This weekend, radical footballers gather in Oakland for Copa Communidad VII 2014. Guest writer Vivian Huang admits that she is not a sports fan, but loves to simply play and in this piece, reflects on the revolutionary possibility of soccer:
It’s fitting that I would be blogging on this site, as I was often picked almost-last in elementary school PE. This practice – the process where the team captains take turns picking teammates – created an understanding early on about who was athletic and therefore, popular and on top of the social hierarchy. As a kid, I didn’t like team sports – they all seemed to involve a lot of putting down your opponents, stressful fighting among teammates, and people yelling at me when I made a mistake. I remember being part of a lot of soccer games in elementary school PE, and when I say “being part of” I mean hanging out in the back area near the goal, talking to the other outcasts, and making grass flower bracelets, all the while wishing that I could be somewhere else, reading a good book.
Well, years later, I did go and read a good book, one that transformed the way I thought about soccer. Eduardo Galeano’s “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” is an homage to the beauty, grit, and inspiration of the play of soccer. The beginning dedication reads,
“The pages that follow are dedicated to the children who, once upon a time, years ago, crossed my path on the Calella de la Costa. They had been playing soccer and were singing: We lost, we won, either way we had fun.”
The ending chapter offers up this wisdom, “A reporter once asked the German theologian Dorothee Solee: ‘How would you explain to a child what happiness is?’ ‘I wouldn’t explain it,’ she answered. ‘I’d toss him a ball and let him play.’
I’ve been fortunate to discover belatedly the joy that comes from playing with a ball as I kick it with Left Wing Futbol Club, a group of anti-imperialists who play with the motto “If you want to change the world, you have to change the way you play.”
It is a space where everybody plays according to their ability, nobody keeps score, and the love of the game and your fellow community members is the only thing that matters. I’m there to experience that joy from running with the wind, playing with the ball, laughing at the ridiculously bad (and good) moves, and momentarily forgetting the heartbreaks of the world.
I was inspired by the protests in Brazil, as millions turned out to protest the injustice of capitalism having turned kicking a ball into a multi-billion dollar sports industry while so many are without basic education and social services. Galeano writes,
“Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.”
If transforming our system has to start from transformation within, then playing soccer for fun, for community, and for joy can be a revolutionary act in of itself. Soccer should serve the people. Let’s play!
Growing up with a very crude understanding of imperialism, colonialism, and world history I freakin’ loved the World Cup for the chance to witness non-Western European country win it all and bring pride and dignity back to their homeland. Next Goal Wins is, on the surface, about this. American Samoan men (with one exception of a third gendered person on the team) trying to gain the respect and dignity for themselves and their country. The documentary follows their journey to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, still in the shadow of their infamous 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001.
The American Samoa soccer team is the underest of underdogs. They are literally last place in the World FIFA rankings. A win means going from 180th to 170th in the rankings. Despite the low stakes, this is place where passion, sincerity, and heart thrives. The players are amateurs: youth, students, and working class folks volunteering for the chance to represent their people, culture, and country on the international stage. Rarely in any other situation is the motivation to play as pure.
The documentary is more than the games, though. There are glimpses of deeper issues in American Samoa: how American Samoa deals with being an American territory while nearby Samoa is an independent nation, Samoan culture rejecting (Western) gender binaries through its concept of Fa’afafine, and how the majority of American Samoan youth enlist in the United States military because there are no jobs in their country.
These small hints give insight into how soccer is used as a channel for the players to understand their role in the grand scheme of things. This is how they try to understand how they can serve their community as American Samoan in a diaspora hugely influenced by United States militarism. Even if American Samoa did win the World Cup, it wouldn’t fix everything, but it would feel damn good.
P.S. There’s definitely some of the white guy finding himself in this movie, but to me it was minimal and ignorable (of course would’ve been better if was removed entirely).
Jonathan Yee is a techie and activist based in SF.
[ed – Next Goal Wins is showing for just one more day at the Roxie in SF. Catch it while you can!]
The following post is by a comrade from Detroit. Calling into question the relationship of settlerism (and, on some level, the normalization of violence), I was actually quite challenged to respond. As someone who wears a 49ers jacket around town, who loves the team and history, this, this was the first time I’ve felt like I had to stop and consider the origins of the team name (and by default, to think about what a raider, or a buccaneer really is). Let’s talk.
In September Peter King of Sports Illustrated made the decision to stop using the Washington, D.C. NFL team’s racist name. His explanation did not demonstrate understanding of why the name is problematic and didn’t oppose the use of the team name by others but still he became one of the highest profile sports figures to reject the name’s continued use. A stronger decision by the San Francisco Chronicle noted that the team name is “a racial slur and if we don’t have to use it, we’re not going to use it” while former Washington players and Hall-of-Famers Art Monk and Darrell Green have voiced their support for a name change. Their decisions are the result of longstanding indigenous activism against racist representations of native nations and peoples (Change the Mascot and Native Appropriations are two of many voices to support organizing around this today).
