In places without a name, ‘Pelada’ films the football we never knew

The trailer for Pelada, which debuted in Austin on Mar 14. The final SXSW screening is Mar 19.

In Jan 03 I started a website of world soccer and called it “The Global Game.” The idea hardly seemed original. I was aware of similar online soccer resources—for example, the Football Culture site the British Council once maintained. In discovering world football and its power to connect people I was a bit like a child who realizes she can skip a flat rock across a pond. I’ll congratulate her, but I don’t want to tell her that it has been done before.

Still, I remember working at my dining-room table in suburban Atlanta in earnest. Through this small gesture I was desperate to respond to the isolation and fear that come from living in a country on perpetual war footing—where we call external disorder “terrorism” but often fail to name manifold terrors inside.

More than seven years later, a sense of separation from the world remains. I still exist on the outskirts of beloved community, but my desire for connection in football is stronger than ever.

No one in this period has embraced the goal of cultural communion through sport more completely than the makers of Pelada, the documentary that premieres this week at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. Luke Boughen, Rebekah Fergusson, Gwendolyn Oxenham and Ryan White visited 25 countries over two years. They played pickup soccer in all of them, filmed the result and—while not explicitly—pose vital questions: What keeps us—Americans—from seeing the world as it is? Why are we so mean?

I would regard Boughen and Oxenham, the couple featured in the film, with soul-debilitating envy were they not so disarming about their work and abilities.

To finance production they took no money from corporate donors. As a result, the message is unfiltered. They avoid the dilemma faced by one soccer blogger I know. Partly funded by Nike, he feels free to write about whatever and whomever he wants—as long as his subjects are not sponsored by adidas. Increasingly rare in football media projects, makers of Pelada took no FIFA subsidy. “One big bullshit” is how a Jew in Jerusalem describes the capacity of football to bring world harmony—FIFA usually emphasizes the sunny side. But maybe he is just grouchy after losing to a side of Arabs.

Boughen, Fergusson, Oxenham and White speak at South by Southwest.

The inspiration for Pelada came, in part, from a 1966 surfing film about Californians Mike Hynson and Robert August following summer across the world in search of the “perfect wave.” I saw The Endless Summer once. Over the winter, for the first time in at least 30 years, I watched it again. I discovered that it is one of the most racially insensitive films about sport ever made. I have not seen Leni Riefenstahl‘s Olympia, but a comparison might be interesting.

With a cringeworthy sequence beginning in West Africa, Endless Summer narrator and director Bruce Brown speaks of bringing surfing to “the natives.” In South Africa, traveling with newfound white friends, Hynson and August find the object of their search—never-ending surf that enables them to stay upright on their boards almost as long as they desire. They fail to mention that the beach, in accordance with apartheid policy, is for whites only. Only whites have access to such surf dreams. The crowning arrogance is that throughout the project Brown ignores that surfing is an ancient Polynesian sport with antecedents dating at least to the fourth century. The surfer dudes ride on the shoulders of giants while maintaining their delusions as pioneers.

Channeling similar wanderlust and white man’s zeal, starting in the 19th century, missionaries and tradesmen and other colonial emissaries spread football in South America, Africa and Asia. In a refreshing modern twist, Oxenham and crew do the opposite. Like earlier travelers, they take a ball with them. But they travel to learn and to share, not to convert or to steal. They reenact multiple versions of the World War I Christmas truce, venturing into no-man’s-land to play football against the enemy.

Playing in a Bolivian prison, they find that hostility fades once they pay proper homage to the sport that brightens inmates’ days. They pay to enter the game—Lonely Planet tells itinerants that drugs can be had using similar methods. But San Pedro overseers in La Paz, who are prisoners themselves, know that paying for pickup soccer would be gauche. They give Boughen and Oxenham fruitcakes.

Pelada is un-American in the most positive sense of the word. I am proud of the directors for giving the film a Portuguese title, one that focus groups would have rejected. Pelada is the idiom for kickabouts in Brazil. It also means “naked.” Boughen and Oxenham both found new dimensions of the game in Brazil after competitive college careers at Notre Dame and Duke. They are elite footballers with a common touch. White and Fergusson, who supply the gorgeous camera work, knew Oxenham from Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, one of the film’s backers. Fergusson also played on the soccer team.

Appropriate for two narrators who know that potential employers probably won’t value their soccer skills, the film broadly concerns how work intersects with play. In the course of traveling and debating their own futures—law school for Luke? the WPS for Gwendolyn?—they encounter perspectives on play that jar with the American idea. Play in the United States comes laden with guilt and suspicion. As college and professional athletes and games on TV fill our fantasies, we lose touch with the way unsupervised play, like other arts, leads to transcendence.

“You have to keep playing, playing, playing,” Nene, Oxenham’s former teammate at Santos, says of continued life on futsal courts. In her factory job she colors the hair of Princess Fiona dolls. Fiona is Shrek‘s ogress. Oxenham comments, “[Nene] is happy with the game right where it is.”

Un'ultima stagione da esordienti, by Cristiano Cavina

Changaa (moonshine) brewers in Mathare Valley, Nairobi, fight the assumption that footballers are drunkards. “I have to play,” says James, a brewer, even for low stakes on a former garbage dump. Once one looks beyond televised games involving soccer gods, historical and modern-day associations between football and depravity are surprisingly common. Maybe Mesoamerican cultures knew this better than we do. At the intersection between mortal and immortal worlds is the ball game. To play is to live, at the risk of social death. When favela-based players in Pelada claim their street for futebol—and rename it the “Street of Leisure”—they are giving Lula’s neoliberalism the metaphorical finger. In Japan, businessmen seek stress release by playing on rooftops after 12-hour days.

