I know it’s not ESL, but …

On 3 October 2016, Cameroon had just tied Venezuela in the final moments of a football match at the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. On the indirect free kick that constituted the ensuing kickoff, watch what Deyna Castellanos does. She is the player who takes the second touch on the ball. (Link to video.)

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the world football governing body, based in Switzerland and noted for its decades of ignorance of the women’s game that it supposedly administers, has elevated Castellanos to a list of three finalists for women’s footballer of the year. Seeing in 18-year-old Castellanos the next Marta, the Brazilian forward who has won the FIFA best-player prize five times, the male-centric body has pushed Castellanos into the spotlight much too soon, bypassing other deserving candidates.

While Marta turned professional as a teenager, moving to Sweden to help her nearly destitute family in Dois Riachos, Brazil, Castellanos has been playing for Florida State University in Tallahassee. Now a sophomore, she will have time to develop her potential as a professional; FIFA’s unfortunate choice is not her fault.

Why does this catch my attention? It’s notable, first, that Castellanos’s bilingualism makes her instantly marketable to the English- and Spanish-speaking worlds and to the pockets of affluence that drive the sport. More personally, though, I miss writing about football, especially the women’s game and its path, more than a century in duration, toward attention and respectability.

My vocation as a teacher to English-language learners grew out of my passion for world football. I continue to believe that the seemingly disconnected lives of second-language teaching and sport, especially soccer, merge with each other, potentially in curriculum and other pedagogical areas, but mainly in the ways that each endeavor encourages border crossing, risk, vulnerability, and community building.

The collection of soccer writing that I edited with Thom Satterlee and Alon Raab, The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), will soon be 10 years old. Around time of its publication, I participated in a panel, along with Thom and others, on translation and sport at the American Literary Translators Association. The group met outside Dallas. After the panel concluded, I was approached by an ebullient Russian woman, praising the anthology heavenward and ultimately saying that she had been looking for a text to engage her mostly male ESL students at a primarily Latino high school in Irving, Texas.

We stayed in touch. Sometime the next year, I flew again to the Dallas area to present on the book to a small assembly at this teacher’s high school and, then, to lead a senior seminar, another of her classes, on literature. We talked about the poem “El sueño del domingo (por la tarde)” (Dreaming of Sunday Afternoons) by Giovanna Pollarolo, from Peru. Among the questions we considered: What does it mean for a South American woman to write

en mis días no habrá plancha
ni fútbol ni lamentos

When my day comes there will be no ironing
or soccer or deep sighs

It was a wonderful experience, particularly talking with a student from El Salvador about her love of poetry and the chapbook she had been keeping, in English. We shared some Chick-fil-A. She shared some poems.

Later, my host told me that this Salvadoran girl had written about my visit. I’ve lost the note. But I remember the gist. The girl expressed her simple thanks for letting “Mr. John come to my school.”

Within a year, I had volunteered for an Atlanta literacy group, teaching undocumented Mexican women in a battered city recreation center. Basketballs occasionally slammed against the glass where the beginners’ ESL class met on Tuesday and Thursday. The first class that I led, the women and I stood in a circle and kicked a soccer ball back and forth. It was the best community-building exercise I could think of.


Pollarolo, Giovanna. “Dreaming of Sunday Afternoons.” Pp. 119-20 in The Global Game: Writers on Soccer, ed John Turnbull, Thom Satterlee, and Alon Raab. Poem translated by Toshiya Kamei. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

2 thoughts on “I know it’s not ESL, but …

  1. I remember interviewing the Maryland soccer coach Joe Grimaldi around 1982. He was pugnacious and unapologetic about his side’s artless style. Then he said he would never speak to me again because I called his team “artless.”

  2. Nice piece, John – good to read some new soccer writing . . . I attended a recent University of Maryland game with my son and nephew (who kept goal for St. Joseph’s College, Long Island. NY), and thought of you as we enjoyed the action (2-0 over Northwestern with typically mean-spirited cheering from the MD student section – well-attended). Anyway, I’ll have to check out the Castellanos video, thanks.

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