I'm excited about the upcoming MLS season, not least because I think my favorite team is gonna win again, but I did want to provide something to people who hated MLS or wanted something to read. Except both "Finding the Game" by Gwendolyn Oxenham and "This Love Is Not For Cowards" by Robert Andrew Powell have been out, like, forever, so many of you have probably already read these. Alackaday.
"Finding the Game" is the Book of the Film, but you don't need to have seen Oxenham's documentary to enjoy the book. (The crackhead roommate, for example, wasn't in the movie.) I asked her a few questions about the film, the book, and the aftermath:
Me: Since Egypt sounded horrible, where do you wish you had gone, but weren't able to for whatever reason?
Gwendolyn Oxenham: Ha--it's embarrassing to all of us that we never made it to Mexico. It was always part of the plan--after the economy crashed and we lost our funding, we intended to just pile in the car and drive down to Tijuana, but there was so much drug violence (and our car kept dying). And we were all busy trying to make ends meet and raise money for editing equipment and then festival deadlines snuck up on us.
It's also embarrassing that we didn't go to Spain (although we certainly had an encounter with Spain football thanks to our EURO2008 snafu). And I would've liked to do more in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Southeast Asia...hmm, I guess I wanted to go everywhere :). DL. Having said THAT - soccer has been fairly tightly wound with the recent unrest in Egypt. Was that something you had an inkling of when you were there? GO: We were there a couple years before the upheaval. And we got detained in Israel, which cut a day out of Egypt, and then we got sick--so we pretty much only had one day to see Cairo. Not enough time to really have any idea what's going on. DL. Have you had a chance to follow up with any of the people you played with? I'm so cheering for the Iranian national women's team now.
GO: Facebook, for all its flaws, is truly great for keeping in touch. One of our friends from Mathare in Kenya owns an internet cafe right on the outskirts of the slum so we keep in regular contact with a lot of those guys. We also had a screening on Austin's Field about a year ago.
AK, from China, is also active on FB. He now lives in Canada and is in school for accounting--and he's trying to spread freestyling on the streets of Toronto. And Ronaldinha, the tiny Brazilian wonder, I found on FB a few months ago and am able to follow her current adventures - she recently traveled to England for football. (It's frightening how grown up she looks now--much more "woman" than "girl.") I also keep in touch with Niloofar, from Iran, through email. DL: Last year you wrote in the New York Times about the state of pickup soccer both here in the US and what you saw in Brazil. Why is pickup soccer important?
GO: There's the joy element: pickup is people at their happiest. It's a chance to create, to improvise, to invent--all of that freedom is good for both your development as a player and your peace of mind as a person.
DL: How difficult is the transition from player to fan?
GO: Eh, I think that first year is a little tough for any player who reaches the end of their career. But you realize that it still feels good to try hard and play well--and that you don't need a stadium or a coach to do that. You bask in a Barcelona game and then you go to your own field and try to reenact it. DL. We're in the midst of a very soft NWSL rollout - are you optimistic or pessimistic about the new league? GO: I'm encouraged by the city locations. Portland, Kansas City, Seattle: they have such awesome, supportive MLS fan bases and I think there's a great chance many of those fans will get behind the women's teams. They are soccer mad cities.
"This Love Is Not For Cowards" is, for my money, better than "Miracle of Castel di Sangro." Part of the reason is that the backdrop is so much for tragic. Robert Andrew Powell was also kind enough to respond to some questions I emailed:
DL. I guess my favorite "character," if I can belittle them with that term, was Ken-tokey - how's he doing these days?
RAP: He’s doing quite well. Still living in Juárez, still involved with Sofia, his girlfriend in the book. He’s finishing up his university studies, majoring in architecture. Happily, he’s close to securing a visa so he can finally cross over to El Paso. And he’s “kinda, sorta” rooting for the Monterrey team Tigres these days. “Not like Indios or anything close,” he tells me, “but yeah I felt like it I needed to cheer for someone and celebrate goals.”
DL. Just as a chronicle of a fan group, the book was amazing - how much of that intensity was borne out of Juarez being in the middle of a dark, dark period, and how much of that is just Mexican fans being more amped up than us Americans? I got the feeling that even by Mexican first division standards, the Indios fans were unusually committed.
