Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she’s gone.
In one of my favourite Simpsons scenes, Lisa is having her future told by a Native American. Her future husband, an over-the-top Hugh Grant-coiffured opulent Englishman, says in reference to Lisa’s position within the Simpson family, “you’re like a flower that grew out of a pot of dirt.” Lisa is the flower, her family the pot of dirt.
This Sunday will see the United States play Japan in the final of the World Cup of Association Football. Sorry, I should write the women’s World Cup, but that prefix is becoming more and more of an afterthought. High crowds – more than 73,000 at the opening game and an average of more than 25,000 for the tournament – have watched good quality football, played with skill and a degree of endeavour and honesty that makes a mockery of much of what is going on in the men’s game. The tournament has shown us again that football, at its most basic level, is a means to distinguish extraordinary human beings from ordinary ones, and this three-week contest has contained both. It reminds us that even among the fickleness and corruption of FIFA in the twenty-first century, football still retains the ability to release from us our most extreme emotions. Yes, this current World Cup is like a flower that grew out of a pot of dirt.
Canada lost all three games in the group stage of the tournament, yet one Canadian, captain Christine Sinclair, was still justifiably lauded for one simple act – she broke her nose in the opening 2-1 loss to Germany, but continued to play and scored a superb 25-yard free kick while experiencing immense pain. There are very few players, male or female, who would willingly carry on playing in such circumstances.
Sinclair is one player who managed to succeed immediately after suffering an injury, but an arguably bigger story is that of Japan, a team hoping to bring joy and relief to a nation recently devastated by the double-whammy of an earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese winning goal against Germany and the ensuing ecstasy might do more than any monetary donation or government initiative to help the people of that land recover from desolation.
Media coverage of women’s sport has traditionally focused on femininity, proving time and again that male writers are generally inept at profiling women, particularly successful women. References to how many children they have or lengthy descriptions of their appearance abound, and subjects are described with words that contrast their femaleness with their careers; successful yet female, rather than successful and female. Or just successful. They are portrayed as a curiosity, a tangent to normality, a tributary to the gushing river of “real” news and coverage. There is no reason why we should not notice a subject’s hairstyle, young children or distaste for makeup. The problem starts when we get snaggled on these details, stuck to their femaleness like bubble gum in long hair.
What has been refreshing over the last few weeks is that players and coaches were, to most media outlets, first and foremost just athletes. Japan or the US would both be worthy winners in Frankfurt this Sunday, but – and excuse the litany of clichés that is about to follow – tears of joy and tears of sorrow will be shed, fingernails will be chewed to the quick and heart rates will go up exponentially. There will be winners and losers, but only in one sense. In reality, the real winners are those who took the time to follow the tournament in stadiums, sitting rooms, bars and newspapers or while listening to games on the radio. The tournament has reminded those for whom football is something beyond 22 individuals trying to move a ball into a net that for every Blatter-esque autocrat or ridiculous dive or feigned injury, there are many more moments of honesty and, dare I say it, beauty that are worth celebrating.