Monthly Archives: June 2011

Indoor soccer and politics…what?!?

Futsal is becoming quite popular in Europe, and the country where I am originally from (Portugal) is not an exception. I actually think that this type of football is a good match with some of the characteristics Americans usually appreciate: it is fast-paced, with more interruptions (marketing opportunities) and there are usually many more goals than in traditional soccer. Now, to play it really well, you most probably need to be short/small…something not very common on this side of the ocean!

The team that I am a fan of (Sporting Club de Portugal; had a terrific season this year winning 3 of the competitions in which they played! (Let’s not speak about the regular soccer season, ok?) But not all news is good news – by the end of the season, 4 of the first league teams announced that they cannot afford next season and decided to stop their activity.

By now you might be thinking, “So what…what is the connection with politics?!” In fact, there actually is a connection, at the local, national and even higher levels.

Let’s start local: In Portugal (in Europe?) it is a very common situation that one of the main sponsors of a team is…the city hall, something that I recognize does not make much sense here in America. So here is the first point to consider: when teams announce that they must quit for financial reasons, should the city halls step in and continue sponsoring them, keeping them alive? Given American standards, the answer to this question seems very straightforward: No! If they can’t survive in the competitive sports market, they are out. End of story. But things are never that simple, at least for Europeans. A very important fact to consider is that most of the teams that quit are from small towns, away from the coast. Having a team there was actually one of the few ways to put their town “on the map,” attracting visitors, and in this way bridging (somewhat) a tremendous development gap that exists between the coastal areas and rural areas (Note: Should we really speak about coastal and rural areas in a country that takes less than 3 hours to cross from west to east?) It seems to me that only public investment cost-benefit analysis can give an accurate answer to these questions. And how many city halls do you know of that make their decisions based on cost-benefit analysis?

There is also sort of sports politics/management to consider. Does a national league, in a small country, necessarily need to include teams from all the different parts of the country, or should it be divided into say two zones (North and South) and only the playoffs would be played at the national level? To me, the answer is clear: it should be divided. It is true that there would be fewer games at the national level involving the main teams, the ones with more supporters; but, on the other hand, teams would have to make smaller trips, significantly decreasing their annual expenses. (Do not forget that in Portugal/Europe, highways involve the payment of (very!) high tolls and gasoline is expensive!)


Another question to consider with regard to sports politics…the top two teams of the championship had great (great!) teams, with several excellent players. You know what that means, right? Correct, very high budgets! So what does this mean? It means that they won maybe three quarters of the season games very easily and only towards the semifinals did they really have to play their best. How can you avoid this? Well, I have an idea…teams should only be allowed (uhhh, this is a big word!) to invest so much, meaning having a cap in their maximum budget. If you have an ambitious mind by now you are thinking: Wait a second, where does my ambition fit with your idea? Let me reply with another question: Do you really want your ambitious team to be involved in a 2 team league? Don’t smaller teams/towns have the right to dream about having a team in first league? No team left behind…

What about the nationality of the players? If you are open-minded, you might think: I don’t care, we live in a globalized world, where human beings/players should have the freedom of movements that they want. Ok, sounds great…but here is the reality: some of the teams that quit, in their initial 5 players had…5 Brazilians players (which by the way are fabulous!) and the same phenomenon is happening at the national team level…how would you feel if the US indoor soccer national team would play the next Olympics with 5 initial players born in…Brazil? In Mexico? In Canada?

The last point that I would like to discuss involves a bigger scale. It has been all over the news that Portugal needs a bailout from the EU/IMF/ECB to get out of a recession situation. Going straight to the point: should soccer teams (either indoor or regular) be allowed to have budgets as high as they want, when the rest of the country struggles to pay the credit that it has received? Well of course, some might say, considering that public and private economies have nothing to do with each other. You might want to re-read the last sentence and spend a couple of seconds reconsidering…Are public and private economies really separate from each other? Can we simply ignore the connection between public and private economies in a country? Lets see if I got this right: every single penny of public investment in Portugal (and Greece…)  will have to be authorized by the EU…but soccer teams can spend the millions that they want, without any control…doesn’t this sound at least a bit awkward to you?

Food for thought! I am looking forward to learning from your perspective and point of view.



In October 2001, the national football teams of France and Algeria faced off in a long-awaited, and (at least in principle) “friendly” international game at the Stade de France in Paris. The event was trumpeted as an opportunity for reconciliation, a symbolic end to the conflict between the two countries, and an opportunity for a French nation increasingly shaped by it’s Algerian immigrant population to find peace within itself. But from the beginning, the match was something else: the stadium was packed with fans of the Algerian team, most of them French citizens of Algerian background. Many booed and whistled not just at the French national team (sparing only Zinedine Zidane), but also — loudly — at the French national anthem.