RAP: The fans in Juárez were incredibly grateful to have the Indios, and to root for their city, which they did with their full hearts. Soccer was very much a break from the violence. But I think the intensity that made an impression on you is more endemic to Mexico in general. Mexican fans are indeed more amped up. I don’t know what would compare in the U.S. Certainly not MLS games. Raiders fans might bring it at the same level, though I’ve never made it to the Oakland Coliseum to check. Rooting for the Miami Hurricanes football team back when they were good and back before they tore down the Orange Bowl was a riotous rush. But still, the relationship between Mexicans and their soccer teams is exceptional. The fans for Monterrey Rayados were super intense, totally rabid, hundreds of them rushing the chain link fence protecting the field after ever Reyados goal. Even a relatively bland team in a less exciting city – oh, let’s pick San Luis -- has a barra brava banging drums and dancing all game long. Passion for fútbol is woven into the national culture.
DL: Why were fans from freaking Juarez less violent than some of the dopes who follow soccer in first world European countries?
RAP: It has to do with one of the main (and unanticipated) revelations of my book: that people in Juárez, by and large, are law-abiding, decent, objectively normal people. Yes, soccer culture attracts kooks who want to break the law, to spray paint sidewalks and smash a bottle or two, but even the most committed Juárez ultras, El Kartel, struck me as fundamentally charming. I don’t know enough specifics about Italy and Turkey and Egypt to speak to their soccer geopolitics. The old-school hooliganism covered in Among the Thugs – about a good a book as there is, by the way – was rooted in a strict social hierarchy. Compared to England in the 1980s, the class divisions in Juárez are much less oppressive. The previous mayor told me of a nightclub in Juárez that tried to set up a velvet rope outside the front door, which is a common practice at the clubs in Miami Beach. Everyone in Juárez protested, immediately. It’s not a velvet rope city, the mayor told me, with some pride. Juárez is still a striated society, of course, like everywhere, but there is a sense of inclusion in the city, that the people are all marooned in this desert outpost together. It’s one reason why Juarenses bonded so deeply with the Indios. The players were brothers in the struggle. To pull a quote from a story I wrote for the New York Times:
“Everybody in Juárez identified with the team,” said Ramón Morales, the former head of the Indios’ press office. “Even when they were losing, the Indios got up early and worked hard, which is what we do in Juárez. The club represented all of us here who are fighting against the wind to survive.”
DL. A lot of the coverage of your book focused on how the citizens relied on the club to cheer them up - and, since this was a crash-and-burn relegation year on the way to non-existence, it was sort of the opposite of New Orleans embracing the Saints on their way to the Super Bowl. Is that actually good for a city, though? Or were the problems Juarez faced so great, that without Indios they would literally have had nothing?
RAP: It’s not fair to say Juarenses would have had nothing without their Indios. There’s still ice cream in the city. And beer. And at least one really good golf course. Sunsets reflecting off the desert dust can be breathtaking. Couples fall in love in Juárez every day. Kids graduate from college and parents return from long days at work in time to watch young daughters take their very first steps. All that sort of shit. It’s real life there, and the real world. Unfortunately, at the time I was there, epic violence exploded all around the city, every day. For the most part people tried to put the violence out of their minds, to ignore it as best they could. Keep Calm and Carry On. But the more time one spent in Juárez the closer the violence got. Ken-tokey’s best friend was murdered while I was there, and Kento had to skip the funeral out of fear of gang retaliation. He told me about his friend’s murder as we were tailgating prior to an Indios game. When I saw how sad he was that night, out in the parking lot, it was easy to gauge the value of the team. Ken-tokey still showed up to cheer on the Indios, as shattered as he was emotionally. He was grateful for the escape.
Yeah, it sucked that the team crashed and burned. But even so, it was inspiring that the team had even made it to the top league in the first place. Good or bad, the Indios were ambassadors for their city.
DL. There's been a little bit recently about Juarez recovering - their murder rate getting back down to the level of a minor war, and so forth. You painted a fairly bleak picture of frail public institutions completely co-opted by the cartels - is Juarez even close to a solution?
