The Better Half of the World Game


May de Silva


The World Cup was the hardest-to-miss topic maybe anywhere in the world during the last football-fevered month (or so Fifa would like us to believe). It was perhaps slower to catch on here in Sri Lanka, where "World Cup" usually means cricket, but even our octogenarian aunts outside Colombo now know more about the football tourney.

But is it just "a man’s game", as the English ESPN commentator blurted out near the end of the rather rough final match, to excuse one more foul tackle? Yet best known as the "beautiful game", it is also loved as well as played by countless women across the world.


Originally Asian!

It was only in this decade that it was hosted in Asia (Japan and South Korea), among many hyped great firsts. But few know that in fact China has been recognized by Fifa as football’s originator centuries ago. Known as "Cuju", it is depicted in Tang Dynasty paintings over 1,000 years ago, exquisitely robed women (and an Emperor) kicking the ancient leather ball, at a time when there were many professional women players and teams.

This now international game can mean a lot of skill and fun, and surprises. Robben turned out to be not the Dutch-built island prison for South Africa’s political prisoners (including Mandela who graced the final match), but the Netherlands’ star player. Ironies indeed! But there was always hints, of failing to overcome the history it claimed to be beyond through being hosted for the first time in Africa. English commentators could also be caught many times referring to individuals as, that "little player" – perhaps young or agile, but nearly always a diminutive for an Asian or African player. Then there was the remark of injured star Ballack’s agent against the young German team as "gay combo", disparaging their "elegant", yet ultimately winning (third place), style.

While football, also termed the ‘world game’, is seen as a new unifying global phenomenon, others see signs of growing nationalism (accompanying multinational corporatization) across the world (as a new ‘opium for the masses’) replacing religion. Millions beyond even the participating countries worked (by often missing work!) themselves into a frenzy, sporting ‘national’ colours and waving flags; most often followed by floods of tears when their side lost (perhaps all needing a good vent?)

Added to commentators’ male and Eurocentric views of the game, and the absence, except in the stands, of any women as officials, as if only men can judge men, it was also very daunting to watch all the accompanying ads. Many were the same Indian commercials on cable TV as during T20 Cricket coverage. The slick ads were mainly and often blatantly aimed at male sports-network viewers: desiring speed (fast motorcycles, and fast 3G phones: "more than just living, speed living!") and ‘fair’ women. One ends with a blonde appearing from behind a shower curtain as the ‘prize,’ supposedly as the result of using deodorants, along with other advertised ‘whitening’ masks. So the ad companies still seem to see us as too dark, smelly and stupid.

Some ads make women out to be completely uninterested in and ignorant of sports: a devoted girlfriend is depicted as so stupid she doesn’t even notice that her lover had slipped off the park bench to join his buddies to watch the match, leaving her contentedly snuggling up to a stuffed doll he replaced himself with!

Yet there are so many women around the world and right here who enjoy watching this "beautiful game," including many who may not generally be big sports fans. And if there were any need for more evidence "it’s a man’s world", many women’s sports still do not get any, much less a fraction, of the coverage of the "man’s games"…


The Women’s Game

Though called like most sports a "man’s game", football is also superbly played by women all over the world, even right here in this cricket-centric island. Sri Lanka has a national women’s team and dozens of active grassroots female teams across the country. Fifa Women’s World Cup still gets almost no air-(and ad) play, but the women’s style of play is sometimes even lovelier to watch, certainly than that men’s final (even Dutch post-fordist "total football" guru Cruyff called his side’s play "ugly" and "anti-football").

Bend It Like Beckham, the acclaimed UK 2002 movie directed by Gurinder Chadha, featured a teenage South Asian girl playing football in London. Other similar movies have come out, including one from Iran. Yet it’s unfortunately still hard to find coverage of the women’s game in mainstream media, except in China. Two years ago Brazil’s Marta, Golden Ball winner, was a true joy to watch, unlike the popular disappointments accompanying the multimillion-dollar male stars during this World Cup. In fact, two days after the (men’s) World Cup finished, the Women’s Under-20 World Cup finals started in Germany, with no mass media coverage (though at least local Eye TV showed the first game). Then in September, Trinidad and Tobago will host the Women’s Under-17.

Many also don’t know that earlier this year Sri Lanka hosted the Asia Challenge Cup right here in Colombo. Our team did poorly – needing more time to shift the popular and class-based focus beyond slower cricket and rougher rugby. But the title was won by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea, who as the lowest-ranked team at this World Cup, last month surprised everyone in their first brave game against No. 1 Brazil. There is a great documentary film The Game of Their Lives, of how DPR Korea last shocked the world in 1966, making it to the World Cup quarter-finals after beating top-ranked Italy in England, winning the hearts of their working-class Middlesex hosts. Millions of ardent fans around the world may be ‘neutral’, unable to back their own nations not in the privileged final 32, but still thoroughly enjoyed supporting the popular ‘underdog’ teams, who sent big nations like England, France and the US packing home early.


De-class-ifying ‘Soccer’

In North America it is known as soccer, where ‘football’ is a truly tackling, warlike game of ‘long bomb’ passes, etc., with a macho mass popularity which perhaps is a reason that continent is the one place women’s soccer is more popular than the men’s game. The American term ‘soccer’ in fact came out of 19th-century England’s "AsSOCiation Football". Anoma Pieris writes in forthcoming LMD article on "The Beautiful Game," about what the English, and thus sadly here too, see as a ‘working class’ sport: "The importance of the World Cup audience is that it cuts across class… that egalitarian promise that begins with a group of children kicking a ball on a street."

As is usual when Africa or Asia hosts an international event, in the years of lead-up the overdeveloped mass media cast grave doubts on the post-apartheid nation’s ability to complete colossal stadiums, organizational logistics and so on, on time. But when it finally came to the big event, the media and visitors all raved about the totally great job South Africa did. Exactly how many billions this successful first World Cup in Africa made for Fifa (a bloated corporate fiefdom overseeing a corruption-ridden sport), beyond the billions already made in advance advertising and broadcast rights all over the world, may not be known. But will Africa and its historically beleaguered people see any of those profits?

No matter, everyone was rooting for an African team to win, and Ghana almost made it in but for last-minute terrible luck (or a stolen goal), occasioning of course calls for expensive electronic refereeing eyes. In the end, even the hugely financed Euro teams’ biggest stars, if not South American, are African – a globalized multinational sport indeed.

K’naan’s "Waving Flag" anthem, popular in Lankan ring-tones and with many bilingual versions, has even three-year-olds here singing its words (a song bought up by Coke, who removed his ‘darker lyrics’ for their Fifa ads). A young Somali poet-turn-hiphop-star now living in Toronto, K’naan said the song was a way of dealing with memories as an 11-year-old in Mogadishu, of playing football on the street when three friends died in the gun-battle crossfire he survived. Powerful words to inspire all people, football fans or not, especially youth and women of all ages:

"Give me freedom, give me fire, give me reason, take me higher…

When I get older I will be stronger…"

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