- The story of former Portland Thorns forward Danielle Foxhoven and her harrowing—but valuable—experience playing pro soccer in Russia, from the book, Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer.
The following is adapted from Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer by Gwendolyn Oxenham, published Icon Books Ltd. Copyright © 2017 by Gwendolyn Oxenham.
At the end of Dani Foxhoven’s second day and fourth practice with the Russian side FC Energiya Voronezh, she sits down in the grass. A wiry, upbeat brunette with a big grin, she’s feeling good—tired and good. The team is in Belek, Turkey for preseason and she has spent the past hour doing one-touch passes. She’s untying her laces when Vasilich, her 64-year-old coach, charges her, shouting in Russian. He leans down over her, grabs her by the earlobe, and yanks her to her feet. He does not let go of her ear. With his other hand, he open-hand slaps her across the face.
The team translator, a 24-year-old named Tanya whom the club found in the language department at the local university, comes running over. “He wants you to stand up!” she says, fretting and apologetic. “He says, ‘Women should not sit on the ground.’” She explains that sitting on the grass can affect a women’s fertility, that the cold ground is not good for her organs.
Dani looks at Tanya, looks at Vasilich, and says, “Tell him to never lay a hand on me again.”
That’s the moment when the doubt creeps in, when she wonders if maybe it was a mistake to sign a five-month contract to play professional women’s soccer in Russia.
A month earlier, Dani Foxhoven graduated from the University of Portland one semester early so that she could play in the United States Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league. She was drafted seventeenth overall to the Philadelphia Independence.
On January 30, 2012, two weeks before she was due to report for preseason, she woke up to a text message from her agent: “The US women’s pro league has folded. You won’t be going to Philly after all.” Her agent tried to find her a new place to play. But the agents of all the other American players were also on the phone, also looking for interested teams on other continents. And Dani was just a former college player untested in the professional realm. After many phone calls, her agent had no offers.
Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer
by Gwendolyn Oxenham
Inside the untold stories and dark tales of women's soccer around the world, from an underground men's league in New York City, to a homeless player for the English national team, to a refugee camp in Denmark and more.
With no job prospects, she couldn’t afford to keep living in Portland. Two weeks earlier she was on the brink of making her childhood dream come true; now she was calling home in tears, asking if she could move back into her parents’ one-bedroom condo.
On a Tuesday, her father flew out to help her pack her life into her ‘91 Civic and make the drive down snow-blanketed interstates back to Colorado. She was driving across the white nothingness of Wyoming, contemplating life without soccer, when she got the call from her agent: if she was interested, there was a Russian team that would take her. For the past five years they’d qualified for the Champions League tournament—the top professional soccer competition in the world. They’d been around since 1989 and had won more championships than any other Russian team. Players from all over the world—from Italy to Equatorial Guinea—had played for Voronezh. Five Americans played there in 1996. Spanish star Vero Boquete, one of the top players in the world, 2011’s WPS Player of the Year, had played for them the previous season. They’d pay her $3,000 a month, which, by women’s soccer standards, was good—very good. Her agent told her it had to happen fast. She had a day to think it over.
When she hung up the phone, she looked over at her father and smiled. Already, she knew she was doing it: if she had to go all the way to Russia to be a professional soccer player, that’s what she was going to do.
The next ten hours of slow driving along alternate routes, she and her dad imagined Dani in Russia. She’d seen old movies about the USSR and had vague understandings of communism and the Iron Curtain—it was odd to her that a country with a long history of repression was offering her the best chance to play women’s soccer. But she had no idea what the current Russia was like and, in a way, that excited her more than if she were more familiar.
Her father, more of a listener than an advice-giver, said only, “It will probably be lonely. It will probably be hard. And if you’re ready for that, do it.”
That Saturday she boarded a plane. Several days after her coach slapped her in the face, Dani has her guitar out. She has hauled it across the world because ever since she was a freshman in college, when twin sisters Megan and Rachael Rapinoe taught her how to play, she has relied on it. Already she is glad she has it.
Most of the Russian players on the team are stand-offish. When she first introduced herself, she smiled and said, “Hi, I’m Dani.” They looked at her and shook their fingers: “No, you are not Dani—she is Dani,” they said, in Russian, pointing to another player, Elena Danilova, the star of the Russian national team, a petite blonde with ice blue eyes. Dani would just be called “Amerikanskaya.”
