Getting ready to Rock the Pitch

Do-gooding organization alert: Athletes for Africa “is a nonprofit organization that uses the power and profile of sport to promote global citizenship and empower the next generation of youth in Africa.”*

A4A is the organization behind Rock the Pitch, a charity soccer tournament taking place at Lamport Stadium on August 14. Participants include commoners like me and local celebrities, and everybody raises money to send to A4A’s partner organizations in Africa.

I’d like to direct all readers to my team’s fund raising page:

Click, give a little, and then come out to Lamport on the 14th to watch us compete. The first celebrity signings were confirmed yesterday and include former Toronto FC captain and Canadian national team member Jimmy Brennan. (This is going to be so embarrassing.)

*A4A organizes charity sporting events to raise money that goes towards assisting their partner organizations:

– Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (Uganda)
– War Child Canada (Democratic Republic of Congo)
– African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) Canada (Southern Sudan)

More details available on the A4A Programs page.

P.S. Safe travels and good luck to all my friends currently converging on Cologne for the Gay Games 2010.


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Updates: Caster Semenya, Iranian girls’ team, and Grannies Grannies

When I come across additional information or small updates to a story I have been following, I typically add it at the bottom of the original post in an “update” box. The problem with this is that nobody gets a notification, so unless you’re a new (or obsessive) reader you’re not going to see it. I’m going to try something new today: a “roundup”.

Here’s what’s going on in my world:

1) Caster Semenya has (finally) been cleared to race “as a woman”.
You all know what I think about this (for those just joining us, go here), but I do want to add that the IAAF is not disclosing any details. Their statement was brief (or “terse”, according to Barry Petchesky, author of
Explaining The Caster Semenya Decision, Because The IAAF Won’t,” published on Deadspin), which makes a wrap-up difficult. Suffice to say that I still see this as a sad chapter, and one we will regret.

2) Iranian girls team may be banned from youth tournament… again.
You will remember that back in April 2010, FIFA banned the Iranian girls’ team from competing in the Youth Olympic Football Tournament based on the fact that the players were beholden by their religion to wear hijab (head scarves). Cue (righteous) outrage. By early May FIFA had about-faced and allowed the girls to play in a game-modified uniform.

A month passes.

Iran may not send its girls’ football team to the Youth Olympics in Singapore next month because of a dispute over the players’ Islamic attire, Iranian media reported on Thursday. The deputy head of Iran’s physical education department, Marzieh Akbarabadi, was quoted by newspapers, including Khabar Varzeshi, or Sport News, as saying the newly designed dress was “inappropriate.” [The uniform] was unveiled during a practice session on Wednesday, which Akbarabadi, who is in charge of all women’s sports in Iran, left in protest.
– Nasser Karimi, “Iran girls’ football team may miss Singapore event,” Associated Press (July 8, 2010)

You know what? I said this before and I say it again, and this time with feeling: Let them play! These girls are athletes. They’ve trained (despite mighty opposition) to become good enough to qualify, yet all around are powers-that-be lining up to play Daddy to them.

I am not qualified to comment on the rightness or wrongness of hijab, but I can tell you with utter certainty that these players should be accommodated. No person should be forced to cast aside one love (football) for another (one’s religion).

3) Grannies Grannies find a way
Way back on the first day of the World Cup I wrote about Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies), a South African soccer team comprised of women between the ages of 49 and 84. A month ago they were hoping to inspire South African president Jacob Zuma to provide the finances to send the team to compete at the Veteran’s Cup, a tournament for teams with players of 30 years and older that takes place in Lancaster, Massachusetts (Source: “For the Love of Soccer and a Lasting Sisterhood“, New York Times, June 6, 2010). Apparently Zuma left their exhibition game without seeing their victory (8-0, defeating the Waterfall Grannie Soccer team).

Yesterday Herbalife (Yes, that Herbalife) issued a press release:

Herbalife Ltd. has teamed up with the United States Adult Soccer Association…, the Massachusetts Adult State Soccer Association (MASS), the Veterans Cup committee… and the Lexpressas women’s soccer team to help the Vakhegula-Vakhegula soccer team come to America to compete in the annual Veteran’s Cup tournament this week.
– “Soccer Grannies to Compete in Veteran’s Cup,” Marketwatch, July 13, 2010

Apparently, in return the players will play in jerseys sporting the Herbalife logo. Zuma missed a brilliant opportunity. He could have been the dream-maker. It’s a shame but it’s his loss. Grannies Grannies found a way despite his indifference.