On the field, France dominated the game, and with the score at 4-1 in the second half, an Algeria fan named Sophia Benlemmane decided she couldn’t let her team lose. She stormed onto the field, holding an Algerian flag. Soon others followed, and within minutes the Stade de France was in the midst of a full-scale pitch invasion. French officials in the stands — including Prime Minister Lionel Jospin — were pelted with bottles, batteries, and coins. The teams were huddled off the field — the French player Lilian Thuram cursing at the fans who had stormed the field, declaring that they were acting stupidly and would confirm all the stereotypes people had of them. The game was stopped, and a football match was rapidly transformed into a national parable.

Soon afterwards, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen held a press conference in front of the Stade de France. Pointing to it as a place where France’s national anthem had been booed, he declared that he was running for president, largely on a platform that promised to curtail immigration and respond to the threats posed to the country’s national identity by immigrants. For many conservatives, and indeed for many on different sides of the political spectrum, the France-Algeria game had crystallized a set of powerful fears: that Algerians and their children, and more broadly Muslims as a group, were taking over the country, showed no respect for national symbols, and were willing to behave as if they were in their own territory without regards to the laws of the Republic. Many Algerians lamented the behavior of the small group of young people who had taken to the field — who were amongst a much larger group of fans, they insisted, who were just interested in enjoying the game and rooting peacefully for their side. Commentators on the left, including Thuram, also criticized those who stormed the field, but sought to channel the discussion towards the broader social problems of inclusion and marginalization that had driven them to such an act.

I kept thinking about this incident — which I describe in more detail my book Soccer Empire — in the last days as I’ve followed the debates surrounding the Gold Cup final between the U.S. and Mexico that took place on Saturday night. To be sure, the circumstances are very different: Algerians in France have a very different history than Mexicans in the U.S., of course. And football in France is something entirely different than football in the U.S. At the same time, however, there are things about the lurking unease being expressed right now among U.S. fans — including Tim Howard’s criticism of the post-match ceremony taking place in Spanish, and a disturbing account I read this morning by one die-hard U.S. fan, Russell Jordan the head of the Davis, California chapter of the “American Outlaws” fan group, about harassment and disorganization at the Rose Bowl — that remind me a bit of the debates I’ve followed over the years in France.

Jordan’s account describes a situation in which an organized group of U.S. fans were, at times, pelted with bottles, and were surprised to find that rather than having a dedicated area of the stadium were mixed in with fans of the Mexico team. It also describes extremely limited security that seems to have left U.S. fans vulnerable. Hopefully this account will inspire others who were at the game to describe their own experiences, since it would be important to know how widespread such conflicts were. Soccer writer Allicia Ratterree, who was at the match, offers a very different account of the game, describing a little taunting going both directions between fans but a largely safe and congenial event. When I attended a Gold Cup match a few weeks ago in Charlotte, where fans of Mexico, Salvador, Costa Rica and Cuba mixed with those just there to watch a game of international football, I found the atmosphere exuberant and congenial, and friends who went to RFK later had a similar experience — though neither of those events involved a U.S. vs. Mexico match.

I live in Durham and teach at Duke, so I’m pretty familiar with intense and sometimes loathsome fan behavior. I went to the University of Michigan, and witnessed a number of basketball riots, and when was at MSU when a fan of a visiting team was brutally beaten in the streets of East Lansing. And I’ve attended matches in Europe, notably at Paris Saint-Germain, whose fans are notorious and find themselves heavily policed, with away fans penned into a sliver of space in the stadium surrounded by nets and a massive orange fence with spikes at the top of it, protected by lines of police. Which is to say that I’ve seen my share of unpleasant and at times violent fan behavior, and have no sympathy for it. I believe people should be able to go watch a sports match without being hit in the head by bottles, or spat upon.

The bad behavior of certain fans — who are always a minority — can be interpreted in many different ways. The Duke-UNC rivalry has a politics to it, of course — Duke is a private school, most of it’s students from outside North Carolina, while UNC is a larger public university — but those politics are largely subsumed and channeled into various sets of stereotypes and chants. I’ve seen UNC fans who somehow infiltrated the Cameron Crazies bleachers, and I’ve seen a fully-clad Duke fan wandering through the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets the night of a UNC victory over Duke, in the midst of bonfires, taunting the opposing fans. I’ve never seen any physical violence, though.

What prevents the verbally rude and nasty behavior of fans we tend to accept from skidding into something worse? A combination of security and internal social control. That is one reason why the wise management of football matches in Europe depends on giving organized fan groups a dedicated space of their own, concentrated in one part of the stadium. This has two advantages — it localizes the most intense fans, and it also provides an opportunity for those groups to police themselves. Since fan groups depend on local clubs to give them access to parts of the stadium, and local clubs can refuse them that access or ban certain fans from coming, there’s an external pressure to keep things within the bounds of the acceptable.

