Relearning the Beautiful Game
Whoever said sports and politics don’t mix should come spend a Sunday in the Bay Area. Meet me here near the Golden Gate Bridge, and I’ll introduce you to the one and only Left Wing Fútbol Club—where solidarity trumps competition, where imperialism is completely offsides, and where no matter how many goals are made, the score is always 2-2.
Every Sunday afternoon for the past four years, I have joined the thirty-plus members of Left Wing for this extraordinary community ritual. We are artists and activists, teachers and construction workers, elders and future elders, all united in our belief in a more just world—and in our love of the beautiful game. Soccer is the world’s sport, the only truly global language on our divided, war-torn planet. So every week when we play our Left Wing game, we are taking a small stand for peace, for justice, and for good one-touch passes everywhere.
What makes Left Wing special is not so much who plays but how we play. Before every game, we circle up, welcome any newcomers, and explain what makes our game different from Chelsea vs. Arsenal. (Other than skill, of course; Chelsea couldn’t hold a candle to us.)
Here, we say, passing is more important than scoring. Be vocal on the field and support your team—and the other team, too, when it does well. No slide tackling—not just to prevent injuries, but to check the overaggressive, hypermasculine style of play endemic to most sports. And just to make sure no one gets too caught up in the competition, yes, the score is always 2-2.
Subverting sport’s fundamental dogma, Left Wing defines our success not by how many goals we score but by the extent to which all players are learning, growing, and most importantly, feeling excited to come back next week. If you do score a beautiful goal, we celebrate that, too. (If only I caused more celebrations!) After all, socialism doesn’t mean individuals can’t still shine. But in a world where, as Dave Zirin says, American sports have glamorized militarism, individualism, and sexism, Left Wing’s greatest victory is how it has made the soccer pitch a space of liberation.
Now, that liberating style of play can take a little getting used to. I remember my own first Sunday game. Every time I got the ball, I would try to dribble through as many defenders as possible, sometimes breaking through but usually losing the ball. Meanwhile, everyone else was passing and moving, passing and moving: sending the ball forward, sideways, even—God forbid—backward to keep possession. And all the while everyone was (is this for real?) smiling. This was something other than the me-first, no-feelings-allowed soccer I grew up playing.
Learning how to play differently, to live differently, isn’t easy. Especially in America, where democracy equals drone missiles and freedom means a bigger SUV. Even those of us who intellectually recognize injustice find it hard to actualize the values we do want. If we’re going to build a new world in the ashes of the old, the revolution can’t be limited to the realm of politics. Real transformation has to include all areas of society—work, school, food, sex, and yes, sports. Or, as my fellow futbolistas would put it, “If you want to change the world, you have to change the way you play.”
Like all good radical sports collectives, Left Wing didn’t just pop up overnight. The team traces its origins back to a specific moment in movement politics.
“Back in 2003, when the second Iraq War was starting, there were huge protests here in the Bay Area,” says original Left Wing futbolista Julio Magaña. “We were running from the cops so much, we realized we needed to get in shape. Why not play some soccer?”
Thus modern leftist soccer was born. The first tournament was held that year in Berkeley, with the two teams forming along clear ideological lines: the Communists vs. the Anarchists. The communist team, Left Wing, of course wore red jerseys, while the anarchists wore black and called themselves Kronstadt FC, after the 1921 workers’ rebellion in Russia. Rather than the National Anthem before the game, the teams joined in for a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.”
After a couple games, the anarchist team faded away (as anarchist teams usually do), while the communist squad evolved into the more politically diverse team that is the current Left Wing. Welcoming anyone who wants to play, Left Wing invites people who traditionally have been excluded from organized sports: women, queer folks, and people of color. Our youngest player, León, is seven years old. Our oldest, Taisei, is in his mid-sixties. Much of the team has roots in Latin America, and most of the cheering and trash talk you’ll hear is in that colorful language known as Spanglish. This is the team I have always dreamed of.
Left Wing has become my community off the field as much as on. We eat together, we party together, and we protest together: for immigrant rights and a free Palestine, against police brutality and whatever the hell Arizona has done that week. We go to each other’s weddings and graduations, hospital visits and funerals. Individualism may seem easier, but community is by far the healthier, more fun way of living. To paraphrase Robert Putnam, why bowl alone when you can play socialist soccer with your friends?
