x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Game of not haves

Feature Far from the hype and super-salaries of the professional game, four young directors have received accolades for their documentary on the passion for street football around the world. M looks behind the scenes of Pelada, in which people play just for fun.

Gwendolyn Oxenham, one of Pelada's four directors,  found that football can bring strangers together all over the world.
Gwendolyn Oxenham, one of Pelada's four directors, found that football can bring strangers together all over the world.

Far from the hype and super-salaries of the professional game, four young directors have received accolades for their documentary on the passion for street football around the world. Sophie Roell looks behind the scenes of Pelada, in which people play just for fun. "Away from the bright lights and manicured fields there's another side of football?" begins the trailer for Pelada, a 90-minute documentary making the rounds of independent film festivals in the US. It is a world away from the millionaire players, lucrative boot contracts and television deals.

The film captures the amateur spirit of the game, one played every day by millions of people around the world for the sheer thrill and enjoyment of the sport. The action begins in the shadow of one of South Africa's new stadiums, where a group of construction workers have downed tools and placed two construction helmets as makeshift goalposts. "We wanted to go to South Africa to see what was happening in preparation for the World Cup," says Gwendolyn Oxenham, one of the film's four young American directors. "We went over to where they were building the stadium and walked up this hill. We saw these guys using their construction helmets as goal posts and playing during their break. The workers work these hugely long days and they only have 20 minutes for lunch. But they still play football during their break.

"They were all really excited about the World Cup, and one of the guys told us: 'I would have loved to be on the national team, but if I can't do that, I can at least say I built this stadium for our country'." Pelada literally means naked in Portuguese, but in this context refers to the game's bare bones. It is the Brazilian term for street football, though almost every country has its own word for it. It's called pickup soccer in the US, taking a sweat in Trinidad, and in England, people have a kick-about.

Over three years, the film's four directors visited not only South Africa but 24 other countries in search of the untold stories of the game. They went from prisons in Bolivia to the streets of Tehran and China. The idea for the film came to Oxenham when she was working as a deckhand on a boat in Mexico, trying to decide what to do with her life. Her own dream of becoming a professional football player had gone up in smoke after she failed to make the US national team and it was her first summer not playing the game.

The boat she was working on was anchored off an island in the middle of nowhere, a remote outpost of the Mexican army. The guards held machine guns and machetes and didn't look eager to make friends, but Oxenham looked past all that and saw the makeshift football field behind them. Within an hour they were playing football together, drinking beer, and having their photo taken with her. "The way football can do that, the way it can create such intimacy between strangers stuck with me," Oxenham recalls.

Late at night, in a café with her friend Rebekah Fergusson, who like Oxenham is a former Duke University football player, they plotted how to make the experience into a film. They came up with the idea that was to become Pelada. Over the next three years, Oxenham and her boyfriend, Luke Boughen, a former player for the University of Notre Dame, Fergusson and the film's producer, Ryan White, travelled the world and played street football.

All four had played football growing up, but Oxenham and Boughen, who had been closest to playing football professionally themselves, would become the film's central characters: their own failed dreams of becoming football stars an important part of the story. "It's also this 'has-been' narrative," Oxenham explains by telephone from Orange County, California, where she now teaches writing at a local community college. At 16, she was the youngest first division athlete in the history of the NCAA, America's college sport association, but when her college football days ended, she was not good enough to make it onto the US national team.

Since the women's professional league in the US had been disbanded, there were no other local options. "All over the world, there are people who wanted to be the best, but didn't end up being the best," she says. "So there's this question of what do you do when the game ends? What happens when you're just not good enough? You have to learn how to love the game anyway." And learn to love it she did, as they played pickup football in Brazilian favelas and African slums, in a Bolivian prison and in front of Egypt's pyramids.

The Egyptians, as it turns out, have some skilful moves. "They were some of the best football players that we played with anywhere," Oxenham says. "They were amazing. We only played one game in Egypt and they were just ridiculously good." Other regional stops included Iran, where women are not allowed to play with men. "I managed to play in just one game before being reported to the authorities. Everyone always invited me to play, and everyone was very kind," she says. "But as an American, you have to travel with a tour guide, and our tour guide wouldn't let me play."