In Pasadena on Saturday, there clearly had been no provision for the grouping of fans in particular areas of the stadium, which is one of the things that Jordan complains about. There’s a big question to be asked about why that wasn’t the case — especially since the American Outlaws group seems to have believed they had purchased tickets in a an area reserved for U.S. fans. (At the 2009 final of the Gold Cup, I remember seeing a section of the stadium packed with U.S. fans, so I assume that at times the ticketing has worked differently). But there’s also questions about why there wasn’t more security in general, since in most U.S. sports events people would be ejected pretty fast if they started throwing things. We need to get a better picture of how the whole event was managed, and the organizers of future events need to think hard — and under scrutiny — about how to improve the experience next time around.

This would all be serious enough if it were just a question of bad experiences among fans at a game. But there’s a bigger issue here: all this is unavoidably and inherently political, because of the ways in which it can all be read as a parable. It’s easy for the behavior of some Mexican fans, and the experiences of some U.S. fans, starts to stand in for a much larger set of issues. As was the case in France in 2001, there is clearly a feeling among many who have responded to this situation that there is something unfair about the fact that U.S. fans, and the U.S. team, felt like they were playing an away game in Pasadena.These feelings are compounded by the rather humiliating defeat suffered on the field itself — unlike the Algerians in 2001, the Mexican team took care of business on the field, leaving U.S. fans really demoralized, and some of what has gone on since then is obviously driven by the hurt and disappointment of that experience.

But the event is obviously a perfect opportunity for conservative and nativist commentators, who can easily argue that it proves the immigrants are taking over our society, and show no respect for us or our traditions. That is what happened in France in 2001. It is unlikely to happen in the same way here, simply because most people in the U.S. don’t really know what the Gold Cup is or what happened last Saturday, so it’s symbolic power is attenuated. The Rose Bowl is a little bit sacred, of course — it’s where the U.S. Women’s team won the World Cup in 1999 — but not quite in the same was as the Stade de France. It’s hard to imagine a U.S. politician giving a press conference in front of the Rose Bowl about the need to curb immigration — though, then again, who knows?

Some of this is also about the odd loneliness of the U.S. fan. Even if U.S. fans had been given a dedicated area in the stadium, they would have experienced the game as an away game — it might not have been as bad as being PSG fans in Marseille, but it would have been something along those lines. The reason that is so frustrating, of course, is that it has as much to do with the lack of a U.S. fan base as with the involvement of Mexico fans. After all, there is no real reason why there couldn’t be more U.S. fans at a Gold Cup final, except that there aren’t enough people who made the decision to buy tickets and go.

Part of what’s also going on here is simply a clash of sports cultures. Football games in Mexico, Latin America, Europe, Africa, and well pretty much everywhere are incredibly intense affairs, and frequently small groups of fans who go too far. The techniques for managing this are, of course, not always successful. And that fact tempers attendance: many of my French friends looked at me in disbelief when I told them I went to a PSG match, something they would never consider doing out of fear of ending up in a riot. In the U.S., soccer fandom is something entirely different: MLS games are pretty pleasant overall — more so than many a college basketball of football game — and of course the demographics of the game are different too. Those different expectations and habits don’t run up against each other that often — but during the Gold Cup they definitely do.

As this debate continues, it’s vital to allow things to remain complicated and avoid an easy story. (This is something Maxi Rodriguez has also emphasized in an  recent piece, along with this this post at the FBM blog.) It is the responsibility of any organization that oversees large sporting events to guarantee security to those who attend. Fans who throw things and hurt other people should, in any game anywhere, be expelled from the stadium and possibly arrested. And the long experience of fan conflict in Europe suggests some relatively effective techniques: making sure that fan organizations have access to dedicated areas of the stadium, enter separately, and that zones of contact between fan groups have enough security to prevent incidents.

We’ll be better off, however, if this doesn’t become an easy parable. There is nothing wrong with fans of Mexico — whether they are U.S. citizens, Mexican citizens, or just big fans of Chicharito — going to root for their team. There is nothing wrong with fans of the U.S. rooting for theirs. In the end, if there are more Mexico fans at the Gold Cup final than U.S. fans, that’s nobody’s fault — except for the U.S. fans who weren’t there.

Mexico vs. The U.S., or the Politics of Disgrace

Last night, after his team’s bruising defeat to Mexico in the Gold Cup final, goalkeeper Tim Howard commented (according to Grant Wahl on twitter), that it was “a f—ing disgrace that the entire postmatch ceremony was in Spanish.”

