BY JOSHUA SCHNEIDER-WEILER
Gwendolyn Oxenham is the author of the new book, Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer. Previously she co-directed the documentary Pelada, and wrote the book Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer which is a behind the scenes memoir about the documentary. In Under the Lights and in the Dark, Oxenham shines a light on the most interesting and uplifting stories in women’s football, from Nigeria to Siberia to Australia. In our interview, Oxenham talks about those conversations with women who are never heard from, what’s holding the women’s game back and she reflects on the gap football bridged while on her travels to favelas in Brazil and slums in Kenya. (Click on the FAS logo below to hear the audio interview)
Quest for Street Football
Josh: So how did you go from there [your Masters program at Notre Dame University] to making the documentary Pelada?
Gwendolyn: Sorry, Okay. So, the summer before I went to Grad School I got a job working as a deck hand on a $15million yacht stationed near Mexico. I was the toilet scrubber. So I would just scrub toilets all day but then we were anchored off this island that served as an outpost for the Mexican Army and it’s basically where all these bad soldiers get sent because it’s very remote and buggy and nobody wants to get stationed there, according to Alfredo the guy I was working with.
So, we could see these soldiers from our boat and they have got giant machine guns and machetes and they were very intimidating but right behind them is a makeshift soccer field with drift wood goal posts and having not played for so long I had to go over there, even though Alfredo was like “Don’t do it, don’t go over there, those are some bad soldiers.” I made kicking gestures and went over there and within 10 minutes I’m playing in this amazing pickup game in monsoon rain and this just like wild laughter kind of game. And at the end of the game, I’m taking pictures where I’m literally holding the machine guns in the picture. And the way that soccer could do that, I just though was so awesome. And then you hear so much about David Beckham and the pro leagues, and Real Madrid, and no one really focused on these back-alley games. And I thought there was such a connector, I thought that you could go from being an American, tourist girl, and a scary solider to just friends, immediately, just by playing you get to know people in a way that you can’t if you don’t play. And that concept stuck with me. So, I have never forgot that game.
A Day in a Kenyan Slum
Josh: It has been seven years now since it [Pelada] came out. So you have had a lot of time to reflect on those experiences, so now that it has been a while, what are some of the moments or experiences that you have had in those three years that stayed with you and that you think about, maybe not daily, but weekly?
Gwendolyn: I mean the one that obviously comes to mind is our game in Kenya, we played in the oldest slum in Africa, the Mathare Valley. We played on a field that used to be a garbage dump, and the garbage sort of still rises out of the ground and on Saturdays they will have tournaments and you bet shillings on and by playing in the tournament it means you don’t make your day’s wages. But if you win you can win it all back and the stakes were ridiculously high. But that community, the poverty was incredible.
There was a day where we were not filming, the cameras we had left behind, we were just playing with these two guys, we were playing with their team and to get there you walk around the open trench that is kind of the makeshift sewer. And I being a girl had to go change in a shack. So they sent me to change and while I’m changing I fell and my hand landed in human faeces and I didn’t want to be the American who comes out and is like “Excuse me I need to wash my hands” especially since I knew that the one water spigot, the only access to water was 20 minutes away. I just had to brush it off and keep going and then after we played it was pouring rain and the trenches were overflowing, so I kept falling. So, every second I’m like falling into these…right next to the open sewers and I can’t stay on my feet it’s so slippery it’s just pure mud and I’m sort of speechless by all of this but at the same time I’m passing grandmas who do this walk every single day.
And you can’t ever stop thinking that place and the Kenyans that we met were so inspiring in terms of hope and willpower and what they were able to achieve and how much they have done for their communities and the kids and they have made a field for the kids to play in. And it’s the only thing to do. Through football they have been able to do major strides in their community and that country that’s the one that I think about the most.
Bolivian Prisons and Favelas
Josh: So, you went to a lot of dangerous places when you were on your travels. I mean you went to prisons and all sorts. Did you ever feel scared? And if so when?
Gwendolyn: The Bolivian prison was the one where people assume would be the scariest. But the prison was so bizarre in the sense that it was their own world, where the prisoners were actually in charge. We had prisoners who were kind of watching out for our welfare. Sure, there was a lot of adrenaline as we were playing in games with guys who were in for murder and that was awesome because then the level of the game was so high when you are in prison because all there was to do was to play football. So it was the highest level we played in. So I ended up being more nervous being good enough than I was about who I was playing against.
Probably where I was most nervous was in Brazil, we played in the favelas which are the kind of the ghettos run by teenage drug lords and there was one moment where in order to go in you had to get permission from the drug lords, so we had two guys who agreed to take us in. So we get there to the favela and we are early because we don’t want to be late, so then we are just four American tourists hanging outside the favela.
Favelas have higher crime rates than most warzones so we were aware of that and when I had lived in Brazil before I saw a dead body on my first day there. Luke, my husband, who was then my boyfriend, has been held up at gunpoint. When he was in Brazil his two friends who visited him got robbed. I mean Brazil had its fair share of crime, and we were very aware of this as we are standing outside the favela.
And when the guys came to pick us up, one of them starts whistling the theme song from Kill Bill as we were walking and that was just really creepy. [laughter] And as we were walking to this marvelous, it was so beautiful in its own way, it looked like pastel jenga blocks on a hill side. And there’s this 15-year-old and he is propped up on his machine gun, it reminded me of those pictures where people would prop themselves up on umbrellas in the olden days. So, he was just sitting on his machine gun with his hands and I swear he was looking at me but I also didn’t want to make eye contact with a gunman. But then I hear him saying in perfect English “Hello my friends, welcome to Hossina, The most beautiful place on earth.” Meanwhile, Kill Bill was still being whistled and it was just…that was an intense moment.