That all of Pelada's directors are Americans is one of the ironies of the film. Some think that Americans don't really get football. But perhaps that's the point. "Maybe because we are Americans, and a little bit outside of the universal soccer culture, it was easier for us to see what's so brilliant about it," Oxenham speculates. "It isn't an everyday part of our lives, it isn't standard, so it's easier for us to recognise just how special pickup is."

It is also true that the US has traditionally been strong in women's football, a part of the sport not so much embraced by more macho or conservative cultures, or even in Britain. "That a woman should try and get into games, that's pretty standard in our own country," says Oxenham. "But abroad, people looked at me like I was crazy. But as soon as I could do one good move, they reacted and they loved it, and went crazy over it."

The directors also visited Palestine, where women (some in hijab and some without) do play football with the opposite sex. "We played with a 16-year-old girl, who said 'If I were president, all girls in Palestine would play football'," Oxenham recalls. Interestingly, given the stereotype of all Palestinians revelling in anti-Americanism, their reception in the West Bank was one of the warmest anywhere.

"We just wandered in with our football. We crossed over from Jerusalem and we didn't speak any Arabic," she said. "Everyone was so keen to help that literally, within five minutes of being in the West Bank, and asking our first person, we were being led by a posse of guys to a parking lot where we played in a pickup game using parking-lot rubble as goals. "Just this ability to carry a football, to be able to become friends with people without being able to communicate, was really awesome in Palestine."

There were some disasters along the way. In Israel, the crew's cameras fell victim to Ben Gurion Airport's stringent security measures, and two of them were detained for the better part of a day. In Egypt, Luke became violently ill while staying in an abandoned, roach- and mosquito-infested apartment with no running water. "We had our worst luck in Egypt," Oxenham says. They had hoped to visit more countries in the Middle East, but couldn't because they ran out of money.

And yet, the final result is a film that is so much more than any of them had dared hope for at the beginning. "When we set out to make Pelada, we thought 'Oh, how cool would it be if we could make a film about pickup football around the world and show all of the different people who play.' We knew it would be great," Oxenham says. "But I think all of us would say that it was better than anything we could ever have imagined.

"People really liked to share their love of the game, and it was just wonderful seeing so many people who all love it - and really open up to you. Because once you play a game of football with someone it doesn't feel like you're interviewing them, it feels so much more intimate. And because of that we were really able to hear some wonderful stories." Which story moved her the most? "Probably one from Kenya. "We were playing on a field that used to be a garbage dump," Oxenham says. "It's the oldest slum in Africa and they don't have water or electricity - and the smell is unreal. But they all put in 20 shillings to play football on Saturdays.

"The largest industry in the slum is moonshine brewing, and one of the brewers said to us, 'Down here everybody thinks you're just another drunkard. But when you get on to the field, everyone says: he's a player, he really knows how to play'." Which team is Oxenham supporting in the World Cup? "The United States, of course," she replies. And after that? "I guess Brazil. I played professionally there one summer, so I got to see Robinho play a lot. He was as crafty as he was inventive, so I always root for Robinho, and Brazil. You just have to love the way they play."

Is that true of pickup soccer as well? Were the Brazilians as nifty as those skilled Egyptians? "What was so astounding about Brazil was the breadth," she says. "It wasn't just that there were amazing 25-year-olds. The 75-year-olds were good. The eight-year-olds were good. Every single person was skilful. And it was everywhere." Not that Oxenham or any of the other makers of Pelada will actually be attending the World Cup. Today, Oxenham and Boughen are getting married, an event that was timed so they could go to the World Cup afterwards. But tickets turned out to be expensive, and they still owe some US$40,000 (Dh147,000) in post-production bills for the film. So, as seems curiously appropriate, they won't be going because they can't afford it.

"We kind of hoped that with our movie coming out we could do a screening in Capetown, but it never quite happened," says Oxenham. "I'm disappointed, but I can't complain about not being able to travel." Next to football, her other big love is writing. "This film has been a kind of three-year detour for me. I did study documentary making in college, so I knew I loved it, I loved the ability to zoom in on other people's lives. But for me, my favorite form of storytelling is writing, and that's what I want to focus on now."

Oxenham has a graduate degree in creative writing from Notre Dame, and won a post-graduate prize to write a book about her brother. "He was going to prison at the same time I was going to graduate school, so I was working on a book about the effect one sibling has on another. I had a grant to finish the book, and I did not finish. I did the film instead and the book is something I'm starting to come back to - when I've finished the madness of this movie."

For more information on the film go to www.pelada-movie.com