RAP: The murder rate in Juárez has dropped dramatically. That’s good news. Good enough to inspire a round of optimistic stories in the international press. "Juárez is back,” we are told. Business is back, people are going out, it might be time to buy a house there. It’s a ludicrous conclusion. Thousands and thousands of people have been murdered in Juárez in the past five years. Virtually none of these murders has been solved. That takes a toll on a city’s psyche. Despite the cheerleading from creepy current mayor Teto Murguia, you can’t just press the reset button and declare everything better now, not with that many ghosts still haunting the city. Murder remains fundamentally legal in Juárez. It can’t be a functional city until that basic bedrock of government – Thou Shall Not Kill – is enforced.
Here’s an example of how Juárez “is back”: Weecho, the gargantuan luchador from my book, recently had his truck stolen from him in Juárez, at gunpoint, while he was driving it. Weecho’s an enormous dude, and a professional wrestler, yet the carjackers felt bold enough to stab Weecho six times, four times in vital organs, and leave him on the road to die. (He didn’t die, luckily.) Were the carjackers ever caught? Of course not. Carjacking remains pretty much legal, too. The city is still broken, and heartbreaking.
DL. There's a new Indios these days - what do you think of them? They look from a distance to be struggling at best. Has soccer turned a corner, at least, in Juarez? (I always thought the north of Mexico was baseball territory.)
RAP: I like the new Indios, the latest soccer team to play in Juárez under the name shared by every sports team in the city. They’re affiliated with the university, and they’re struggling at a really low level. The quality of play is poor; they might as well be one of the college’s intramural teams. “I’ve gone to a few games,” says my friend Saul Luna, a member of El Kartel. “It’s cool and all, but no, it’s not the same.” Still, I’m glad to again see soccer played at Juárez’s stadium. Life goes on, and soccer is a big part of Mexican life.
And you’re right, the North of Mexico is baseball territory, traditionally. They’ve just finished building a new stadium for Juárez’s baseball team, which is also called … wait for it … the Indios. But no sport is bigger in all of Mexico than soccer, a dominance that only grows. Tijuana, long a baseball border town, is Mexico’s new soccer capital. Santos, in the northern city of Torreón, won a title recently. Soccer has grown into Mexico's king sport, nationwide.
That's how it works. Miami, where I live, is a football town. It has virtually no basketball history. Yet we sure like the Heat these days. And also the Miami Hurricanes in college basketball, ranked in the top ten for the first time ever. If something good comes into your life, you adapt!
DL. After such an intense year, how do you watch soccer these days? How have you adjusted to the much, much milder atmosphere of American soccer and the relaxation of watching games at home? It seems like Fox Soccer Channel or MLS would be pretty tame in comparison.
RAP: My love of soccer only grows. I grew up playing soccer and ice hockey through college. I’ve long been a fan of other sports like baseball, football and college basketball, yet as cable TV and the internet shrink the world, I find that everything besides soccer (and I guess also the NFL) is falling away. I don’t even have to go to a game in person. Watching last year's Champion’s League final at Churchill’s Pub in Miami was plenty fun and intense and thrilling, as well as intoxicating on multiple fronts. I go to bars for the bigger games, just to share the experience socially. I started writing the book in Seattle, working at the Central Library downtown. Riding the bus home at night, I’d see Sounders fans wrapped in their scarves, talking about the matches they were heading to or returning from. It sure wasn’t Juárez. The passion for soccer in Seattle – which is genuine – is more polite than in Mexico, and isn’t really my flavor. I prefer a rougher ride.
Both books take place, for want of a better term, at a moment in history. The situation in Juarez was completely untenable, and I see Powell shares my doubts that the current "recovery" is anything more than a respite. Powell's book seemed to end abruptly, what with him getting the hell out of town and all, but the story was told. The team still existed at the end of "This Love," but had only months to live. The city, like the team, had bottomed out. Powell, fortunately, survived, but thousands didn't.
Oxenham's trip to Iran was utterly fascinating to me - at the time, and on occasion since, the United States had been considering going to war against Iran, after all, so it's hard to overstate the tension in that trip. I hasten to add that the chapter, like the book, is non-partisan, and that both pro- and anti-Iran war advocates will find incidents to support their opinions.
The other thing that both books do is make me feel like a dilettante as a fan - and I consider my own self fairly hardcore in the grand scheme of things. But no one's going to write a book about kicking back and watching the reserves play the Tijuana B-team in the rain, I suppose.