Cinema | Trading ‘fruitcakes’ for fútbol as ‘Soccer Project’ reaches La Paz

Go to part 2 (Israel) » | part 3 (France) » | part 4 (Kenya) »

We encourage readers to view the Soccer Project trailer and to assist in completion of this documentary film about two elite university players—Oxenham and Boughen—and their pursuit of free-spirited football around the world. Vote until Apr 6 for the Soccer Project in the MelroseMAC Creativity Pays contest and start reading the diaries below.

Editor’s note

Below is the first of four installments from Gwendolyn Oxenham‘s diaries supporting an in-process documentary film, The Soccer Project, about four recent college graduates and their pursuit of improvisational soccer matches around the world. In the American vernacular these are called “pickup games,” although as Oxenham notes the nomenclature varies:

In England, it’s “having a kickabout.” In Trinidad, it’s called “taking a sweat.” In Bolivia, it’s callejero, which means “of the street.” In Brazil, the word is pelada, which literally means “naked”—the game stripped of all rules, regulations and formalities.

Gwendolyn Oxenham


We appreciate the editors at Merriam-Webster who define the adjectival “pickup” with a logistician’s sensibility. Such events occur without formal organization, the dictionary says, “utilizing or comprising local or available personnel.”

Inspired in part by Bruce Brown‘s cult documentary The Endless Summer (1966) about globe-trotting surfers in quest of a perfect wave, Oxenham and crew lay claim to a long connection between football and wanderlust. As far back as the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ubiquitous leather ball accompanied Sir George Scott in his wanderings among Burmese hill tribes as well as Scottish missionaries to Malawi. In literature, the soccer travelogue cum anthropological field guide has become its own sub-genre with academic and journalistic contributions in English from Janet Lever, Christopher Merrill, Simon Kuper, Franklin Foer and many others. Each major football tournament inspires pilgrimage and the urge to document such pilgrimage.

The twist in The Soccer Project is that three of the four are players of elite university pedigree: Luke Boughen from Notre Dame and Oxenham and Rebekah Fergusson from Duke. Ryan White, a documentary producer, along with Fergusson handles much of the film work. Oxenham’s story alone would merit documentary treatment: at 16, as an attacking player from the Florida panhandle, she enrolled at Duke to become the youngest Division I athlete in the history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. After four years at Duke, where she switched to midfield, she played one summer for the women’s side at Santos in Brazil. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Notre Dame and, with a $20,000 grant at graduation, is completing Essence Game, a non-fiction book about soccer and family.

“Soccer creates this incredible intimacy,” Oxenham, referring to the idea behind The Soccer Project, tells the Gulf Breeze News (Nathan Dominic, “GBHS Grad Nets Film Debut,” 9 Aug 07). “We don’t want it to be a heavy-handed film, ‘Oh, soccer connects the world.’ We don’t want to talk about that. Hopefully, the images will do that themselves. In Afghanistan, girls are playing for the first time, and they’re wearing traditional head-to-toe garb and playing soccer. Then we’ll be in Brazil with old guys in Speedos.”

The filmmakers are presently compiling a 15-minute preview to help attract investors. Already an interlude in Los Angeles has borne fruit. Oxenham spotted David Beckham at a traffic light and handed him some raw footage on DVD.

The following appeared originally on the Soccer Project blog on 21 Dec 07.

From left, White, Boughen, Oxenham and Fergusson. “Soccer was everywhere,” White says of his own world travels before work on The Soccer Project began. (© The Soccer Project. Used by permission.)

La Paz, Bolivia | San Pedro Prison sits behind San Pedro Plaza—a bustling square in the center of La Paz. Couples sit on benches around a fountain, kids chase pelotas in the grass and women set up stands for the Thursday-through-Sunday bread market. Our hostel is on the side of the square opposite the prison.

At San Pedro, the inmates are in charge. Though the guards patrol the outside, they don’t enter the inside. Within high concrete walls, San Pedro inmates run their own society. Wives and children are allowed inside, cells are for sale and soccer passes the time.

Our first morning in La Paz, we sit on a bench and watch the gate of the prison and the guards who surround it. It’s hard to find the nuances of language that would convince an armed guard to unlock the gates for you and let you wander in with your video camera.

Carrying our snazzy postcard, we stroll up to the men with green uniforms and guns, attempting to explain the merits of our project and why the San Pedro inmates would want to be a part of it.

We are not sent away outright. Speaking enthusiastically, a guard points us to a side door where we are to talk to the director. The man at this door does send us away. He chases us out as he speaks in fast Spanish we can’t fully understand … though we do make out something about the U.S. Embassy.

Dispirited but not defeated, we take a cab to the embassy. While things are often closed on Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes even Mondays or Fridays, nothing is ever closed on a Wednesday … except, we discover, the U.S. Embassy. Apparently, if you lose your passport or have your child abducted on a Wednesday, you must wait until Thursday.

So we return to our hostel and continue to gaze at the prison across the square. We wander downstairs to the Internet café and spend enough time there to make friends with the owner. He shows us pictures of himself dancing in traditional clothing, and we tell him about our desire to play fútbol inside San Pedro. At this, he walks to the doorway, whistles at some men in uniform and gestures them toward us. Five minutes later, we’re being escorted by soldiers to the director’s office.

The director writes down directions to the Bolivian Ministry of Prisons on a pink piece of paper. “You need to speak to Alejandro. If he gives you permission, you may talk to the prisoners,” he tells us. “It is difficult, but not impossible.”

At 8 a.m., we sit at a long conference table and find out that Alejandro, who has a scar running the length of his face, is an avid fútbol player. Within 15 minutes, we have permission. “But,” he clarifies, “you must talk with the prisoners—they decide.”

The following day, three elected prison leaders listen with rapt attention as Rebekah and Luke explain our film. The leaders are enthusiastic and make insightful comments about the connectivity of the world’s game. They nod with approval, and then they say, “And now for the painful part … what it’s going to cost you.”

“We want fruitcakes for one-fourth of the prison.”

Luke and Rebekah are puzzled. “How will we carry three hundred fruitcakes?”

“You give us the money, and we buy the fruitcakes.”

So by “fruitcakes” they mean cash. We do some tallying in our heads—if we continue to eat bread, ham and bananas; if we buy the cheapest bus tickets to Peru; if we don’t have any unanticipated expenses, we’ll have enough to shell out $400 so we can play with the prisoners. This is how San Pedro works.

The following day, we hand over an envelope of cash and walk through the prison to the fútbol court. We walk by throngs of men who send up a chorus of low whistles as we pass.

There are double-balconies full of men, and when the referee in a brown sweater blows the whistle, all eyes are on the court.

© 2007 Gwendolyn Oxenham. All rights reserved.

Go to part 2 (Israel) » | part 3 (France) » | part 4 (Kenya) »

About the Author

At 16, Gwendolyn Oxenham was the youngest Division I athlete in the history of the NCAA. She captained the Duke soccer team, led the team in assists, was an All-ACC selection and was named Most Inspirational Player. She received her M.F.A. in creative writing at Notre Dame and earned the Nicholas Sparks Prize, a $20,000 post-graduate grant to finish a first book. Oxenham graduated from Duke in 2004 with a degree in English and a Certificate in Documentary Studies.

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