He was, to be sure, in a bad place. Howard is a world-class goalie, whose saves have — time and time again — literally saved the U.S. from defeat. But Dos Santos’ goal against him was one of the more humiliating points scored in recent footballing history. A flubbed clearance led to a dancing, twisting run, during which the Mexican player twisted around Howard — who swatted helplessly for the ball — then chipped it with absolute perfection into the top left corner of the goal.

That moment is going to be something the U.S. team is going to try hard to forget. It’s certainly also going to be the stuff of legend and laughter in Mexico for a long time. Indeed, it might end up being one of the defining moments of Dos Santos’ career as a player for Mexico.

Howard was obviously enraged, almost in tears, pounding the ground. It’s always hard to let in a goal, but this ranks up there — along with Green’s flub against the U.S. in last year’s World Cup, during a game when Howard distinguished himself brilliantly — as certainly one of the most vivid demonstrations of the difficulty of being a goalie.

It’s interesting and significant, though, that he expressed part of his anger at the language of the post-game presentation. I couldn’t actually hear that presentation — I was in a bar packed with a mix of glum U.S. fans and Saturday-night Durham partiers who had come to dance and had little idea of the drama that has just unfolded — though apparently it actually was in both English and Spanish. But Howard’s comment raises a question: what is, or should be, the language of the Gold Cup? And what, more broadly, does the U.S.-Mexico rivalry — at it’s most riveting in last night’s game — stand for? What are it’s politics?

The CONCACAF Gold Cup was first played in 1991 (replacing the CONCACAF Championship which had been played since the early 1960s, after the formation of the federation through the merging of the North American and Caribbean/Central American football federations). Except for one tournament, which was hosted jointly by the U.S. and Mexico, it has always been played in the U.S. And except for one victory by Canada in 2000, it has always been won either by the U.S. or Mexico. (That contrasts with the earlier iteration of the tournament, whose winners included a diverse group of countries, including Haiti and Costa Rica, but never the U.S.).

While the tournament has always been hosted by the U.S., however, it has long remained a relatively marginal event with U.S. sports culture. Anyone familiar with the Gold Cup knows that the U.S. often finds itself essentially playing an away game in it’s confrontations with Mexico, El Salvador, and other opponents. The audience for the 2009 Final, in East Rutherford, New Jersey, was made up of a vast majority of fans of the Mexican team. Last night in Pasadena there was a healthy presence of red and white U.S. jerseys and flags, but the majority of the crowd was rooting for Mexico. When I went to see an early game in Charlotte a few weeks ago, the crowd there — maybe 40 to 50,000 strong — was packed with ebullient and decked-out Mexico fans, though there were also groups of Salvadorean, Costa Rican and even a small number of Cuban fans. And those crowds are well aware of the fact that, in Mexico, people are watching: many bring signs with names of particular towns, even personal messages to family and friends. The Univision or Telefutura broadcasts of Gold Cup matches serve as a touchstone for transnational populations, as a site of celebration and communication across borders.

That is changing, and especially this year I had the feeling that the tournament was finally getting some of the attention it deserves. It was striking, for instance, to see a packed arena of U.S. fans watching their team take on Guadeloupe in Kansas City. (To be sure, there’s not that many Guadeloupeans in Kansas City — there aren’t that many Guadeloupeans, period, anywhere besides Paris and Guadeloupe for that matter.) For U.S. soccer fans, the Gold Cup is a tremendous opportunity to participate in an international competition on home soil, and more and more people are aware of that and eager to do so. For many that means rooting passionately for the U.S. team — like these imaginative and devoted fans photographed yesterday by Grant Wahl in Pasadena — while for others it’s an opportunity just to participate directly in a kind of event that we usually just get to watch on TV.

So what does the U.S.-Mexico rivalry stand for? Just before the game started, I asked on twitter whether people could think of international comparisons for the game. I threw out two imperfect ones: France vs. Algeria, and England vs. Jamaica. Quickly, an answer came from Carl Bromley with a better comparison: “More like England vs. Ireland.”

Part of the (quick) discussion was about how to characterize the rivalry: Is it a colonial rivalry? A border rivalry? An imperial one? What is at stake — in terms of immigration, historical memory, national symbolism — in such games? The discussion only went so far — there was, after all, a game to watch — but got me thinking last night and today about the peculiar way this particular rivalry operates. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this. Here are some of mine:

Football is politically at it’s most interesting when the relationship on the pitch mirrors but doesn’t reproduce the broader political relationship. It’s at it’s most riveting, I think, when players and fans sense that something larger — a reversal or a redemption of some kind — might be at stake.