Where are the stories of women players?
Josh: Who contacted you and did they pitch you exactly what this book would be? And what was that like?
Gwendolyn: Icon books, a publisher in England, they wanted to do something in relation to women’s soccer. They noticed that there wasn’t a book about women’s soccer on a global scale and they had seen some of the articles I had written and so they asked me if there was anything I would be interested in writing. I had always been fascinated about the global element, I had sense of what it was like to play soccer in the United States but I had no idea what it was like to be a professional soccer player in Nigeria as a woman, or Thailand or…I mean I watched the World Cup and I didn’t know anything about their lives and so I was curious to go find out, to go on a scavenger hunt for stories and see what I could find.
Siberian Toughness, World Class and Homeless
Josh: So which ones, which stories were the most powerful to you? Obviously, that is hard to choose but which ones come to mind first?
Gwendolyn: I think it’s a cop out to say that I can’t pick. But I know, the Russia story is insane, in the first page of the Russian chapter Danielle Foxhoven, she goes over, she sits down on the grass and the coach goes over and slaps her on the face and picks her up by the ear. And that was week one of her experience in Russia and it does not get any less gnarly from there on out. So, I think Russia was the most eyebrow raising. Honestly, every single chapter was…
Fara Williams was homeless while she was playing on the England national team, and she had a friendship with a homeless teenager who she took under her wing and writing about that friendship and what Fara has meant to this teenager was the one that got to me personally. The comeback moms chapter, you know you hear a lot about these amazing athletes who are also mothers. But one element that I don’t think is really talked about is the kind of discrimination that they face where I followed four different mothers who were basically cut or traded after announcing their pregnancy. And that I had not even been aware of.
When I was a kid I remember watching Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck, and Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated would write about the diaper bags on the sideline so I just thought it went hand in hand and I didn’t realize, kind of the judgement. I mean people assume once you have a kid that your priorities change, and it’s such a risk because your body goes under such a dramatic physical transformation and so I guess there are some doubts that these mothers could come back. At least in the case of these four mothers, and then each player came back stronger and faster and had more success on the field post pregnancy than they did beforehand, and that was really cool and motivating for me.
The story of the Nigerian player, she grew up in a place where there wasn’t enough space to turn over at night. They slept on the floor, and via football she was able to completely transform the lives of her family. I mean even though they are making very very minimal salaries as professional Nigerian football players, it was still enough to change her life completely. And there’s a scene that gets to me where she has spent 10 years, it might have been a bit less than 10 years but it was a long time, saving up to build her mother a house, and she built it little by little and her mother never got emotional until they went furniture shopping and her mother sat down on a coach and then she started bawling because she never sat down on a couch before. She says something like “I have never sat on a piece of furniture like this, I have never thought this would happen in my lifetime. If I’m dreaming, please God don’t let me wake up.” What [Josephine] Alinco was able to do for her family, and yet she is still in the throes of it. I mean she is in Sweden right now, her knee is bothering her, she was playing on a top team, and now she is in a division three team, and she is terrified of returning to the poverty that she spent her whole life fleeing. Because women’s soccer, there’s so much inequality, and because it has been ignored for so long, there’s just insane stories that grew out of those circumstances.
What’s Holding Women’s Football?
Josh: That is incredible. What is something that you noticed in a lot of stories that was present that was present throughout a lot of these stories in Women’s football?
Gwendolyn: Having nothing, no money, but not even caring. I mean you care but the through line was simple, they found the game at an early age and just held on, they followed the game wherever it took them no matter what.
Josh: Is there an issue that a lot of women talk about in terms of tackling or just a hot button issue that is going on in a lot of these women’s locker rooms at the moment?
Gwendolyn: I mean making people care? Finding an audience? I mean the national team has found that, we are at this amazing point in women’s football where, in 1999 in the US we had a tipping point, we filled the Rose Bowl stadium, and every 12-year-old girl was watching and soccer took off in the US in the women’s game. Now, it feels like the entire world is having similar experiences where the whole country is getting on board for the National team.
But how you figure out, how you make that interest translate into the Pro Leagues where it’s not quite as star-studded and you have go to get butts in the seats once a week, that is really hard. Most of these athletes are very familiar with playing in empty stadiums with very few fans. And the fans who are out there are really passionate and really see it as a chance for change, and they see what is so inspiring about the women playing. But how you build that, how you make people want to watch, how you get them to know the League exist.
I mean it’s so much of a chicken and egg situation where there’s no money for advertising so then there aren’t big commercials and then no one knows about the League and so then it’s hard to attract sponsors but when you don’t attract sponsors you don’t have the ads so just figuring that out…Anytime a Pro League has started it takes a long time to build a base, whether men or women are playing. I think that all around the world the women’s Pro Leagues are trying to figure out how to build in the future, and that is I think our generation’s big question, is how you make a women’s Pro League succeed financially and attract the attention of the general mainstream public.
You can buy Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer by Gwendolyn Oxenham from Amazon HERE
Joshua Schneider-Weiler is the founder and host of the Football Autobiography Show. Visit their website www.footballautobiographyshow.com