“Tell me how you play,” wrote the South American writer Eduardo Galeano, “and I'll tell you who you are.”
The FIFA World Cup starts today in Brazil, with 32 teams each pitting their national football culture against the others and hoping that their own sporting identity emerges triumphant.
And yet from a certain angle, it has been difficult to tell who, or what, football really ‘is’ lately. The sport has been obscured by corruption at the top of the game’s governing body, as well as the misdirection of public funds and widespread evictions sparking huge protests against FIFA in Brazil. Recent racism and sexism scandals have given the game a sour taste, as have the pathetic soap operas concerning pampered millionaire players. Most deplorably, stories are emerging of the deadly conditions experienced by indentured migrant labourers building stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
It’s sometimes difficult to remember why I love this game. But a story that took place far away from the razzmatazz of the World Cup has served as a timely reminder for me of what football can and should be about; the joy and creativity of play, the determination to compete, and the thrill of the unexpected. The story is about a group of Guatemalan sex workers who grasped their power to create, formed a football team and played to show who they really are: human beings.
Guatemala's Railroad All Stars celebrate a victory. Image from http://news.teddyaward.tv/downloads/filme/bild_2966.jpg
Chema Rodriguez's documentary film Railroad All Stars (Estrellas de La Línea), screened as part of Amnesty UK's 'Sidelines' football and human rights film festival in Hackney last Saturday, chronicles the story of a band of women who live in rows of tiny slum rooms lined a metre or so either side of a railway line through Guatemala city. All of the women, described by one commentator in the film as 'human trash', work as 'three-dollar' prostitutes along the La Línea railroad. They decide to form a football team to draw attention to the indignities and dangers of their lives. Dire poverty, violence, and intimidation are the reality of their existence, as police officers and other men abuse and exploit them with impunity. The film doesn't flinch from showing the squalor and depredation of the La Línea neighbourhood, made worse by the destruction wrought by Hurricane Mitch and the roving gangs of criminals and corrupt police who terrorise the residents.
Deciding that football will be a more effective means of drawing attention to their plight than holding a rally outside parliament, the women acquire some kit and a coach, and start looking for other teams to play against. For their first shot at success they enter a team into a local league against private high school teams, but after their opponents' upper-class parents complain that their daughters 'might catch AIDS' from the All Stars, the league organisers expel them from the competition.
This incident draws huge media attention and, with the sponsorship of a local travel agency, the All Stars go on tour around the country playing (and generally losing) against anyone who will play them, on rudimentary pitches of broken tarmac in urban red light districts or in waterlogged jungle clearings near Mayan ruins. As the nation debates the morality of a touring football team of ‘putas’, the All Stars try to concentrate on their skills and team spirit, dreaming of representing their country after receiving an invitation to travel abroad to compete against a team of sex workers in El Salvador.
Their journey is not without strains and tribulations: the travel agency withdraws its sponsorship after the team draws too much bad publicity from moral conservatives, the team's first goalkeeper quits after receiving excessive criticism from her team-mates over her inability to catch a ball, and the replacement goalkeeper, a Mayan woman named Lupe, makes errors when she is distracted by arguments with her lover, the team's star striker Vilma.
These fights, which involve former boyfriends, turn violent, and are one example of the brutal reality of the everyday violence of the women's lives. Their larger-than-life characters dazzle from the screen with charisma and, often, real humour, but their personal stories are desperately sad and unfair. There is Vilma, whose fight with Lupe is broken up by the police. To avoid arrest, she is forced to hand over $100 in borrowed cash and have sex with all four of the officers back at the station. There are the immigrant women, trying to earn enough money to return to their children in El Salvador while hoping to survive at the hands of men who 'discipline' them. There is Marina, the one-eyed, alcoholic, old woman living with her devoted husband in a collapsing shack on the steep slope of a ditch, selling condoms to the younger women for a few cents apiece and struggling to survive as her remaining eye starts to go blind with infection. There's Valeria, the eloquent, self-educated team captain, who as a teenager was forced to leave home after she was raped by her stepfather. There's Joshua, Valeria's six year old son, who gets upset at the fact that the bullies at his school 'seem to want to kill' his 'whore' mother. And there's Kimberley, the team's exuberant coach, a male prostitute who looks uncannily like Ronaldinho, designs the players' football kits and lingerie, and was banished from his family home after his parents discovered his homosexuality.
So what is it all for? The women, and so many others like them, will continue to suffer obscene harassment and poverty regardless of a few moments of glory on the football pitch. After decades of genocide and US-sponsored civil wars through the 20th century, untold numbers of people live under seemingly intractable structural violence in Guatemala and other countries in the region. That is not to mention the stigma and risks meted out to sex workers in other countries around the world, including the UK. What good can really come of these women playing football for the odd hour when their lives are filled with such wretchedness and cruelty for much of the rest of the time?
There is a moment in one of the football matches featured in the film where the ball breaks free just inside the opposition half and Vilma turns with the ball, suddenly finding herself clear through on goal. In that moment, the football fan inside me reacts, and I feel the familiar skip in my heartbeat as I involuntarily jolt to the edge of my seat, willing her to score. Go on. In that moment, she is any footballer; consumed with that moment, filled with unconscious panic and excitement as in a split-second she decides whether to strike the ball to the right or the left of the goalkeeper. In that moment time stands still; in that moment La Línea seems not to exist, and nor do the police who raped her and stole her money, nor does the man who beats her or any of her three-dollar paying clients, nor even her team-mate and feuding lover Lupe a few yards behind her – not in that moment.
After the All Stars record their first win, Vilma is asked how she feels by a TV reporter. “I'm so happy,” she grins. “I feel like a real star.”