Faithful Fan | Soccer in St. Louis impresses 'Finding the Game' author
Gwendolyn Oxenham is impressed with the soccer community in St. Louis.
That's saying a lot considering where she's played soccer. A prison in Brazil with no guards on the inside. Ghettos in Africa and Brazil. In Tehran with women in hijab. A Palestinian-Jewish rivalry in Israel.
The former Duke University player who has a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame made two short films on identity in sports, "Essence Game" and "DWS." With three others she made the highly acclaimed "Pelada," a film that documents a three-year, 25-country pilgrimage to find and play in the best pickup soccer games in the world. She recently released a book about the odyssey, "Finding the Game," which details the love of soccer — football as it is called elsewhere — from back alleys to remote beaches and even the roofs of skyscrapers.
The international flavor of soccer in St. Louis is what Oxenham found so attractive. Discussing a screening of the movie here about a year ago, she said: "St. Louis soccer fans were so into it. And we had a lot of refugee kids come out for the film. ... I was so wowed by St. Louis and all the culturally interesting soccer situations." Oxenham cited the New Dimensions soccer program, which has an outreach to refugee children.
The movie, she said, is about how soccer creates an intimacy between strangers, no matter what their background, race, ethnicity, religion or gender.
That has always been the case in St. Louis, even today when immigrants and refugees mix with native-born St. Louisans in pickup games across the region as well as in the Catholic Youth Apostolate's CYC leagues. In an entertaining and well presented book, "Soccer Made in St. Louis: A History of the Game in America's First Soccer Capital," author Dave Lange notes that "soccer is the world's game, a sport for all of mankind." He pointed out that virtually ignored almost everywhere else in the country for a century, soccer "became a strong thread that bound together ethnic groups, parishes and neighborhoods throughout St. Louis."
Oxenham is grateful for the opportunity to have played the game across the globe. Instead of being a tourist and being on the outside, she was on the inside as just another player who loves the game.
"The prison in Bolivia broke down the idea of what a prisoner is — they're real people, not scary. Playing with women in Iran, the talk was about how cute David Beckham is. There's so many moments that take you by surprise. It's soccer that allowed me to experience that," Oxenham said.
The people she met everywhere were "wonderfully welcome and open, not afraid to share their story," said Oxenham, who now is an English teacher at two junior colleges in southern California.
One disappointment was that they did not get to play at the Vatican. They met some of the Swiss Guards who were soccer aficionados, and the guards led them to a seminary where priests play pickup games. But the field was under construction.
Oxenham was the youngest Division I athlete in the history of the NCAA, a starter and leading goal scorer for Duke at age 16. But by 22 her career was over.
The lessons she has learned along the way are important for young athletes and their parents. "You can get so used to the step-ladder way we do sports in America, where we're always playing to get to the next level," Oxenham said. "I really got caught up in that. I realize now that the most fun I have is playing pickup with friends or strangers. It allows you to get to know people. I'm most 'myself' when I'm playing soccer, and that's true of most people doing what they love."
Playing a sport is not about eventually making it as a professional, but the experience of playing the game, said Oxenham, who today plays pickup soccer twice a week.
Oxenham's book is available from St. Martin's Press. The documentary, "Pelada," recently became available through Netflix and is available for showings at screenings. See pelada-movie.com.
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