Stamping on the Chosen Few: Township Soccer in London.

Sport is continuously being assigned to a non-political space but no-one lives in a bubble – sports people or LGBTI people . The arrival in London of the Chosen Few (CF), a team of young out Black lesbians from the township of Soweto coming to play in the London 2008 IGLFA World Championships tournament, which is overwhelmingly dominated by white gay men, is very much a political event. An event in which the only other three lesbian teams have a total of three Black players, and where the CF are stomped and fouled upon with some outrageously poor and unprofessional refereeing.

A little background on the tournament: one of the fixtures of the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association which was started in 1980. The description of the games in London’s Pink Paper is somewhat misleading …………”Six continents fight for cup” – one team from the whole of Asia, one from Africa and two from South/Central America with a totally disproportionate number coming from North America and Europe is hardly representative of “six continents”! Nonetheless the championship, like most amateur sporting events and associations it has a laudable mission:

“to foster and augment the self respect of gay women and men throughout the world, and engender respect and understanding from the non-gay world, through the medium of football (soccer).”

But the IGLFA also needs to accept that there a huge amount of work to “engender respect and understanding” between LGBTI people. For example, acknowledging lesbophobia and racism as expressed by white gay men, as well as sexism and other prejudice in the non-gay world. The event claims to be a “World” tournament inclusive of lesbians and gay men. Yet no less than 95% of the participants were men, of whom 90% were white with only three teams from outside Europe and America – Japan, Mexico and Argentina. On the women’s side there were only five teams – the two CF teams from South Africa, one team from Chicago and two local London teams.

The hierarchies that exist everywhere do not just melt away in any context despite fine words. There is an assumption that these do not exist amongst the LGBTI people but they clearly do. This tournament played out those divisions and hierarchies. How can it be a “World Tournament” when many teams cannot afford to come, and if they could, are likely to be refused entry to the UK when they get here, or fear it will put them in danger back home? And where is the “level playing field” for those who do manage to participate when there is such a divergence in the support and welcome available to the teams – medical, diet, cost of food in the games tent and the cost of attending social events.

The Chosen Few (CF) came to the games having struggled to raise the travel, accommodation and living expenses.. But they faced more obstacles in their living conditions in London: lack of support facilities such as steam rooms, access to physio treatment and a proper diet (the team had been told that their hostel had a kitchen but on arrival this was not the case and they had to resort to 1 week diet of cheap fast food) and were finally reduced to one team due to injuries. Without acknowledging and tackling these disparities, this event will continue as a white male tournament with the participation of lesbians, particularly Black lesbians, reduced to tokenism.

The Chosen Few who arrived on the 22nd August for a week’s soccer, are all members of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women based in Johannesburg. The team is made up of young unemployed women from Soweto Township for whom football is a passion and membership of the team, an uplifting and supportive network of friends. The tournament began on Monday (26 August) with each of the CF teams playing 3 matches on both days. By the close of play on Tuesday evening the number of injured had reduced the two teams to one team with reserves. One of CFs two goalies was stomped on her fingers yet no penalty was given against the opposing team. She came back the next day and was stomped on again and only her determination and bravery enabled her to play in the semi-final on Friday. So bad were the stomping, kicking and fouling that one CF player requires an operation to her ankle, and may never play again, and another was told she needed an MRI scan before any further assessment could be made about the severity of her leg injury. Three other players had injuries needing further treatment.

The girl’s insurance will not cover the cost of medical treatment for their injuries. Due to lack of funds, their sports insurance is the bare minimum and covers only basic treatment here in UK – x-rays, bandages, pain killers- and nothing when they return to SA. So the situation is that there are five young women who cannot afford to pay for private care in SA (free health care is limited and poorly resourced) so are left with untended injuries which may well affect them for life. The words “disposable people” come to mind. Next year there will be another team as those injured permanently will be replaced by a new set of youngsters. They in turn will be sent into the lion’s den unknowingly only to be eaten up by mismanagement, racism, and a disregard for the general well being of amateur athletes by an international association which is part of world football in the name of FIFA.

Despite their injuries the CF team returned to play the final games of the tournament on Friday determined to win but this was not to be. A combination of totally unprofessional refereeing and ungame’womanship’ towards the CF resulted in the team losing the match to Hackney FC. As one impartial observer said the CF team had “lost the game even before they began”. Like a number of others, including the CF coach, she was so infuriated, she went to call for the organisers to come over to see what was going on but showed their disinterest by never bothering to turn up. Requests to have the match replayed with another referee were also denied. Although they had dreamed of taking the trophy back to Soweto, visibly biased refereeing left a sour taste in the mouths of the players.

Because of their sexuality and by their insistence on being proud out lesbians from South Africa, the Chosen Few are challenging the largely homophobic hetronormative society. To then come to an international event which claims to celebrate an LGBTI identity and foster harmony and then be further marginalised is disappointing and frustrating.

One would have thought that this would have been seen to be a fantastic opportunity for the LGBTI community in the UK to meet and hear directly from young lesbians from the townships about their lives and the situation generally in South Africa. Yet not one event was arranged by the tournament organisers to facilitate this. What did the two London teams do to welcome the teams from Soweto, except have the audacity to offer the very team that they had fouled and stomped a second hand football kit?

“We wanted to win and take the trophy back to South Africa. We are disappointed in not being able to do that but we are also angry and frustrated that the tournament was not conducted in an atmosphere of fair play and we believe racism played a part in the refereeing and fouling by some members of the opposing teams.”

If young vulnerable and relatively disadvantaged people are to be invited to international sporting events like the London 2008 G&L Championship then those responsible for organising the tournament need to make the appropriate provisions so they can play on a level playing field with other teams. Without addressing these issues, the organisers cannot defend themselves at best against disinterest and tokenism and at worst against the charge of racism.

Cross posted from Black Looks

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