Who’s up for a road trip to Lancaster? I hear there’s some world-class soccer going on.

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“Playing soccer makes me feel like I am alive.”

Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has organized an alternative 5/side soccer tournament called HALFTIME!, which is designed to highlight the widening HIV/AIDS treatment funding gap that’s becoming evident across Africa.

Can you imagine the massive outcry if someone stopped the World Cup after the semi-finals? Or if the referee just allowed the final match to be played until halftime only? Yet right now the battle against the HIV/AIDS emergency is being stalled before half-time, risking the lives of 9 million people in need of treatment.
– Dr Gilles van Cutsem, MSF project coordinator in Khayelitsha, South Africa, from “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament,” published on MSF/DWB site.

Allow me to digress here for a moment. Did anyone watch yesterday’s match between Uruguay and Ghana? Because Ghana was the last African country to have a chance to advance, the game took on a significance way larger than the Cup. The press dubbed the Ghanaian team “Ba-Ghana Ba-Ghana”, a reference to the South African national team’s name “Bafana Bafana” (Zulu for “the boys”), and a tidy way of claiming Ghana for all of Africa. In an event steeped in symbolism (and tribalism), Ghana’s performance would “prove” something about Africa to the world.

At the end of 120 gutting minutes Ghana lost in penalty kicks.

I bring this up because I see a connection between the international response to HIV and AIDS in Africa and the goings-on at the Cup (and clearly, given the many alternative events and initiatives I’ve reported on in these pages, football is an effective language to address these issues).

Predictably, the Cup has shone a spotlight on Africa and has ignited some dialogue about non-football issues facing the continent. For example, the Ghana-Uruguay match was “dedicated to the global fight against racism”, and an anti-racism message was read aloud to the crowd by the team captains. Sure, that feels good, but is it meaningful?

What I am getting at is that piece of this story the rests on Africa’s ability (or not) to “prove” something about itself. The continent is beleaguered by AIDS/HIV, yet the international response is spotty, ineffective, and slow. That’s the issue that MSF/DWB’s HALFTIME! is highlighting. Racism is part of it (in the west, testing positive for HIV is no longer an automatic death sentence; why is it acceptable to see so many Africans die of AIDS?), and it’s gratifying to see this issue brought to the Cup, even if the delivery was stilted and tokenistic. But what happens when everybody goes home?

I think that’s the pressure placed on the Ghana team, cast as they were as “Africa’s hope”. There’s the sense that a win for Ghana would have meant a win for Africa, not only on the pitch but on the world stage.

MSF’s recently released report entitled “No time to quit: HIV/AIDS treatment gap widening in Africa” reveals, through analysis of eight sub-Saharan countries, how major international funding institutions such as PEPFAR, the World Bank, UNITAID, and donors to the Global Fund have decided to cap, reduce or withdraw their spending on HIV treatment and life-saving ARV drugs over the past year and a half.  “Only one in three people living with HIV in urgent need of ARVs have access to it –so we are not halfway there yet in treating everyone. The HIV/AIDS emergency is not over and halftime is no time to quit! Millions of people are at risk dying within the next few years if we don’t do more now to keep donors to their promises. They committed to it, publicly and they knew the treatment is life long,” says Dr. Van Cutsem.
– From “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament

Why is this acceptable? I believe that some of the answer lies in the subtext of how the world sees Africa. Let’s not forget that there are people behind these numbers.

Playing soccer makes me feel like I am alive. Before going on treatment people were actually counting down the days until my death. Now, with treatment, people see me as a person, and not as a corpse.
– Janet Mpalume, a Zimbabwean MSF patient playing in the HALFTIME! tournament, From “HIV patients refuse to be sidelined by international community in unique football tournament

It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of an international tournament like the World Cup, but let’s remember that while we are watching elite athletes create spectacle on the brand new pitches of South Africa, there are real people waging real wars against AIDS and HIV. And that the worth of a continent or a nation or a person has nothing to do with football.

Make a donation to Medecins san Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders here.