The Russians have not spoken to her since. Except for the eighteen-year-old, Asaya, whom she calls Baby, the youngest member of FC Energiya. Through gestures and pantomime, she asks Dani to learn to play “Waka Waka” by Shakira, her favorite song.
So now Dani is in the hotel hallway in Turkey, guitar in her lap. She’s not thinking about how it felt to be picked up by the earlobe—she’s focused only on learning chords.
The music acts like a homing call for the international players: the Jamaican, the Brazilian, the Swede, and the Cameroonians follow the music to the hallway.
Simone, the Brazilian who has played in two World Cups and two Olympics, mentions that Marta, international superstar and fellow Brazilian, is staying with her Swedish team a few hotels down the beach. Marta is muita boa at guitar—they should all go sit and play on the beach.
It is not yet tourist season and the beach is otherwise deserted. Surrounded by the skeletons of unassembled cabanas, they sit in white plastic patio chairs, bare feet in the sand, snow-capped mountains rising up directly behind teal water. Dani processes the scene: Marta—her footballing hero, the best woman ever to play the game, five-time FIFA World Player of the Year—has taken over her guitar. Vero Boquete, the Spanish star who now plays with Marta, is next to her, smiling and dancing. Marta is jamming out, singing first to forró, traditional Brazilian folk music, then to Shakira. And so is Baby. They are whisked from far corners of the world, all here for the chance to play football. Two Brazilians, one Spaniard, one Jamaican, two Cameroonians, one Swede, one American, one Russian—sitting on a beach in Turkey, singing a song about Africa. It is all decidedly cool. This isn’t the kind of experience you walk out on—doesn’t matter if your coach slapped you for sitting down in the grass. She has no idea what she’s in for in the next five months, but she knows she isn’t going home.
One three-hour flight and an eight-hour bus ride later, the sunny guitar jam on a Turkish beach seems like a different universe. At 3.30am in the middle of a snowstorm, they arrive in Voronezh, Russia. “The Base,” their new home, is a four-story building surrounded by a ten-foot cement wall, guarded by a 24-hour watchman. The wall, presumably, is to protect them from the poverty of the surrounding area. But in the coming days it will also come to feel like it’s designed to keep them in; the players are told when they are allowed to go out and when they are not.
The next morning, they stand on a snow-blanketed field, each player carrying a shovel. They huddle together, bundled and hunched, and go at the field in strips, tossing shovels of snow over a three-foot wall. The internationals shiver and make jokes—Welcome to Russia.
FC Energiya is a family operation: Ivan Vasilievich Saenko, referred to as Vasilich, is head coach. His two sons act as assistant coach and general manager. His wife, Nadezhda Bosikova, former star of the Russian league, has played on the team for twenty years. “She is the master of soccer,” he’d say to Dani via Tanya. “And I am the master of everything—I know everything there is to know about soccer. I’m the king of science. I am team doctor, team coach, team strength and conditioner.”
Before practice, the team reports to oxygen-deprivation training in the lunch room, where each player puts on a resistance breathing device that resembles a gas mask. A huge accordion-like oxygen regulator is attached to a tube. The masks are designed to limit oxygen; breathing under resistance, the idea is that athletes thereby strengthen lung capacity and build the diaphragm.
For 30 to 40 minutes, the masked players sit at tables covered with lacey, doily-style tablecloths, sucking for air, listening to Vasilich, king of science, master of everything, lecture in Russian as classical music plays in the background. More than once, he walks to the other side of the cafeteria and removes an eight-by-twelve photo from the wall and brings it over to discuss. He points at one man and says several times, “Mafiya.” Then he happily continues talking. Augustine, the Cameroonian who is in her second season and who can by now understand Russian, translates in broken English for Dani. “That man the head mobster in Voronezh. He help our team be successful.”
The mafia: it’s hard to know what that even means. Dani’s seen The Godfather, some episodes of The Sopranos—that’s about where her knowledge of the mafia ends. Organized crime. Cover-ups. What would that have to do with a women’s soccer team?
The international players don’t know how or if the “mafia” factors into the Russian women’s game, or if Vasilich just employs the word to instill fear, his predominant mode of coaching.
