Monday, July 18, 2011

Women's World Cup Soccer: On Hair, Beer, Bigotry

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Wow! Little tiny Japan beat the Amazonian U.S. and took the Women's World Cup of Soccer. The final was an amazing game, at least after the first ten minutes when the Japanese players looked stunned just to be on the pitch, and would have been squashed if the American players hadn't been unlucky enough to hit the goal posts twice.

I'm not an automatic U.S. fan. I even rooted against them during their quarter final against Brazil. They looked more like they were playing rugby than soccer, fouling players right and left, knocking them over, trying to stomp on them. If they led Brazil for a long time, it was because a Brazilian player sunk the ball into her own goal.

At half time, a couple of American guys came in the bar for brunch and started to slam on the Brazilian superstar Marta, screaming, "Take that, you bitch," every time she was fouled or missed a shot. They also did fake foreign accents to make fun of the "stupid bitch" ref when she made a bad call. To support the Americans, they kept shouting, "Go ladies." That display of nationalist and racist misogyny was capped off by the rousing sound of males voices screaming "USA, USA," when the Americans finally won.

I might have tried again for neutrality in the U.S. game against France (Allez les bleues!) if not for how the Americans truncated the FIFA speech before the match. In the last few years, the global soccer organization has made an effort to grapple with bigotry in soccer, among both fans and players. But while the statement read by a French player to the crowd encouraged them to respect all forms of diversity, specifically naming race and sexual orientation, the U.S. version spoke blandly about discrimination, and dumped homophobia altogether.

Who would have imagined it? France, which for years has lagged behind developed countries in LGBT rights, has somehow come to the conclusion that we are human. LGBT issues are even a factor in the upcoming presidential campaign where the center-left Socialists are promising to legalize same-sex marriage. The public actually supports it, though still balking at adoption.

I was ashamed that the American women didn't have the same courage, even if it's been years since the U.S. has been a leader in LGBT rights. Same-sex marriage is now legal in a few states, but in most it's banned. The military policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell limps on in the courts, and the Defense of Marriage Act signed by a Democrat president, is now protected (half-heartedly) by one. LGBT people are still largely invisible in American society, especially in sports. Worse, American Christians actively promote homophobia abroad, including in Nigeria where dyke players were purged from the national soccer team before the Cup.

I'd love to know if the U.S. refusal to take a stand against homophobia came from the players and coaches, the national governing board, or corporate pressure. Marketers still steer clear of anybody perceived as LGBT with the lingering belief that seeing us as role models will somehow contaminate vulnerable children. For whatever reason, most American soccer players stick to the ubiquitous ponytail that is supposed to dismiss the suspicion of dykishness. One long-haired player I kept seeing in commercials, was even forced to trot out her own kids to prove her heterosexual creds. Maybe I'll blame American lesbophobia for their loss. If Hope Solo didn't have so much hair, she would have been able to dive faster to block the penalty shots, like the brilliant goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori.

I almost didn't see the game because I dreaded getting stuck in another horrible crowd where we might have to break a bottle over somebody's racist, misogynist, lesbophobic head. But we were lucky enough to be in Sunnyside, Queens where there were enough Japanese fans to fill a quarter of the bar. One man brought his three kids, including a pre-teen boy that pretended to be too cool to care until the Japanese won and it was high fives all around. A bunch of Japanese girls had also brought their white American boyfriends who had been instructed in no uncertain terms who to root for if they wanted to get any booty ever again.

Because of that mix, the atmosphere was totally different than earlier matches we'd watched. More amiable, appreciative. It helped that the game was better, too. Skill, not brutality on display. Fans acknowledged brilliant plays on both sides of the ball. I actually applauded American goals because they were well-struck, perfect. After their second score a fan tried to start the chant, U.S.A., U.S.A., but only one person joined in. The room fell silent. You could hear somebody snicker in embarrassment. It's harder to get all nationalistic and self-righteous when the opposing fan is visible at your elbow, and you have to squeeze past them to pee.

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