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Soccer really can make the world a better place

This blog got some press recently in “The Great Game,” an article published in the July 2010 issue of INToronto Magazine. I was interviewed by writer Scott Dagostino during a World Cup viewing party at Downtown Soccer Toronto sponsor bar Gladaman’s Den.

Not to get all misty about it but soccer really can make the world a better place.
– Me, being emo.

I’d blame the histrionics on the beer (or goalie Green’s epic fumble), but you all know I really feel that way. And to prove that I’m right, my name – and Downtown Soccer Toronto’s – also appeared in a press release this week announcing that the membership of Downtown Soccer Toronto has chosen The Justin Campaign as the charity recipient of partial proceeds of our 2010/2011 calendar (for sale at the DST booth on Church just north of Isabella this Pride Toronto weekend). Named after out gay footballer Justin Fashanu, The Justin Campaign seeks to challenge homophobia in football (soccer) through education and programs including the Football v Homophobia Initiative. See? Better place.

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When multinationals go good

I have no idea how I missed this, but both of these stories are from the pre-Cup soccer glut (circa January/February 2010).

Warning: enviro-content to follow, courtesy (by which I mean ripped from) Treehugger.

What do you get when you mix soil samples from Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa and Cameroon? Well, you get the color of the jerseys and shorts in Puma’s Africa Unity Kits, which will be used by African teams in the football events (what some call soccer) Nations Cup (through January 31 in Angola) and World Cup (June 2010 in South Africa) when they’re playing against a team whose colors clash.
-“African Soccer Team Jerseys by Puma will Promote Biodiversity at World Cup,” by Andrea Donky and Randy Boyer (from

The kits:

Puma's Africa unity kits, image courtesy Treehugger

Puma's Africa Unity kits, image courtesy Treehugger

They’re kind of nice, hey, in a peaceful, lay-on-that-raft-chawing-straw-and thinkin’-thoughts sort of way. Hell, I’d even play soccer in them, but they ain’t fierce. They’d be a safe choice if colours clash.

Nike took a different approach to their sustainability imperative. I imagine the executive meeting:

Exec 1: (whispers in Exec 2’s ear)

Exec 2: OK, gentleman, Puma made dirt shirts. Thoughts?

In doing their part to help make the upcoming World Cup a bit greener, Nike has unveiled their official team jerseys–made from plastic bottles found in landfills. Players from Brazil, Portugal, and the Netherlands will be wearing the once-was-waste shirts, and millions of fans are expected to follow suit. For Nike, using the recycled plastic isn’t just a nice gesture to the environment; [it] takes 30 percent less energy to produce these eco-friendly shirts than with traditional materials.
– “Nike Creates World Cup Jerseys From Landfill Plastic,” by Stephen Messenger

The kits:

Brazil's jerseys made from bottles, courtesy Treehugger

Brazil's jerseys made from bottles, courtesy Treehugger

Fiercer. I wonder if they’re scritchy.

How come we haven’t heard about either of these initiatives since the new year? Step up, multinationals!

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The people’s game

So. Much. Soccer.

I’ve been like Homer Simpson, tongue lolling sloppily while I gorge myself on game after beautiful game. The World Cup comes only once every four years but makes up for its infrequency with an endless deluge of coverage. For 30 full days. Yum.

As if this weren’t enough, this past weekend I competed in the Toronto International Pride Cup (TIPC), the fourth annual soccer tournament presented by Downtown Soccer Toronto. My history with the league and this event goes way back and is enmeshed with my trip to Africa and the start of this blog. Those curious about how these things are connected could start with this post, and those familiar with the story may be interested to hear that I have again been bestowed with (someone else’s) MVP game ball and the instruction to take it to Africa… I love it when the universe is unmistakeable in its intentions for me.

So guess what? There’s another World Cup going in South Africa right now. According to the Sowetan, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign has launched a 36-team tournament to highlight the plight of the province’s poor (“Poor’s World Cup keeps drugs at bay,” June 21, 2010). Now this is interesting.

The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign “was formed on November 2000 with the aim of fighting evictions, water cut-offs and poor health services, obtaining free electricity, securing decent housing, and opposing police brutality”, and is an umbrella group for over 15 organizations. (Read more on their About page).

Remember waaaay back before the kick off on June 11? There were a few stories in the papers about FIFA’s stranglehold on every element of the Cup games, and one angle that generated a lot of commentary was the ban on all vendors save for its commercial partners.

