Early in Under the Lights and in the Dark, Gwendolyn Oxenham's essential book about women's soccer, the author recounts a story that makes the hair stand up on your head. It's about an American player. The young woman isn't famous but she's a very, very good player. In 2012, after an outstanding career with her university team, she was drafted to play in a women's professional league. Before she could report for duty, the league folded, another failure in the many attempts to establish a women's professional sports league – not just in soccer but in countless other games.
Unwilling to give up, the young woman signed with a women's soccer team in Russia. It was geographically remote, but it allowed her to earn a living playing soccer. A few days into her time with the Russian outfit, just before the soccer season started, she was sitting on the grass after a practice, untying her boots. The team's coach, a sixtysomething guy, was furious. He ran over, grabbed her by the ear, using it to pull her to her feet, and screamed at her.
What annoyed him, a translator relayed, was that this woman sitting on the cold grass was endangering her fertility. She told him never to lay a hand on her again, but she played for that team in Russia for the full season. It was a living, a meagre living, and bewildering, but she was a professional female athlete.
Under the Lights and in the Dark presents a series of stories about women's soccer players, some famous, but most of them obscure yet talented. The core members of the U.S. women's team are famous and rich, but the majority of players are itinerant and poorly paid. In this startling, eye-opening book, there are many stories about paycheques never arriving. Still they play.
Oxenham, who competed at the university level and for a tiny off-the-radar team in Brazil, is intensely connected to these women, compassionate and understanding. She, too, is obsessed with the women's game (she directed the documentary Pelada about pickup soccer around the world and wrote a fine book, Finding the Game, about her experiences) and has a good eye for the revealing story. What emerges, with stunning clarity, is a picture of heroic figures who overcome incredible odds, just to play for a club team or country.
One of England's most successful women players, Fara Williams (England impressed mightily at the Women's World Cup in Canada in 2015) was homeless for years. She lived in shelters while honing her skills and she hid her homeless status as her stature grew. Soccer saved her. In this book, it is not just Williams who is featured, but another young player, homeless and a mess of angers and addictions, whom Williams nurtured at Liverpool team's Academy. The young woman eventually played at the Homeless World Cup. Williams's situation only became known when, after a training session with England's under-19 national team, the coach offered to drive her home and home turned out to be a shelter in central London.
The story of Marta, the great Brazillian and probably the best women's player in the world, encapsulates so much of Oxenham's book. It's a cautionary tale of skill ignored in a male-centric country and culture, briefly celebrated, and then ignored again. Marta's the ultimate itinerant player, earning her wages in numerous countries around the world. Then there's Neymar, who is now the most expensive player in the world, whose genius was obvious when he was still a teen in Brazil. Usually such players are quickly snatched up by big European clubs, but there was a concerted effort by his team to keep him in Brazil. That meant paying him European wages, which led to the elimination of the women's team that had nurtured Marta.
The cover of Oxenham's book features Canada's own Christine Sinclair, celebrating a goal with her teammates. But she's not playing for her home country; Sinclair is with her club team, the Portland Thorns. That's because Oxenham takes the reader from the far reaches of women's soccer to the place it truly thrives and flourishes, week in and week out, the Pacific Northwest, where huge crowds support the Thorns. The community seems addicted to the team. It's a safe space for the game, and the achievement is gloriously celebrated by Oxenham.
The book, a blend of stand-up-and-cheer triumphs and bittersweet cautionary tales, is a revelation, and it is a must-read for anyone curious about not just women's soccer, but the beautiful game.
John Doyle is the Globe's TV critic, covers soccer and the author of The World Is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer.