Monthly Archives: February 2013

On Context (Hexagonal, part 1)

The U.S. Men’s National Team’s loss to Honduras on February 6 generated a small wave of surprise and recrimination. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has come in for criticism for showing either a lack of respect for Los Catrachos or a bit of naïvete by playing a young defensive line with no cohesion. The surprise stems from the fact that while the Estadio Olimpico has been a difficult test for many national teams in the recent past, it has not been so for the United States—Honduras’ only home loss in the past two World Cup campaigns (2006/2010) was to the United States, which had won three straight in San Pedro Sula prior to Wednesday.

In fact, the loss should—and has been—put into context: away matches in the CONCACAF Hexagonal are always difficult, often due to the atmosphere in the host country. Typically, away teams confront sleepless nights defined by raucous crowds outside their hotels, see offensive graffiti on walls lining the route to the stadium, and face heaps of abuse—batteries and bags of urine, according to Jozy Altidore—at the hands of local fans. Matches themselves are scheduled to maximize the home team’s advantage.  For Wednesday’s game, the Honduran government called a national holiday in order to insure a packed stadium and streets full of supporters, and scheduled the game at 3 p.m. to maximize the mid-afternoon tropical heat. This is the case for all teams that play in Central America during the Hexagonal.

But soccer—especially international soccer—is rarely just soccer. Thus, the U.S. team often engenders more hostility than others, a fact that U.S. media outlets never fail to report. In the run-up to the February 6 match, however, journalists went beyond the usual commentary on hostile crowds. Instead, they highlighted the difficulty of play in a country as dangerous as Honduras, noting the “bleak picture of life in this beleaguered Central American country.”  Another recognized that conditions in Honduras were “much worse” than the last match between the two teams in San Pedro Sula, played months after a coup ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. (Of course, social conditions tend to affect journalists much more than players, who travel to and from the field under heavy police protection and are very rarely victims of random crime, but that is another story.) Telling the U.S. audience about crime rates, however, does little more than set the scenario for the match and reinforce two-dimensional pictures of Central American nations as violent.

Just as the U.S. loss needs context, then, so too understanding conditions in Honduras can help explain why the U.S. team faces greater hostility than other opponents. Even if U.S. soccer pedigree fails to inspire fear in Central American fans, U.S. economic and political influence raises the symbolic stakes in qualifying matches. Historically, from the mid-nineteenth century filibustering expedition of William Walker to early twentieth century occupations and late twentieth century support for unpopular governments, the United States has played an outsized role in the domestic affairs of most Central American nations.

In the specific case of Honduras, the heightened emotions surrounding Wednesday’s match stem from more recent concerns. The short version goes something like this: in June 2009 Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from power and flown out of the country by the Honduran military. The U.S. government reportedly knew of the coup before hand, and in the immediate aftermath blocked the Organization of American States from suspending Honduras. It further legitimated the removal of the president by supporting new presidential elections. Since the inauguration of the new, more pro-U.S. president, Honduras has become a focal point in the U.S. War on Drugs, with increased funding and training for Honduran security forces.  But this has come at a cost. Some claim that 40 percent of the Honduran police are part of organized crime syndicates, while human rights abuses under the new government have skyrocketed. Indeed, the spike in the Honduran crime rate coincides with the 2009 undermining of democracy in the country. Little wonder, then, that Hondurans relish making the U.S. team as uncomfortable as possible.

While—given the present climate—San Pedro Sula is likely the hardest place that the United States will play in the Hexagonal, the team should expect a similar treatment in Panama later this year. Even in Costa Rica and Mexico, where U.S. interventions are farther in the past and influence-peddling seems less obvious, U.S. players should expect extra hostility. Soccer aside, the United States remains the regional hegemon. For the U.S. sports media, mentioning why the U.S. team is unpopular might help fans move beyond simplistic conceptions of Central America as violent or unstable to a deeper understanding of the politics at play in an international soccer match.

