Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Can You Demand Support?

The recent National Team matches between the U.S. Men's soccer team and Mexico and the Women's team and Sweden have had me pondering the nature of support of national teams.
Ask anyone who is a fan raised in a football culture and they will tell you club comes before country. In America, however, it's a little different. Unless you're 15 years old or younger, you were born at a time when there was no major professional league in the country. So for my generation, and the one that preceded me, the national team was the team of first allegiance. Maybe that's why I have trouble understanding Americans who root for other countries against "their" nation in any competition.
My Grandfather emigrated from Sweden in his early adulthood and I am extremely proud of my Scandinavian heritage, as well as his accomplishments and assimilation into American life. But I would never think of rooting for Sweden to beat the U.S. Sweden is what I claim as my nation of origin, my heritage. The United States is my country.
The Swedish national team badge.
So while the Swedes made the American women look very ordinary in their World Cup match Wednesday, I felt no elation. Frustration, yes. But the team I was rooting for wore white and the badge of U.S. soccer and they were and are my team.

As noted in my previous post, that is not the case with Hispanic fans who root on Mexico against their adopted homeland, America. While I am far from those who insist on making English the official language of the United States, and have established a track record of non-jingoism, I am troubled by the fact that the American men are the "away" team when they play Mexico almost anywhere within the contiguous 48 states.
The rationalization of one Mexican national team supporter at the Gold Cup final was this: "I love this country, it has given me everything that I have, and I'm proud to be part of it," said Victor Sanchez, a 37-year-old Monrovia resident wearing a Mexico jersey. "But yet, I didn't have a choice to come here, I was born in Mexico, and that is where my heart will always be."
I'm sorry Victor, but, unless you were forced across the border at gun point, yes, in fact, you did have a choice. You chose to come to the land of opportunity over your native land, much as my Grandfather did. And now you turn your back on it.
There are several solutions to this situation. The most obvious is to cultivate a large enough following of the U.S. national team that supporters that they will purchase tickets instead of the Mexican fans. 
The second is to hold to matches in areas that are not traditional "strongholds" of Mexican national team support (i.e., Los Angeles). The most memorable soccer match I have ever attended was in Columbus, Ohio. In February. 

U.S. Soccer finally decided to turn the tables on our neighbors to the South, who generally make us play in the smog-filled thin air of Mexico City for our national team matches against them, and set our first qualifying match for the 2002 World Cup in Columbus. Mother Nature, with a wink and a nod, complied with the plan and served up weather that was 29F at kick-off, with the wind chill in the teens.

The Mexican team never had a chance, emerging shivering from its locker room only minutes before kick-off only to find the Americans already on the field, most memorably for me Tony Sanneh in shirt sleeves. Even with Brian McBride, local Columbus Crew hero and the Americans' top striker, forced out early with a golf ball sized knot on his face, the Yanks dominated and won 2-0.

The third solution is the one that the democrat (little "d") in me whispers in my ear while I curse the pro-Mexican crowds is to make those fans feel a little more American. Maybe, it says, it was easier for your Grandpa and his son and his son's son because they had fair hair and blue eyes. Maybe, if we spent a little less time building walls (real and metaphorical) to keep immigrants out they would feel a little more American.

Pia Sundhage, the U.S. women's national team coach, is Swedish. I seriously doubt that anyone will accuse her of throwing the game against Sweden (although why Megan Rapinoe played for 72 minutes is completely beyond me). Would the same be true if Bob Bradley was of Mexican heritage?

Regardless of why, or what the short-term solution may be, the bottom line is that you can't dictate allegiance. It has to be earned. So, at least for the short run, Victor and his many companions will continue to support their country of origin over their country of opportunity. And I (and Tim Howard) will just have to learn to deal with it. After all Tim, that match in Columbus? It's forever known in Mexico as La Guerra Fria ("The Cold War"). Sounds way cooler in Spanish.

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