Regulations imposed by football’s world governing body Fifa on host countries stipulate that no-one but its commercial partners be allowed trade or promote their products in the immediate vicinity of all World Cup sites.
– “South Africa World Cup ‘just for the rich’,” BBC News, May 10, 2010

So Coca-Cola gets an exclusive license and the ice cream vendor loses his business.

More perplexingly, FIFA also banned the distribution of condoms and health information at World Cup stadia (“AIDS groups protests FIFA ban policy,” The Associated Press, June 5, 2010). I wonder what commercial interests this policy is protecting?

There was press. There were protests.  And then June 11 came and we were all deafened by the Cup cannon (yes it’s an obscure G20 reference) which, incidentally, sounds exactly like tens of thousands of vuvuzelas.

Remember: I am a fan. But I think it’s a shame – a missed opportunity – that these voices have been effectively silenced. The ice cream vendor’s still faced with feeding his family, the rate of HIV and AIDS transmission in South Africa is still enormous.

Enter the Poor People’s World Cup. Thirty-six teams from communities across the Western Cape are competing in the tournament which has a grand prize of R5000 (approximately $650 CDN).

[W]hile the poor people in Cape Town and in South Africa as a whole are suffering, the rich are enjoying themselves in the expensive stadiums at the expenses of the poor… All the traders and communities – that were negatively affected by FIFA related urban renewal projects and by the implemented by-laws – were invited to this tournament: a tournament that is FREE and open to everybody.
– “The First Poor People’s World Cup on African Soil,” from the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign site.

The Poor People’s World Cup: yet another example of people using the people’s game to stage a response to a social problem.

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The literal manufacture of vagina dentata

In between all the watching soccer and playing soccer and talking about soccer I’ve neglected writing about soccer. Or maybe, if I’m honest, I’ve been avoiding it a little bit because this post picks up on a difficult topic that we’ve delved into before (most recently here): rape.

On June 21, CNN published an article by Faith Karimi titled, “South African doctor invents female condoms with ‘teeth’ to fight rape“. It’s exactly what it sounds like: South African doctor Sonnet Ehlers has designed, produced, and distributed a latex sleeve (called “Rape-aXe) that is inserted like a tampon.

Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man’s penis during penetration, Ehlers said. Once it lodges, only a doctor can remove it — a procedure Ehlers hopes will be done with authorities on standby to make an arrest.  “It hurts, he cannot pee and walk when it’s on,” she said. “If he tries to remove it, it will clasp even tighter… however, it doesn’t break the skin, and there’s no danger of fluid exposure.”
– From “South African doctor invents female condoms with ‘teeth’ to fight rape

There is no doubt that rape – and in particular so-called “corrective” rape – is a serious and systemic problem in South Africa. There is little support for the women who are victimized, especially if they are black and from the townships (as they very often are). Officials don’t recognize “corrective” rape as a distinct type of crime, making their response inadequate at best (just as in the west we fought to characterize and categorize gay-bashing as a hate crime, the particular nature of “corrective” rape must be acknowledged if an effective response if to be mounted).

The last time I wrote about this I was making the simple point that even in the press there seems to be a sense of hopelessness and resignation rather than a call to action. With the high-profile rape, torture and murder of Eudy Similane the issue only gained notoriety. Nothing changed.

Now, at last, a response. But what does this say, that the response is the literal manufacture of vagina dentata?

Critics say the female condom is not a long-term solution and makes women vulnerable to more violence from men trapped by the device. It’s also a form of “enslavement,” said Victoria Kajja, a fellow for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the east African country of Uganda. “The fears surrounding the victim, the act of wearing the condom in anticipation of being assaulted all represent enslavement that no woman should be subjected to.”
– From “South African doctor invents female condoms with ‘teeth’ to fight rape

A point well-taken. And what about the reification of the myth of the toothed vagina? How does this affect the discourse around the issue of rape? I am uneasy with the relationship. It muddies and mystifies, when we need thought that’s concrete and clear. Nonetheless, I can’t quite bring myself to condemn the device outright.

“Ehlers is distributing the female condoms in the various South African cities where the World Cup soccer games are taking place,” Karimi reports.

What do you think? Responses welcomed in the comments.

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