The U.S. and Mexico obviously share a deep history: after all, much of the U.S. was once Mexico. Last night’s game took place on former Mexican territory. California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona: these states were all, in the nineteenth century, conquered by the U.S. Today, no one can really imagine that there will ever a be a process of decolonization, of course: but that doesn’t mean we should think of this as a colonial history. After all, colonization can end in a certain kind of incorporation. But that history — one vividly remembered in Mexico, much less so in the U.S. — obviously shapes the debates and discourses surrounding immigration. As the old Chicano activist adage puts it: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

Immigration, of course, is the most salient question when it comes to this rivalry: today Mexican immigrants are often vilified, seen as a threat, and targeted — notably in Arizona — with increasingly draconian policing measures. The New York Times reports this morning that the U.S. has spent $90 billion dollars policing the U.S. Mexico-border in the past decades. It has become an intensely militarized place, full of high-tech machinery and patrols, and also increasingly a place of death for would-be migrants trapped between border policy, unscrupulous coyotes from the Mexican side, and the expanses of isolated desert along both sides of the border.

When Mexico plays the U.S. in soccer, these tensions are not talked about that openly, of course. But a few people, as an article by Eben Lehman pointed out yesterday, let them fly on twitter in anticipation of the game. One asked: “soo are Rose Bowl workers asking fans for green cards? if so there wont be any mexicans in attendance tonight.” Another tweeted: “Someone call immigration! I know where 90,000 mexicans will be! The gold cup at the Rose Bowl.” And those were the polite ones.

Any football match will generate it’s share of nasty xenophobic talk, and such comments were certainly extreme and — at least in public — relatively rare. Still, lurking under much of the experience of yesterday’s match, I would argue, is a discomfort with the fact that fans of the Mexican team in the U.S. feel so comfortable and passionate about rooting for their team. Tim Howard’s comment about the post-game ceremony being in Spanish hinted at that discomfort, too. In the bar where I watched the game, no one was yelling out racist epithets, exactly, though any time a Mexican player fell to the ground there was a chorus of enraged yells — “You’re a baby!” — from some who watched. That is a pretty standard part of the lexicon of U.S. soccer fandom (just as it is of other football cultures, notably in England): those guys are such actors, falling to the ground at every turn! In a way, it’s all innocent enough, but it’s never that many steps away either from other chains of stereotypes.

Part of what’s so interesting, though, about the way this rivalry plays out has to with the slightly pained and beleaguered situation of the U.S. soccer fan. When the U.S. plays in the World Cup, or in the Gold Cup, much of the discussion revolves around a rather specific question, one that would never need to be posed in most other countries: “Is this going to be good for U.S. soccer?” Fans want to see the U.S. succeed in part out of a hope that, if they do, the sport they love will gain more appreciation and strength in this country. A bad result is seen as worrisome because it seems like a step backward in the hard-fought battle to get a little respect for soccer. The thrill of victories — like last year’s World Cup game against Algeria — is the sense that of vindication it gives us as fans of this particular sport within the U.S. The terror of defeat is partly that we worry that it will confirm the idea, held by a reasonably large if steadily shrinking portion of the U.S. population, that soccer is a silly infuriating sport where we don’t win. I’ve written before that I think we should just relax a bit, and enjoy ourselves on the margins of U.S. sports culture. But it’s hard when you love and believe in a sport.

If the U.S. had won the Gold Cup last night, as it looked for a little while like we might well do, there would have been cheering and celebrating in plenty of homes and bars around the country. What there would not have been, however, was the kind of celebrations that broke out in Mexico City last night — people streaming through the streets, waving flags, and even according to Jonathan Katz burning one U.S. flag. (Here’s a nice picture he took of that celebration). Indeed, celebrating U.S. fans would probably have had to explain to many friends and family why they were in such a good mood this morning. It would have been a victory for U.S. soccer, but most people in the U.S. would not have really seen it as an important victory for the U.S. Indeed, while Chicharito and Dos Santos are household names — and in many places almost household gods — in Mexico, you can’t say the same even for Howard, Dempsey, or Donovan in the U.S.

Part of what made last night’s loss so tough for the U.S. and it’s fans is that it was, in the context of a difficult moment for the country’s men’s and women’s soccer programs, a really crucial game. In 2009, the U.S. was trounced by Mexico in the Gold Cup final, 5-0, in a game that in a way was even more embarrassing than last night’s performances. But that summer the U.S. also played in the FIFA Confederation’s Cup — having earned it’s place there by winning the Gold Cup in 2007 — and did so brilliantly. They were on their way to qualifying well for the 2010 World Cup. And in fact it seemed that Bradley had, probably intelligently, prioritized those other competitions above the Gold Cup itself.

This year, the U.S. run in the competition was fraught with difficulty. The loss to Panama was rough, and the U.S. played well against Guadeloupe and Jamaica but was also lucky those two teams were in poor form — if either Caribbean team had played at their best, the U.S. may well not have made it to the final at all this year. Last night’s game was also particularly painful because of the fact that the U.S. failed tactically to capitalize on a 2-0 lead. And the brilliant humiliation delivered by Dos Santos’ goal, which will remain the defining image of the game and probably the tournament, made the U.S. look seriously outclassed.

