The documentary Pelada follows two ex-college soccer players across four continents, playing pick-up soccer games wherever and whenever they can. The game’s power—as discovered in games played in places from a Bolivian prison to a garbage dump in Kenya—is the intimacy it creates between strangers, and the unconditional joy it brings to players of all skill levels. The film premiered in March, 2010, at South by Southwest in Austin. AFAR caught up with Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham, the soccer-playing subjects of the film, via phone from their home outside San Diego.
You traveled to traditional soccer places, like Brazil, and more unconventional ones like China and Iran. Did you feel it was important to get a large span of countries?
Luke: Part of it is where we could afford to go to and find a friend of friend who would let us stay on their floor; someone who knows the language, and knows where the good games are. On the other hand, you don’t want to overplan, because it takes away from the romantic side of it. We went to Kenya because [videographer and director] Ryan White’s best friend lived in the slum there and knew people who played on that field. In Brazil you can find a game every 5 to 10 minutes.
Plato has a famous quote that goes, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Do you agree with this?
Gwendolyn: I love that quote. Yes, I agree. I am a shy, awkward person and I struggle with cocktail parties and small talk. But playing soccer, within one hour you immediately feel like you’re friends with someone.
Luke: We always talk about a quote from Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan novelist: “When you tell me how you play, then I’ll tell you who you are.” I don’t know if these things you learn about a person by playing with them necessarily follow everyday life and character traits, but you get some really interesting characters on the field you wouldn’t find off it.
What advice would you give to non-soccer players wanting to connect with local people?
Gwendolyn: Soccer opens so many doors. I bet that there are other things like music or even playing cards that do that. Down the back roads, the spots away from the monuments and museums, people are friendly. Getting lost was great. We loved rolling down the window and saying. “Excuse me where is the field?” All of a sudden you are connecting with people.
Luke: Playing games are a great way but not the only way. You can connect over just watching a game. Anything you can find in common with someone from a different place will do it to an extent.
Do you feel there were countries that ‘needed’ the game more than others?
Luke: In Europe, it seemed like more of a diversion, something to do. In Kenya and Brazil it did seem like it was life.
Gwendolyn: We played in England with Iraqi immigrants. One guy was a construction worker who spent all day working and would still come out to the field. I asked how he never got tired and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “This is my happiness.” It seemed like that was the case in every country no matter what your life circumstances were, whether you were fleeing your office job like the Tokyo guys or fleeing your moonshining job in Kenya. Soccer is happiness.
You both had dreams of playing professionally. Did you find others on your travels who had similar aspirations?
Gwendolyn: Every single game we played, there were at least two guys that would come up and tell you how they almost made it. If it weren’t for their broken leg, or torn ligament, or if their girlfriend hadn’t gotten pregnant, they almost had a shot. The world is full of people who almost made it. That was kind of the fun part of playing with different ages. We would play with eighteen-year-olds who still wanted everything, and we would play with 55-year-olds who made jokes about how good they used to be. We found that the older you get, the more competitive you get. All of a sudden this pick-up game matters more than anything you do in your week.
Gwendolyn currently teaches at two community colleges and is working on a book entitled Finding the Game due out in June. Luke has a month left of law school and plans to take the bar shortly after. Pelada is available to stream on Netflix.