Washington’s team name is an exotified image of an unspecific, noble, stoic warrior from a faraway time and place who is unrelated to the native population the American settler colony continues to massacre, expel and otherwise eliminate. A faraway time in that we in the settler society – reductively: those who are not natives and who do not articulate to indigenous sovereignty – misunderstand Indian removal policies to be something that happened way back when and not an organization of power that is happening. A faraway place in that native nations are sovereignties the settler society imagines quashed, no longer existent, not really places at all. These erasures are part of settler normativity and are why the San Francisco 49ers are not yet critiqued in the way Washington is, why is has taken so long for criticism of Washington’s mascot to consistently break into the mainstream, and why so many will sit down on 28 November for the settler holy day Thanksgiving and enjoy one of the three NFL games with no mind to settler colonialism and genocide.
Settler normativity is the discursive normalization of indigenous removal. In other words, it is how five centuries of genocide, colonization, gendered violence and exploitation – and indigenous resistance to all of the above – are rendered ‘normal’ and ‘invisible’ to the settler society. Settler normativity is the denial that, in Gabriel Piterberg’s phrasing, “the interaction with the dispossessed is the history of who the settlers collectively are” (emphasis mine). Thus the 49ers football team is discursively separated from the historical ‘forty-niners and seen as unproblematic when the name is contextualized at all.
The ‘forty-niner invasion began after a gold discovery in 1848 when Mexico’s California province was under U.S. military occupation (since this article is about U.S. settler normativity I’m leaving out the anti-native crimes and narratives of the Spanish colonizers and independent Mexican government, catastrophic though they were). The military governor, Richard Mason (after whom Fort Mason and San Francisco’s Mason Street are named) quashed both Mexican law and native title. The 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians refined Mexican law on bound native labor so the settlers could enslave natives (over 4,000 stolen native children were enslaved during the Gold Rush). Between 1850-1864 in what settlers declared Colusa County the native population was reduced from “not less than ten thousand” to 424 through homicide, expulsion, disease and other consequences of settler invasion.
In California as a whole for this period the native population was reduced from 150,000 to 31,000. Key with regard to the ‘forty-niners is Jack Forbes’ observation that “The bulk of California’s Indians were conquered, and died, in innumerable little episodes rather than in large campaign” indicting, “in effect, an entire people; for the conquest of the Native Californian was above all else a popular, mass, enterprise.” The white ‘forty-niners were also responsible for the subordinate racialization of their Chinese colleagues including both white supremacist attacks during the Gold Rush and later the systemic oppression of Asians under the White California policies, the legacy of which included Chinese Exclusion and Japanese Internment. Washington’s mascot is a racialization of the genocided population. The 49ers is an erasure of that population in celebration of the génocidaires themselves as they built settler rule. The original 49ers logo of an angry white miner firing pistols points to this.
The 49ers do not play on Thursday, 28 November this year but six other teams do. Football fans will gather with friends and family to watch the Lions beat the Packers (obviously) or the other two games and in doing so will take part in the Thanksgiving settler ritual that – just as with the 49ers – celebrates settler colonialism and genocide against the native population. Thanksgiving celebrates the successful establishment of the settler colony and the start of conquest. The details of how the early settlers quashed native sovereignty and killed or drove out the indigenous populace differ from the California Gold Rush but are broadly analogous and need not be reproduced here.
Apologists will say that, for them, Thanksgiving and the 49ers are not part of the U.S. settler colony’s genocide but mean something else entirely. Thanksgiving, they’ll say, is just a time to get together for a meal and some football and that the 49ers (and Pioneers, Frontiersman, Trail Blazers – in the context of Oregon at any rate, etc.) were more than just génocidaires but working class dreamers, some of whom may have been involved of the dirty business of genocide but who are not defined by it. It is a repurposing made possible only by the discursive normalization of indigenous removal in the U.S. settler colony. One cannot participate in the Thanksgiving ritual feast with friends and family and not have it be about settler colonialism and conquest any more than a man can call another man ‘bitch‘ and not mean it misogynistically. Modifying the settler ritual to obscure its roots does nothing to mitigate or subvert settler colonialism. In the grand tradition of settler normativity, such modifications seek to discursively erase indigenous folks from the narrative much as those who made the first Thanksgiving sought to erase indigenous folks and sovereignty from the land.
With the high profile of the campaign to change Washington’s name it seems only a matter of time (and continued effort!) before it is added to the list of successful efforts against the fetishizing of native people as mascots and costumes for settler sport and leisure. It is just one corner of indigenous activism today but given the massive footprint of football in the settler society it has the potential to measurably adjust discourse towards decolonization and indigenous sovereignty. It’s not just football. The 49ers weren’t just miners. And just as it is vital to shine a light on racist mascots, it’s also important to critique the mascot racists.
Jimmy Johnson is an unemployed Detroiter.