After shouting and running about with joy in celebration of the first two goals, the U.S. fans in the bar I was in got increasingly glum, red-faced, shouting at the TV, complaining about the Mexican players. Elsewhere in the town, I’m sure, bars were packed with elated and ebullient fans, feeling particularly vindicated by the artistry and dominance of the Mexican team. But Durham’s Mexican-American community didn’t, as far as I could see, celebrate much in public — not feeling comfortable enough to do so, perhaps. I imagine that if I was in L.A. or Chicago, things would have been different. But after the sound and fury of the game, with it humming in my head, what I found in my city is the sound that a I’ve gotten used to hearing here in the U.S. out in public after a riveting match, whether it’s won or lost: silence.






Guadeloupe vs. U.S.A.: The Joys of the Gold Cup

Tomorrow night, in Kansas, we’ll be able to enjoy one of those fixtures that makes the Gold Cup such a pleasure to some of us, and a rather mystifying affair to many others. Indeed, the Gold Cup competition, while it takes place year after year in the U.S., seems to largely fly under the radar for many in this country — except, of course, for fans of the Mexican national team, and for those of the Central American and Caribbean teams for whom it represents perhaps the most important international competition.

When the two teams face off tomorrow night, it will be a study in political contrasts. The United States is, well, what people in the Caribbean easily call “the empire.” Guadeloupe is a pure product of empire: an old plantation colony, now a department (the equivalent of a state) of France, but one with a complex relationship with the mother country. The presence of Guadeloupe in the Gold Cup is the result of a set of intriguing compromises. The nationalist movement in the country has long seen football as a perfect site to express the desire for independence. The political movement for separation from France has never garnered more than minority support, but it has had outsized cultural impact in both Guadeloupe and Martinique. People are proud of being from the island, and often see it as a kind of cultural nation even as it remains part of France. Having a football team, as both islands do, is a perfect way to finesse the contradiction. Guadeloupe and Martinique are not members of FIFA — unlike the French territory of New Caledonia, in the Pacific — and indeed the islands have offered a string of crucial players to the French national team (Thuram, Abidal, Henry, Gallas, just to name a few). But they are members of CONCACAF, which means they get to compete in regional competitions, notably the Gold Cup. Especially in recent years, Guadeloupe has done remarkable well in the competition. For a tiny island of a population of 400,000 — though in addition there are many who consider themselves Guadeloupean (including players on the CONCACAF team) who were born in metropolitan France to parents from the island.

But, rooted in a long and rich tradition of football on the island — one I tell the story of in Soccer Empire, and nicely outlined in a recent piece by Ian Dorward at the blog In Bed With Maradona — they bring great style and tactics to the pitch, as they showed a few days ago when they came back from a 3-0 deficit against Panama, with only 10 men, to end up 3-2. It would be a mistake, reeling from it’s loss to Panama, not to take Guadeloupe seriously. They are certainly underdogs, but they can also certainly surprise. And there’s one reason to root for them: if they made it all the way to the Gold Cup final and won, they would technically qualify to play in the next Confederations Cup. And if (this might be even more of a long shot, but we’ll see) France won the European Cup, there could — at least in principle — be a France vs. Guadeloupe game in the offing. That almost certainly wouldn’t happen — according to FIFA regulations, all Confederations Cups teams have to be members of FIFA, and Guadeloupe isn’t. But the issue would raise troublesome and complicated issues — nothing more than what FIFA deserves right now.

So it’s worth watching a game where the line up might seem, at first glance, a little surreal — in service of the principle that football is, and should always remain, a realm of uncertainty and surprise.

“La Roja” Triumph in Times of Crisis: The Spanish National Team and Nationalism After 2010

On June 7th, the Spanish national team played the second of two international friendlies in the Americas. The first was an energetic 4-0 victory over the United States in Boston; the second, in Caracas, another dominating win against the Venezuelan team.


The match was noteworthy in contrast to the previous set of friendlies played by Spain since the World Cup.


In a maneuver of perhaps unconfident foresight, the Spanish federation (RFEF) scheduled three friendly matches against Mexico, Argentina, and Portugal—all of them being played as the visiting team.


Needless to say, the World Cup triumph was a physically and mentally exhausting effort for the Spanish players in 2010. Coming off a big win in Euro 2008 as well, there was the inevitable sense after the 2010 win that the team had won all there was to win.  Indeed, they did win all that they could that mattered to them (they didn’t win the 2009 Confederations Cup—a tournament criticized by clubs and pundits as being an unnecessary intrusion on the summer before a World Cup).


