Away from professional stadiums, bright lights, and manicured fields, there’s another side of soccer. Tucked away on alleys, side streets, and concrete courts, people play in improvised games. They play for the love of the game.
It is this universal love that makes sport a universal language. Speaking the language of sport while travelling—by joining a pickup game in a foreign country—is one of the best ways to meet people and make friends around the world. Whether it’s in a back-alley baseball game in Cuba, on a soccer pitch in the slums of Kenya, a Cricket game in India or shooting a basketball at a hoop on a coconut tree in the Philippines, a high five is a high five, and a “goooooooal” is a goal.
And football (soccer) star Gwendolyn Oxenham made it her mission to find and join in as many of those unofficial, spontaneous football games around the world!
Every country has a different word for it. In the United States, we call it “pick-up soccer.” In Trinidad, it’s “taking a sweat.” In England, it’s “having a kick-about.” In Brazil, the word is “pelada” which literally means “naked”—the game stripped down to its core. It’s the version of the game played by anyone, anywhere—and it’s a window into lives all around the world.
At sixteen, Gwendolyn Oxenham was the youngest Division I player in NCAA history, a soccer star and leading goal-scorer for Duke. At twenty, she graduated and the women’s professional soccer league folded, abruptly ending her soccer career.
By 23, Oxenham felt like a has-been, but she still loved to play. Her love of the sport in its least-official form, pickup games, was what kept her playing games in her home state of California. Oxenham felt and knew there were people all over the world playing pick-up games on the streets and public pitches around the globe. And she wanted to join these games.
The seed was planted and she acted on it. She convinced her boyfriend (by now husband) and together they embarked on a 3-year round the world trip finding and joining as many pick-up games of football (or soccer as they say in the USA) as they could.
Their quest resulted in a journey that covered 25 countries and an unimaginable amount of games and goals. They covered their ‘ball centered’ adventure in both a kickass book – Finding the Game: Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer
– and a kickass documentary – Pelada.
She told Yahoo Travel that no matter how foreign the country, she found that once you join a game, “you stop being a tourist, and you’re one of them. People are at their happiest and most relaxed when playing sports. They’re far more likely to join you for a drink or invite you into their home if they were your teammate during the day. But be a good teammate and don’t forget to pass the ball!”
To IndieWire, Ryan White – one of the movie’s directors – explained: “We were traveling to 25 countries on a dangerously low budget, so there was no extra money for frills. We couldn’t afford fixers or guides, we couldn’t afford hotels or the easy modes of transportation. So we were often relying on the favors of others, people all over the world who housed us, fed us, and guided us to find these stories. And we inevitably found ourselves in sticky situations at times – we got detained in Israel, reported to the Iranian government, and countless other situations our mothers wouldn’t want to know about. I think it speaks to the magic of the game and our movie’s subject: almost every time, once we explained what we were doing, we were met with smiles and excitement and sentences like, “Ahhhh, I should show you this really cool court near where I live!”
Their tenacity and dedication to ‘finding the game’ is remarkable. Despite financial and language barriers, they play with sheep-shearing gauchos in Uruguay, with hardened criminals in La Paz’s infamous San Pedro Prison, in an Arabs-against-Jews contest in Jerusalem and with salarymen on a Tokyo rooftop. They even bet shillings on a game with moonshine brewers in Kenya and play with freestylers in China.
The documentary’s most impressive sequences take place in the slums of Nairobi, where the poverty is overwhelming, and in Tehran, where it’s illegal for women to play with men (she gets a game anyway).
Oxenham shows us how kicking a ball together can unite us more than shared worship of famous teams. Soccer fans will love this, but anyone who enjoys shoestring travelogues will like it, too. Both the book and the documentary.
The documentary debuted at the 2010 South by SouthWest (SWSX) film festival. To positive acclaim:
“Across two dozen countries—from back alleys to remote beaches to the roofs of skyscrapers—an eye-opening journey into the heart of soccer”
“An entertaining, heartfelt look at the soul of a sport and a thrilling travel narrative, this book is proof that on the field and in life, some things need no translation.”
On IMDB the film gets a 7.4/10 rating
About Gwen Oxenham
GWENDOLYN OXENHAM received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Notre Dame, where she was awarded the Nicholas Sparks post-graduate fellowship. A Duke University soccer alum, she played professionally for Santos FC in Brazil in 2005. She teaches English and plays in pickup games in Southern California.