Few football poets, even Eduardo Galeano, have captured the resilient beauty of the game better than Cristiano Cavina. Pelada finds him in Casola Valsenio, an Italian comune near Bologna and Ravenna. In 2006 Cavina won the Tondelli Prize honoring new Italian writers, although he lives with his mother and works in a pizzeria. His writing—he has published four books with Marcos y Marcos of Milan—offers an antidote to big soccer. One of his books, Un’ultima stagione da esordienti (A final season for debutants, 2006), concerns AC Casola, a side competing within a regional league in the fading days of leftist resistance in the 1980s. In Pelada he reads near the end of the book:

This is what I’m going to think when I’m old. So then, seated on the traces of this circular life I notice a young boy who is alone. He is seated next to me, and I, finally old, would tell him of a fantastic championship and speak of the ball that can transform the weakest into Gibraltar. I would talk to him of the football god and the magic he confers. And the boy would be courageous enough to believe me and follow me into the dusty corners forgotten by the earth. Because there is a god for those football fields. Not for the big famous ones, but for the small ones in the provinces. And if you have the courage to believe in it football will give you much more than you can give it.

Cavina in the film plays in a pickup game wearing a homemade T-shirt reading “meno di zero” (less than zero). His shirt captures how I sometimes feel when playing park football Saturday mornings in Atlanta, especially after engaging in moot-court disputations with a fellow who several times has reported us to city authorities. Within the American imagination, if I play I do not produce. I spoil someone else’s idea of tranquillity. The suburban counterpoint to productivity is silence.

In Pelada and in the film’s blog, freestyle players in Shanghai speak about their hassles with police. The best freestyler, AK, also fights parental constraints. “He’s at that age where things start funneling in directions you’re not even sure you want to go,” Oxenham writes, “and maybe that’s part of what led him to tell a disbelieving father that his grown-up son wanted to become a street-soccer player.” “I’d rather choose a happier way to live,” AK says.

I’ll stick with AK. At the end may we all feel as Boughen does after Sunday football in Brazil. He tells a group of men, some of whom persist with Speedos past their prime: “We loved this game, we loved this place.” It should be FIFA’s new motto, and Boughen and friends should collect millions for it.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (10)

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  1. Hannible Cobb says:

    Pretty nice review, John. You put a lot of work and research into it.

    Can’t wait to see Pelada.

    I don’t envy you. You must be a very bitter man. That bitterness permeates otherwise good writing and basically spoils the work and purpose of the work.

    I’m just saying …

    Lighten up.

  2. I appreciate the comment, because it gave me a chance to study all senses of the word “bitter.” I would accept here the sense of being a “bitter partisan,” that is, “being relentlessly determined, vehement.” It is such determination that I admire in the makers of Pelada, who, I think, were determined to see another world and to find joy. This aspect may not come through clearly in my comments. Joyful people have found a joyful game and shared a gift.

    And, to deflect a bit of praise, not much research was involved—just what I consider to be the minimum to pay tribute to glorious work.

  3. Rory says:

    I agree with the comment. Your political bitterness just ruins this review. I wonder if the filmmakers agree with your anti-American take on the film’s meaning? Is it now considered anti-American to travel the world and experience it?

    You sound right on about the surfing movie. It sounds very culturally insensitive and self-important … much like most movies/documentaries made during that era.

    Freud said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, well, sometimes a review should just be a review. There’s really no point in letting that bitterness taint everything you do.

  4. I’m grateful for all comments and perspectives. I will not, however, let the misinterpretation stand that Pelada is “anti-American” or that I imply such. I say that the film is un-American in the best sense. These are radically different statements.

    The filmmakers do not use a nationalistic or prejudical lens. They try to see the world as it is. They intuit that football permits an un-American, open approach to the world. (Pelada, to follow the argument, is equal parts un-Canadian, un-Danish, un-Botswanan, and un-Chilean, because national triumph or victimhood bears no relevance.) They do this while acknowledging the paradox that football reinscribes borders, visible on a football court in Jerusalem, as much as we might wish these borders to be overcome.

    They accept David Goldblatt‘s challenge in the foreword to the U.S. edition of The Ball Is Round, the challenge to accept football as “a conduit to the rest of the world … a sporting antidote to the excesses of isolationism.”

  5. Evan says:

    Thanks for the review, John. I probably wouldn’t have heard of this review otherwise.

    I don’t want to argue with the perspective of football and internationalism, but I’d say that there are plenty of places in America where you can experience the same thing. They aren’t in the mainstream, and they–mostly because of the people playing soccer and building communities around it–remain invisible to most people. But they’re there if you look.

  6. I am 100 percent in agreement, Evan, and thanks for the comment. These communities exist very close to me, in Clarkston, Georgia, for example, and throughout the country, places unseen, such that we do not even understand the complexities of our own land. I have written about such places.

    I also believe that reservoirs of fear and separateness run deep. I wish to live in faith and play with joy, but within empires these can be heretical ideas.

  7. Dylan Tooby says:

    This is a great post.

    I got chills down my spine when I watched the trailer.

    It really encompasses the passion of soccer and how it is much more than a simple game.

    I’ve made a relevant post on my blog.

  8. Eric says:

    Ordered it as soon as I could … amazing movie. I was never a top-notch player, so pickup was where I was most at home. Loved this movie!

  9. This isn’t Eric Wynalda is it? Just kidding.

  10. Federico says:

    I watched the trailer too! I know this is a bit too late but I’m glad I stumbled upon your post. Your review of Pelada is lengthy and very detailed but I managed.

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