Thus, the friendlies, played towards the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, had a sense of unimportance about them, which was projected by the players. With the Barcelona-Real Madrid clásico only a short time into the season, and with a heated race between the two teams for first place, it was clear that the minds of the professionals were on competition rather than exhibition.


While tying with Mexico, Spain was drubbed by both Argentina and Portugal in contests that were much more important for the teams that had something to prove. And yet, their opposition was still contemplating the wake of the World Cup victory.


While attention was moved to the eternal Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry, in the previous months, the national team had overtaken all other news, even displacing the spiraling economic disaster and relegating it to less important spaces on cover pages.


This came at a time when tensions between the Spanish government and the opposition, the democratic subjects and their bureaucratic democracy, were approaching boiling points due to the economic agony of Spain. In the days surrounding the Cup, the chords of disunion were chiming in various regions, especially with the polemic of the Catalan constitution (which curiously featured then-Barcelona president Joan Laporta as a provocative spokesperson for the cause).


Of course, the Catalan independence cause continues to be a thorn in the paw of Spanish constitutional democrats who wish to maintain the union despite certain liberties granted to the autonomies. If anything, because of Catalunya’s deeply rooted capitalist heavyweights, who loom in the background as potential financiers of a functional breakaway state. This, in contrast to Basque nationalism, to name the other notable example, which has seen the continuous efforts of the Spanish state to associate the most ardent nationalists with the terrorist movement, from kale borroka street violence to the coffers of ETA.


As such, the Spanish media’s rhetoric, despite the constant association of Basque freedom and terror, conveys a greater sense of fear about Catalunya’s claims’ legitimacy. The question that Catalanism promotes is one that goes directly to the core of the political system: can democracy oppress itself?


On July 26th, Catalunya banned bullfighting, a gesture largely (and understandably) regarded as provocative by the national press in Spain. In the end, though, in the national media, the more enduring images were focused on the national football team, a far better sell in a football-charged nation than images of Catalans celebrating their gesture of difference and defiance.


Ironically, this championship football team had a most Catalan backbone, combined with a solid pillar of their Real Madrid rivals. The style of their play, however, was a direct product of the Barcelona school; a brand of total football in which all players press hard, in which possession is used as defense, and in which creativity is employed with controlled artistry to attack the other team.


The World Cup celebrations, enjoyed by millions of people all over Spain, were treated to the image of Spanish players such as Puyol and Xavi wearing their Catalan flag, their senyera, on the field after the match. In the post-game jubilation, even Queen Sofia was compelled to break all known protocol and go directly to the dressing room to shake the players’ hands.


As the surprised protagonists of the grueling match with Holland exchanged greetings with Her Royal Highness, Carles Puyol—a Barcelona captain and symbol of the made-in-Catalunya philosophy of the team—emerged from the shower clutching nothing but a towel to his waist. Desperately holding on to it with his left hand, he extended his right when the Queen offered him her hand.


Almost a year later, the friendlies now forgotten and a team still basking in World Cup glory, not to mention Barcelona’s success in Europe (they won the Champions’ League—the most prestigious European tournament of football for clubs), the two against the USA and Venezuela came, at the end of the 2010-2011 season.


Over a month earlier, during a 4 week period in which Real Madrid and Barcelona played each other four times (in the Spanish Cup final, the Champions’ League semis, and the Spanish league), the sports press in Spain, most notably the nationalist Marca and AS, became obsessed with whether the tensions between players from the two teams would affect the selección. The series of clásicos was marked by clashes between Spanish teammates—in one match Madrid’s Arbeloa stomped on Barça’s Pedro—as well as insinuations and accusations from both sides.


However, the season having finished, the successful friendlies seemed to erase any of that tension between Spain’s players. Interestingly, Del Bosque used one of the games to hand Barcelona’s Victor Valdés—one of the nationalist sports press’s favorite targets for anti-Madrid accusations—his second start for the team, relegating perennial starter Iker Casillas to a substitute appearance. In that same match, two Athletic Club Bilbao players started as well,  in addition to a total of 5 Barcelona players and two from Madrid.


With the backdrop of the national “15-M” sit-ins—the acampadas, camp-outs in most Spanish cities protesting the political state of Spain in the economic crisis—the Spanish team’s performance was a symbolic moment of synthesis in which the “different” Spains came together to a successful end. In Barcelona, on the eve of the Champions’ League final, Catalonian state police—the Mossos D’Esquadra—violently beat the peaceful protestors, who refused to move from the Plaça de Catalunya.


Their reason for the police charge was to clear the plaza in anticipation of a possible celebration by Barcelona fans; the official story was that the acampadas posed a public safety risk in such a situation, especially as the need was seen to “clean” the plaza of objects that could be used as weapons by Barça fans.


