The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Like every aspiring plutocrat who loves AC Milan, I sometimes fantasise about owning the club. I have big plans for it. Investing heavily in the youth programme. Engineering unbreakable bonds of affection between players and club. Brokering a creative and generous understanding between our ultras and local government. Smiling calmly from the director’s box as the team crushes English clubs in the Champions’ League. Giving incentives to star players for participating in local coaching initiatives, and encouraging young players (from the revitalised youth programme) to undertake higher education. Improving the rose gardens at Milanello. Exacting lasting vengeance on those who let so much as a single tear fall from the eyes of Andrea Pirlo.
And yet, I have never imagined filling the San Siro with women.
I intend, from the outset, to re-start a women’s team and initiate a women’s training programme when I own Milan, of course. I won’t say I hope to be the first to hire a female coach in top-level men’s football but I will certainly hire the best such person. I intend to write eloquent anonymous editorials in La Gazzetta in support of female match officials. I have never considered any provision for creative and generous understanding regarding misogynistic or homophobic abuse in the stands, only cruel and permanent exile.
But women in the stands? Apart from the female vocalists in the opera choir I will invite to sing in the Curva Sud on special occasions—
—it never crossed my mind.
Why, or why not? Women aren’t ubiquitous in football fandom, but we aren’t ubiquitous anywhere, so there’s nothing uniquely staggering about that. Women aren’t invisible in football fandom, either. They go to stadiums all the time, and coach and referee and write editorials and work against misogyny and homophobia in football. I mean—these women certainly aren’t invisible to me. If you had asked me how to give women (and children) more access to professional football I would not have suggested locking men out of the stadium. To be honest, I would probably have said, why do we want to be part of the problem? Why don’t we work towards fairer ticket pricing, community football initiatives, improving women’s work-life balance so that they can be the ones to take the family to the stadium now and then, encouraging better hiring practices in sporting institutions. And so on.
If you had asked me how to give women more access to international political power I would not have suggested getting a female head of state to lead a debate at the UN General Assembly, either. So the emotion that I felt when I learned last month that Dilma Rousseff became the first woman ever to do this, was quite a surprise. It was the same sort of surprise that you felt when you heard the singing in Fenerbahce’s stadium pitched some octaves higher than usual. It was a punch in the heart, right? Sort of, bringing home the enormity of what we didn’t know we had missed forever?
The funny thing is, if I were a Fenerbahce fan in Istanbul I might have refused to go when called. I might have argued that I didn’t want to be there as a fucking punishment for my team, especially if they did deserve to play behind closed doors. I might have argued that the punishment and this fix exposed flaws in the system that could not be papered over by a single glorious matchday, that it was not genuinely inclusive, that it would be a better gesture if every team in the Turkish league could do the same. I might even have argued on principle against gender profiling on behalf of the excluded majority of innocent male fans, perfectly aware that none of them would ever do the same for me. And watching the 41,000 other women on TV that night would still have been the most radically uplifting thing I ever saw.
Let’s reluctantly concede that this is a little like speculative fiction in which the roles of white and black people are reversed in society, or fantasy in which a matriarchal goddess-worshipping nation barters the men of its society to the other marauding female warriors from over the border. We like it because it holds up a sort of mirror to what is, and we dislike it because it suggests that this is how things would be if we had all the power and you had all the consequences, as though there is some sort of equality of oppression at work, as though there would ever be cause some day for an Iranian filmmaker to make an outstanding movie about young men fighting to get into a match to cheer their beloved team on. Where does that leave us, except to feel awkward about the fact that we haven’t even been able to imagine a world in which justice was ours to mete out?
Relatedly, of course, I cherish Ian Holloway’s celebration of the match as a symbol of what women bring to the stands in football. Mr Holloway thinks we are naturally more sensible human beings, so just as we could hypothetically end warfare and revolutionise microfinance for small land-holding agriculturists and put rainbows in the sky at night, we will also make the football stadium a better place. Like others of my gender, I live to serve the march of patriarchal history, and I would be happy to put some of my inherent virtue to use in making your next Manchester United-Chelsea match a better viewing experience. But I must confess that the only thing I thought when I heard the women singing that night was: how awesome. Why can’t the world always be like this?
Let’s leave aside the Hollovingian view of human nature for a minute, as well as the widespread suggestion that we should add women and children to a football stadium for the same reasons we introduce an extra potato into an over-salted stew. Let’s focus on the image and what it redeems for us: a world in which it is not strange or moving or cute that women outnumber men, even in oppressively loud football stadiums. Let’s stop and consider for a minute that the circuses of the world can change before the world itself. I know many people think—and I sometimes agree—that the stadium is a place of artifice and affect, not really connected to the world outside. But usually, I think that change in the sports stadium is what tells us that there is, or can be, change outside its gates. Isn’t that why we tell ourselves that it is we, and not footballers of colour, who must shout louder than the racists? Isn’t that why we resist the idea that homophobia in football would diminish if “a high-profile footballer” came out, and recognise that the burden of making the stadium a safe place for gay players is not, in fact, on gay players?
I’ve never been to the San Siro, but I’m not the first person to think that it resembles a dungeon, especially on those feral big-match nights, when I imagine it must seem to players that they are surrounded by pillars of howling, not-quite-human spirits. When I do own Milan, I think I will exclude male fans from one of every four home games. I know it’s unjust, but then so is the whole system of ownership and consumption in European football, and yet there I am, looking severe and dignified in the president’s box. I have heard that women once rioted in the streets of Byzantium when the rule of the empress Zoe—the wilful, husband-assassinating, sister-imprisoning, gold-squandering woman—was threatened. I don’t know if they were fighting because they saw something in her that a millenium of largely male historians coming afterwards did not, or out of gender solidarity prompted by religious feeling, or because they were paid to do it. Maybe they simply felt freer to damage life and property under the rule of a woman so open to doing the same herself. I can’t imagine doing that for the female MP of Mumbai North-Central today, but there’s a time for everything, a certain power in speculation. We should just see more often what it’s like, to storm the dungeons and lock ourselves in with the wolves.
This is before we lead our revolutionary boycott of UEFA competitions, demanding a structure that creates more equitable opportunities for smaller leagues and clubs.
I hope to collaborate with many of them when I own Milan. Please send in your applications in some years.
Do read Laurent Dubois of Soccerpolitics’ blog, written soon after the game, which also touches on Jafar Panahi’s Offside.
Let’s be depressed to imagine that you will stop calling an opposition footballer an appalling name simply because the person in the jersey next to you is a girl.
by Supriya Nair · October 4, 2011