Note: This post was published originally on ¿Opio del pueblo? (

A Moth for Mali

The Western-most tip of Africa seemed like as good a place as any to watch the Mali vs. South Africa quarter-final in the African Cup of Nations. On Saturday, I was at the Pointe des Almadies in Dakar, a tourist stop and hang-out with a beach carpeted with black stones and hand-holding couples. On offer there were grilled fish, birds, paintings made of butterfly wings, ham and cheese crepes and beer, Bob Marley renditions — and a tiny television tuned to the match. We stood packed behind a bar watching. Everyone, as usual, was both coach and expert tactician. “Mali is leaving way too much space for the South Africans – they are fast!” “Why can’t they hold the ball?” “Only Keita is worth anything.” Some went on offence: about the South African coach Gordon Igesund: “That white man needs to calm down! He’s going to be more tired than his players!”

“Who are you rooting for?” a man turned and asked me suddenly. “Mali!” “With everything that’s happening there they need it,” he tells me. “They’re our neighbors,” another adds. We all turn back to the screen in time to see South Africa slip through the saggy Mali defense and score. Generalized hissing. “They’re going to get crushed. Crushed,” a man declares. For a while I think he’s right. But then: Keita, angling his header down for the bounce just enough to pass over the falling goalie. Stabilizing the boat.

I was in Dakar at the CODESRIA conference Afrika’Nko. Mali was on everyone’s mind. The conference was originally to take place in Bamako, but moved to Dakar because of the conflict there. Much of one afternoon was consumed by a heated debate about a statement condemning the recent burning of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu. The signs of the intervention were visible in city, too. Wandering through the crowded center of town, I fell in behind a group of uniformed French soldiers winding their way along the street. From the sidewalk a man said to them: “Vive la France!” The soldiers looked back a little cautiously, not totally sure whether the statement was sarcastic or not. But the man seemed quite sincere, and the soldiers nodded.

During the Cup of Nations games, life in Dakar didn’t exactly stop. But it did proceed to a single soundtrack. On the upper floors of a cloth market and factory, the shops each had a small TV turned to the games. I sat in one for a while where, fed up with the French language commentary from the TV, a young man muted the volume and then cranked up the radio commentary from Dakar. In rooms nearby where men worked at sewing machines, the radio blasted the game, and there was enough time for them to dash over to a TV to see replays if something big happened. On the street, a man wandered out into an intersection, slightly oblivious, holding his phone to his head – listening to the streaming radio of the match. And each of Dakar’s often beat-up yellow taxis that drove by had the same soundtrack.

When much of a city and much of a continent is watching something, you can almost feel the collective shifting of moods. There was that moment of seeping dread, late in the second-half game of Mali vs. South Africa with the score skill locked 1-1, when everyone realized that overtime was coming, and after that, most likely, penalty kicks. But Mali’s players, and goalie, controlled the shoot-out from the beginning. Each of them went in, it seems, knowing that if there was a moment to proceed without fear and with hesitation, this was it. Gracefully, they dispatched South Africa without even needing to shoot the full five shots. The cheers were immediate and uproarious: “Mali!”

I was so deep into the African Cup of Nations that, when I returned on Monday to the U.S. and someone asked me whether I’d seen the game last night I said enthusiastically, “Yes!” But I thought they meant the Burkina Faso vs. Togo quarter-final — not the Super Bowl, which I had forgotten was even happening, and whose unfolding had barely registered in Senegal. I quickly learned the essential take-away from that event — the Beyoncé is totally fabulous — but realized that those who, here, found Burkina’s progress into the semi-final a notable historical event would be few and far between.

Tomorrow Mali goes on to face Nigeria in what is sure to be a difficult match. After last year’s amazing and emotional victory by Zambia, though, anything seems possible. And a victory for Mali in the midst of the war in the country would be a meaningful one. The conflict there has created, both within the country and among those watching and worrying from Senegal and other parts of the region, a powerful sense of dissonance and fragmentation. History is bearing down on the present: the long and complex history of Islam in West Africa, of the relationship between the desert regions of countries like Mali and the more populated cities, and of course of the history of French colonialism and neo-colonialism and the ambiguity of a population largely celebrating an intervention by France.

That there is a place, on the pitch, where “Mali” seems relatively straightforward – 11 players with one goal, though also with an infinite number of ways to reach it – is perhaps a kind of comfort. And so to is the idea that, at times like this, the game has a chance to be more than itself. At one point in the game, the one woman in the bar where I was watching pointed in surprise and wonder – above the ball, in a slow-motion close-up, you could just barely see a moth fluttering its wings.