Nonetheless, the actions of the Catalonian state police unwittingly served to echo what would happen with the Spanish national team friendly matches, becoming an unlikely statement of unity with the Spanish political establishment in the face of popular discontent. Similarly, the national team’s success played out the powerful symbolism of the football narrative, painting an image of unity and imperial dominance in the Americas.


This, an image strikingly at odds with the internal, structural realities of both Spanish football and the democratic state. In the recent nationwide municipal elections of the 22nd of May, the ruling socialist party, the PSOE, was dealt a severe blow as the traditionally conservative PP gained major ground all over Spain, and in many cities where the PSOE was well-grounded. At the same time, abstention was on the rise and a focus of the national news media, while in the Basque Country, nationalist party Bildu—claimed by its critics to be directly linked to ETA via its outlawed political wing—had an astonishing turnout, taking second in the voting overall, despite having been banned and subsequently reinstated only days before.


And in two football matches across the Atlantic, La Roja played as a squad oblivious to this, almost incredulous in its own effortlessness in thrashing their less adept rivals.





“You’ve Never Heard of Chicharito?”

That was the dismayed, slightly disbelieving, question posed by a fan of a Mexico team last night to the North Carolinian worker at the food stand getting him a beer and hot dog. We were at the Carolina Panthers stadium (actually named, of course, after a large financial institution, the Bank of America), and it was clear that the phenomenon of tens of thousands of people needed to go to the bathroom and buy food during a sharply circumscribed fifteen-minute period was strange and overwhelming to a system set up for U.S. football. Indeed, those working at the stadium exuded a mix of caution and politeness, swept up as they were into a jovial but unfamiliar world: that of a CONCACAF Gold Cup match.

It was the first time the Gold Cup came to North Carolina, to a stadium in the middle of downtown Charlotte. I didn’t really know what to expect. The line-up was promising: El Salvador vs. Costa Rica, followed by Mexico vs. Cuba. I assumed there would be a good crowd for the second fixture, but wasn’t quite sure. Cruising into Charlotte, though, cars were decorated with signs and painted shouting: “Mexico!,” and by the time we pulled into a parking spot we’d seen Salvadorean, Costa Rican, and even a few Cuban flags and jerseys. For those who hadn’t come prepared, all were on sale, along with plenty of carnitas and horchata, in a plaza near the stadium. The scene took me back to the World Cup — when the first game I went to was Mexico vs. Argentina — except that, to my chagrin, there were no vuvuzelas, though there were smattering off other approved noise-making devices. (My tiny umbrella, meanwhile, posed a slight security problem, though the guard let me take it in, but told me to shove it in my pocket and made me promise not to open it during the game — wise counsel for sure.) Later, a couple perhaps unused to the panopticon that is the U.S. sports stadium were spied by a guard, watching from above, as they consumed small bottles of tequila they had smuggled in: they were quietly told they had to go, and sheepishly left the stands, abandoning their sad half-drunk bottles on the ground behind.

Our area of the stadium encapsulated the general topography: it was dominated by Mexico fans. To our right three quiet and intense long-haired fellows with brightly painted faces stared ahead, while further to our left a boy with an impeccable fan’s hairdo — the hair on the side of his head shaved close, tinted green, and decorated with a stylized eagle wing. But there was also a loud pastle of Ticos rooting for Costa Rica, and a smattering of Salvadorean fans, and then little groups of suburban North Carolinians, clearly pleased to be in the know and in the midst, for an evening, of international football. The encounter between the different football worlds was at it’s best when blond eight-year-old boys and girls from a local youth team carried out the flags onto the pitch — Salvadorean, Costa Rican, Mexican, and Cuban.

As the first game began, I tried to figure out who the Mexico fans were rooting for. Ricardo La Volpe, the coach of the Costa Rican team, was clearly a source of great emotion — mostly negative. Whenever he appeared on the screen — in his faded jeans, looking like a sort of aging hippie — there was a cascade of boos and whistles. And there was wild cheering when Salvador scored early on. But when, in the final minutes of the game, Costa Rica scored to equalize, there was plenty of cheering too. Really, it seemed like many people didn’t care that much either way: the only unanimity came when, during slow moments of the game, everyone began chanting “Mexico! Mexico!,” as in, “ok, guys, time to make way for the big boys.”

And Mexico certainly stormed the pitch last night: by the time I left, it was 4-0 against Cuba, who had mounted a valiant effort at first but frittered to pieces in the second half, clearly outmatched and outclassed. The goals came so fast that it was slightly exhausting cheering for them, as softdrinks and hats flew into the air. Feeling bad for the beleagured Cuban team, we snuck into to the quiet night at the 70th minute — by the time we got to our car the score was 5-0 — passing vendors still hawking  Chicharito gear, wondering if the stadium employee who had been chided for their ignorance of soccer might pick up a discounted Mexico jersey on the way home.