Women’s World Cup Book Club Must Read

Tobin Heath, of the Portland Thorns, smiling infectiously.

Under the Lights and in the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer, by Gwendolyn Oxenham.

With the United States kicking off their World Cup campaign today, it seems like a good time to recommend some reading to accompany the tournament. One book springs immediately to mind.

Published last year in hardcover and now available in paperback, there is little doubt that Gwendolyn Oxenham’s second book is the best thing that most of us could read in preparation for the Women’s World Cup that kicked off last Friday. If you haven’t really thought about women’s soccer since the 2015 World Cup–truthfully, unless you are directly involved in professional women’s soccer–this book will give you food for thought about what happens in the women’s game while you aren’t watching, and will deepen your understanding of the lives lived by many of the tournament’s athletes.

Oxenham has been writing thoughtfully about women’s soccer for several years in various independent and mainstream soccer, sports, and literary venues. Her first book, Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-Five Countries, and the Search for Pick-up Soccer, an account of her and her future husband’s globe-trotting exploration of pick-up soccer as a universal language, also became the basis of her first film, Pelada. An alum of the Duke University soccer team, Oxenham also played professionally for Santos FC, an experience she has written about in the short-lived but brilliant XI Quarterly [Issue 2 (2012) 36-49], in the midst of pursuing an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. She knows the world she is describing in this book, and in a number of cases she knows her subjects personally.

Each of the book’s twelve chapters are devoted to an individual athlete or group of athletes, and there is a conscious mixing of elite players, less well known starters from smaller nations, and those who did not progress to the national stage. Beyond a love of the game and a cosmopolitan interest in the lives of women at home and around the world, the book’s unifying theme lies in its reflections on privilege. The diversity of subjects is critical to this topic, as Oxenham clearly recognizes the relative nature of privilege. Speaking of her own experience at Santos, she explains

it made me wonder what the women’s game looked like in the rest of the world. When I watched the Women’s World Cup on television, I knew nothing about the majority of the teams taking part. What were their lives like? You hear a lot about “inequality” in women’s soccer–what are the stories that grow out of that broad term? (xii-xiii)

Though in truth about half of the book is devoted to American women (one of them, admittedly, playing for a Russian team whose manager may or may not be connected to the local mafia), Oxenham’s accounts of Becca Mushrow (England, 2012 Homeless World Cup), Afghani-born Nadia Nadim (Denmark), Josephine “Alcino” Chukwunonye (Nigeria), and Gaëlle Enganamouit (Cameroon) underline the true breadth of economic and social inequality that shape the lives and decisions of women (and men) around the world.

Far from undermining Oxenham’s exploration of privilege and inequality within the relatively affluent world of US soccer, these pictures of the Global South (and of homeless London) serve to acknowledge the relative privilege of female athletes in America while nonetheless positioning their struggles within larger frameworks of global inequality. When University of Portland graduate Dani Foxhoven chooses to sign with Russian side FC Energiya Voronezh because of the collapse of Women’s Professional Soccer, her motivations are very different from Chukwoneye’s goal of buying her mother a house on the strength of modest American and European salaries. But both of their stories highlight aspects of the global labor market for women’s football, with Foxhoven’s experience under a tyrannical foreign manager offering this book’s worst case scenario, Chukwoneye an uncertain middle ground, and Nadim’s escape from the Taliban and success as a female Afghani role model in Denmark an affirmation of the potential benefits of global migration in a very imperfect world.

Of course, the most important figure of privilege, lurking ghost-like at the page’s edge, is the world of men’s professional sports. Watching Allie Long, already a starter for the Thorns but not yet a regular in the national team, playing as a ringer in underground men’s leagues in New York to maintain match fitness in the off-season, or learning about the prejudice against mothers returning to the game post-pregnancy (particularly given the circumstantial evidence that such athletes may, in fact, have certain physical advantages), underline the choices that face even elite women in comparison to their male counterparts. Or maybe it’s how the same choices require a different calculus, exacting a steeper price in a world already built around razor-thin margins.

In places that comparison comes to the fore, as in the chapter tracking Marta and Neymar’s respective careers through the 2016 Rio Olympics. Learning that Santos FC eliminated their women’s team in 2012 to pay Neymar’s salary and hold off departure to Europe–for one year–is certainly a gut punch. The penultimate chapter, exploring women’s professional lives after retiring, opens with a description of a typical woman’s career that stands in an equally clear contrast to its male counterpart.

On one side of the world for six months, on the other side for the next six months, they live out of the two checked suitcases permitted by the airlines. And this isn’t the romantic part of the story–the lean years of hustling and scrimping you can talk about affectionately after you’ve made it. This is making it. This is the top (210).

The 2012 collapse of then-top-flight Women’s Professional Soccer hangs over a number of chapters–Oxenham needs no comparison to the NFL, NBA, MLB, or NHL to make her point. One such chapter focuses on the Charlotte Eagles, run by the Christian nonprofit Missionary Athletes International, that was among the only US-based professional opportunities for women prior to the creation of the current National Women’s Soccer League. This chapter explores the intersection of evangelical religion and homosexuality in sports. Readers looking for a condemnation of evangelical intolerance will not find exactly what they are hoping for in this chapter, though Oxenham’s disagreement with this intolerance is clear enough. What they will find is a respectful focus on individual players, their personal memories of and in some cases regrets about events, and the paths which their lives have taken them since then. The players have complicated and differing relationships to religion and sexuality, and while it would be disingenuous to pretend that Oxenham is not trying to shape readers’ responses (it is her job, after all), she lets many voices speak and struggle with these conflicts.

Tifo reading "Zabadast Nadia"

The final chapter is a love letter to Portland and the Thorns supporters as a Utopian vision of women’s football made real. I will confess it is my least favorite chapter, as I think it fails to fully reckon with the privilege of that undeniably beautiful, special city. But this complaint is largely personal and only slightly relevant to an exploration of Portland Thorns supporters (in the interests of full disclosure, I feel compelled to add that I spent my high school years in the greater Seattle area). Oxenham’s contention that the Thorns and their supporters are currently the pinnacle of women’s club soccer is surely right, and the power of her final pages, focused on the 2016 season’s final tifo (the Italian name for the giant decorations unfurled by supporters’ groups inside a stadium), is both apt and deserved.

There has been a lot of talk about this World Cup as a potential turning point in the women’s game–particularly in Europe, but elsewhere as well. Under the Lights and in the Dark speaks both to that optimism and to distance that remains to be traveled if we are serious about making that change happen. It has helped to crystalize my own thinking about what I can do to be a part of that change. Look for future posts both on those ideas, and on some more World Cup-related books for the quick readers among us. But start with this one, and you won’t be disappointed.

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