But there’s no denying that the whole set-up is odd: there are huge budgets—in 2009, WFC Rossiyanka, the top team, had a reported budget of €9 million, which is unheard of in the women’s game anywhere in the world. Yet the stands are almost always empty. No one in Russia pays attention to women’s soccer, making it the perfect setting for massive money laundering and kickbacks.
The players go off only what they can see—Vasilich’s nine luxury cars, the mansion he brags is worth $24 million, the two giant bodyguards that accompany Vasilich everywhere. Spanish star Vero Boquete recalls a game in Bristol in the 2011 Champion’s League season: it was pouring rain and the bodyguard held the umbrella over Vasilich while he himself got soaked. That seemed like something straight out of the movies. “I’d never seen anything like that in my life,” comments Boquete. And there’s the time the team attends a men’s professional game: a man was smoking a cigarette close to the team and Vasilich didn’t like that. So he instructed his men to go deal with him; they physically picked him up and threw him out. “You don’t do stuff like that unless you’re important,” says Jamaican player Omolyn Davis. “You’ve got to be some kind of boss to get away with something like that.”
On the field, it often feels more like training for the Russian military than training for a football team: they heave large bricks, crawl through sand pits, climb over wooden trestles, zigzag through randomly-placed obstacles. They do no tactics, no scrimmages, no walk-throughs, no small-sided games. After one training session spent running down the field while swinging a heavy ball and chain in circles, Foxhoven writes in her blog, “I will be able to beat a Rossiyanka player in hand-to-hand combat come Monday.”
And while the internationals have encountered coaches who are yellers, coaches who might toss Gatorade cups, sneer, or make you feel small, none of them has encountered anything like Vasilich. They don’t have to speak the language to get the gist of what he’s shouting. There are certain words that reappear—words they look up later when they get to their rooms. Blyad is a favorite. Literally it means “whore,” and that’s often how he uses it. It can also mean “damn” or “f***ing”—and Vasilich liberally employs this use as well, tossing it in every third word. “During trainings, matches, and breaks he could explode with the worst words of my native language,” says Tanya.
Tanya—who is as nice as they come, someone Dani describes as the “only Russian hippy she’s ever met”- tries to strip it down, to just relay the bits of constructive instruction. Vasilich demands that she translate everything. She often refuses. But the players too want to know—want to confirm what they already can feel.
So, at their pressing, Tanya stutters out translations: “He says you’d make better whores than you do soccer players.” And, “It would be a better sport if you all played naked.”
At meal time, each place setting comes with a paper cup with multi-colored pills. Initially, the internationals laugh with each other and finger the assortment—surely they’re not supposed to take all of them. Vasilich appears over them and when they ask what they are, he just says, “Vitamins.” Uncomfortable with taking unidentified pills, they ask to see a label, a name, anything. Vasilich refuses. The first few days, they don’t take them, pocketing the pills. But Vasilich catches on. At meal time, he appears by their side and stands over them until they swallow the pills. Every day they take around twenty pills.
During weight-training, Vasilich singles out one player at a time and, along with the trainer, takes her upstairs to his office. Eventually, Vasilich summons Dani. On the way up to the fourth floor, he explains through gestures that he has something that will help her strained hamstring.
In his office, he has her lie down on her stomach on the training table. Dani glances over her shoulder and sees the trainer preparing a needle and syringe. She balks, sits up: “No, I’m not comfortable with this. I want my translator here,” she says. But they just say, “Eta normalne, eta normalne … vitamins” and tell her to lie back down on the table. The trainer pulls down one side of her shorts and gives her an injection in her butt cheek.
In college, players with chronic pain sometimes got cortisone shots to get through the season. She wants to think it is just a cortisone shot. But cortisone shots are localized, delivered directly to the problem area. They aren’t administered into your bare butt. As she walks back to weight training, she has no idea what has just been injected into her.
Months from now, when Dani returns to the United States, she will get herself tested to see just what substances she has in her. She will test positive for three different types of anabolic steroids. She will feel angry and tired and sad. But right now, in Russia, she repeats to herself, vitamins, vitamins. In her room, she lays on her bed and fights off the panic – the overwhelming desire to go home, to get out of this place. She tries to remember why she is here: because all her life she has dreamt of playing professional soccer, of one day making the national team. Don’t quit, she has always told herself, don’t give up.