Lafayette Park prompts Doyle’s ode to a panoply of personalities, including “the short-tempered fuckups who send the ball high—really high—up and over the fence into the backyard of the LA Superior Court building,” the field’s iconic backdrop. (Photograph © 2008 Michael Wells from Municipal de Fútbol, © 2008 Christoph Keller Editions, Textfield. Used by permission.)
The Anschutz Entertainment Group’s aspirations of rolling out David Beckham and soccer as mass-market American consumables have lost momentum in recent weeks. The fantasy of sole proprietorship over the world’s most marketed sportsman has devolved into a “time-sharing” agreement with AC Milan, as if LA Galaxy had scaled back its desires to occasional access to an ocean-view condo in Malibu.
On Beckham’s signing in 2007, AEG president Timothy Leiweke described him as “the only individual that can build the bridge between soccer in America and the rest of the world” (22 Jan and 27 May 07). Tens of thousands of Angelenos and Angelenas who make the city one of the country’s most vibrant settings for grassroots fútbol must have asked themselves, “Huh?”The multimedia project Municipal de Fútbol, published in 2008, further places Leiweke’s comment in the realm of bizarro. Jennifer Doyle, author of two essays in the collection and creator of From a Left Wing, calls pickup and amateur soccer the city’s most developed subculture.
A novice player who took to the patchwork of freeway-abutting, hardscrabble and artificial surfaces five years ago, Doyle pushed through the barrier that the male-dominated environment presents and discovered a creative realm that can break down walls between tenured university professors such as herself and, for example, fashioners of cardboard boxes. Professor of American literature and gender studies in the University of California system, Doyle in a podcast Jan 29 speaks of the subtleties in defending two 55-gallon drums that mark goals on the bedrock of Lafayette Park, shadowed by a landmark magnolia and the glass of Los Angeles Superior Court (see photo above). The experience of Lafayette, which at night becomes a soccer dreamscape with games stretching to 2 or 3 a.m., has helped her craft opponents and teammates into literary figures:
You look at your opponent’s goal and your heart sinks: standing there is Chilavert, a burly man with baseball mitts for hands. You might be left dumbfounded by Tenge—a teenage lothario dancing up the field with the ball at his feet and a phone to his ear—he tells his girlfriend that he’s on his way home as he dummies right only to lift the ball into the air and knee it around your left. (Lafayette Park, 83)
Interview with Doyle on Jan 29. (34:15) Download »
Municipal de Fútbol consists of two books of pictures from architectural and freelance photographer Michael Wells, accompanied by Doyle’s writing. Doyle’s essays have also been translated into Spanish. (The Municipal package includes lithographs, poster and adidas-branded European jersey. The apparel company financed the project as a prelude to the 2008 European Championship.) The lead title examines games across the city while a second volume, Lafayette Park, shows soccer as urban fixture in the Westlake district.
One hesitates to call Lafayette Park a greenspace; this is grassroots soccer in the figurative sense. Below topknotted palms, surfaces vary from paved to plastic to eroded. Six-a-side games of teams outfitted in familiar club and country strips take place inside 10-foot-high fencing. The park seems to be, as Doyle says, “its own universe.”
One of Wells’s pictures shows a referee—the arbiter’s striped acrylic stretching a wee more than desirable at waist and buttock—flashing a red card and pointing to the touchline, or possibly to Superior Court for adjudication. His hand and index finger are unyielding, like the Grim Reaper motioning toward the beyond. Spectators hang on the border fence, evidence that these games remain under scrutiny, night and day. “I get more nervous before playing in Lafayette Park than I do anywhere, doing anything,” says Doyle. “Stepping onto the pitch feels like launching my body into empty space. Even writing this, I can feel my heart rate go up.”
