’, but petulant and semantic-splitting as it is, I refuse to condone that one. As The Guardian Australia learnt in their opening days, the term is football.