I’m not exaggerating when I call Left Wing my church. (Our bible, of course, is Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow.) And while we are not evangelicals, the church is growing. Spurred on by transplanted futbolistas, new Left Wing teams have sprung up in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. We hold a yearly Copa Comunidad that brings together all three teams for a weekend that is half-World Cup, half-Carnival. And all this from a weekly soccer game that started here in Oakland.
The funny part is, we don’t actually play in Oakland. We play in nearby Piedmont. Yes, our commie soccer team plays in what folks here call the “City of Millionaires.” Surrounded on all sides by diverse, working-class Oakland, Piedmont is a geographical myth created to protect property taxes and rich white people. While the Oakland high school I work in crams forty students into a class and can feel more like a prison than a school, Piedmont High has twenty-five students per class and a nicer campus than most small colleges. Faced with such injustice, there’s only one proper Left Wing response: to play every Sunday on one of the three beautiful fields of Piedmont High. As Julio, the original futbolista, says, every game we play at Piedmont we are “redistributing the athletic wealth of the bourgeoisie.”
Sometimes, however, the bourgeoisie doesn’t like it when we come play in their backyard. More than once, the school security guard has shown up (why is he there on a Sunday?) to lock us out and inform us the field is only for Piedmont residents. And every now and then, the Left Wing/Piedmont tension produces more exciting results, as happened recently on a day I won’t soon forget.
It was a somber Sunday in Oakland. Earlier in the week, a high school junior named Alejandro Aguilera had been shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. Only eighteen years old, Alejandro was a student of several Left Wing players, including Julio and Dania Cabello. He was a great kid, they told us—an emerging young leader, even a budding futbolista. A case of mistaken identity, Alejandro’s murder was the latest in a long, deadly line for young men of color in Oakland. This one wasn’t gang retaliation or police brutality—it was totally random, which almost made it hurt more.
And here we were, in Piedmont, gathering like we do every Sunday. Only this time, we were passing the hat for Alejandro’s funeral costs. After a prayer and a moment of silence, we began to pass the ball around, but try as we might, the spirit just wasn’t there. Who cares about soccer when our youth can’t walk down the street without getting shot?
Then, just as we were about to take a break, a group of tall, muscular men in shorts and cleats walked onto the field. They didn’t announce it, but from their perfectly coiffed haircuts and patently confident strides, I knew these dudes were from Piedmont.
“Hey there,” said the tallest guy, walking up in a dark green polo shirt. “How about a game?”
“Sure,” Dania said. “Come on in. Just split up and join a side. Here’s how we play…”
But before she could explain the Left Wing etiquette, Mr. Polo interrupted her. “No, I mean we play a real game. Us,” he said, waving his hand at his fellow macho men, “versus you.”
When I looked around to the other Left Wingers, I saw an unexpected sparkle in everyone’s eyes. I gave Dania the nod.
“Sure,” she said. “Game on.”
The teams took the field. Piedmont, eleven players strong, stood in front of us. Oakland, and one of its fallen sons, was in our hearts. Taisei, our elder statesman, kicked the ball in the air, and the game began.
The Piedmont dudes knew how to play. They dribbled fast, tackled hard, and shot harder. Barely two minutes in, the Piedmont striker got a breakaway and scored. Jogging back up the field, Mr. Polo shot me a look that made it clear: This is our field now.
Except it wasn’t. In fact, that would be Piedmont’s only goal of the day. We started to fully play our Left Wing style, and damn if we didn’t play brilliantly—quick passing, ball possession, and tiki-taka movement like Barcelona at its finest. Dania controlled the midfield, dancing the ball through Piedmont defenders like a badass Baryshnikov. Julio scored a diving header one minute, then saved another on defense the next. I even acted like I knew what I was doing, assisting on a long pass from the wing.
All the while, we were laughing, we were smiling, we were even cheering the Piedmont dudes on. Which they couldn’t stand. But this wasn’t about them anymore, this was about us, about playing with the love and joy that only comes from deep mourning and a never-ending cry for justice. So we kept passing, kept moving, kept scoring.
After a half dozen goals or so, Mr. Polo picked the ball up. “All right, enough. You’ve proved your point.”
Exhausted and exhilarated, we all walked off the field together. The Piedmont players were in on the fun now. I even heard a few asking if they could come back and play next week. One dude said, “Yeah, I could learn a couple things from you guys. What was the final score of that game right now?”
I looked over at Dania. All she could do was smile.
“I’m not positive,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure it was 2-2.”
Josh Healey is a writer, activist, and outside midfielder in Oakland, California. He is working on his second book of stories and poems, entitled “Town Business.”
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