During matches Doyle hears Spanish, Mixtec, Tagalog, Korean, French, Russian and Armenian and alludes to the late Gloria Anzaldúa, the Mexican American poetess who envisioned “una cultura mestiza” (culture of mixed blood), as an inspiration:
Local fútbol culture is incomprehensible when viewed from on high, or by people thinking with a monolingual mind. Administrators shrug their shoulders. Universities look right past their back yards. Anglo newspapers have better things to write about. From behind their desks, men write memos to each other: Who can make sense of this place? (Municipal de Fútbol, 79)
To an outsider’s eye, the city league structure, grouped into 14 divisions by age and gender, looks like a stunning example of urban efficiency. Online tables are up to date. The parks and recreation department publishes lists of suspended players, recording the fees, dates of payment and receipt numbers. Several at this point in the winter/spring season have been assessed the maximum levy, $50. These players have also been tarred with the scarlet-letter designation “Out of League.”
Yet outside the municipal structure in which she competes—on Cougars of the women’s “B” division—Doyle refers to a chaotic and decentralized administration that has resulted in independent leagues monopolizing field permits and parceling them out to groups further down the pecking order (see Tony Barboza, “Santa Ana, Other Cities Clamp Down on Soccer Leagues Selling Access to Public Playing Fields,” Los Angeles Times, 31 Aug 08). The LA Times has also reported on figures such as Raul Macias, a Guadalajara native whose efforts to build a soccer league and advocacy for fields in northeast Los Angeles have turned him into something of a ward heeler. As an extension of this organizing work, he attracts crowds to political meetings by promising games and fútbol clinics. Locally produced Fútbol Mania estimates that southern California has 2,000 Latino leagues.
Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church at 4900 Cleland Avenue blends fútbol and faith in five-a-side format. (Photograph © 2008 Michael Wells from Municipal de Fútbol, © 2008 Christoph Keller Editions, Textfield. Used by permission.)
Doyle’s eye takes in fútbol‘s intrinsically political aspects. She lives near Bellevue Park in the Rampart district, space designated in 1996 for $2 million in improvements that took 10 years to achieve. An online report glosses over background to the decision by a citizens’ committee to make Bellevue more pastoral in character, with baseball fields as centerpiece. Closed for nearly two years, the park reopened in 2006 with strategically placed boulders to help prevent pickup soccer games and with signs to make the point clear: “No Soccer/No Fútbol.” Area residents had connected “rough and tumble” pickup games that used to feature at the park to drug trafficking and guns, demonstrating how soccer, Latinos and crime quickly become linked in public imagination. “You can’t talk about fútbol and parks in Los Angeles without stirring up passion and making people nervous,” Doyle writes, adding later:
[T]he resistance to fútbol is a form of border patrol, an attempt to regulate the culture of public space in a city whose identity has, since at least the 1950s, been bound up in the dream of bourgeois privacy—home ownership and tossing a baseball around with your kid in your own back yard. (Municipal de Fútbol, 79).
Los Angeles suffers from an open-space shortage; according to the LA Times, only 33 percent of city residents live within a quarter-mile of a park. Last summer, the first new downtown park since 1895 opened to help address what advocates call a “nature deficit disorder” and latent discrimination in denying recreation to poorer sections of the city.
Further evidence of how fútbol revises the suburban stereotypes of American soccer are the presence of mixed-ethnicity women’s teams in the municipal leagues. Doyle writes that women players have pushed outside their comfort zones such that soccer becomes a stronger bond than identification as Latina, Filipina, Anglo and so on. The Times last year profiled a side of Guatemalan women who have been playing as an adjunct to an independent youth league in MacArthur Park—setting for early scenes in the schlocky FIFA-backed serial Goal: The Dream Begins. Curiously, being able to play a sport denied them in Guatemala has made them feel more like Americans with, according to one player, “the freedom to play for yourself” (see 30 Jun 07 on the documentary Estrellas de la Línea, produced in Guatemala City).
Soccer also has transformed Doyle’s relationship to the city by breaking down entrenched socioeconomic patterns. Perhaps the latest big-budget AEG transfer, Marta Vieira da Silva of Los Angeles Sol, will find more success connecting to the grassroots than Becks could manage. Doyle issues an invitation from the center of the pitch at Lafayette: “I am here, and I am ready to play.”