Archive for the 'CONCACAF' Category

Nov 08 2014

Profile Image of Joshua Nadel

On the precariousness of women’s soccer in CONCACAF

Under the radar of our sports inundated country, two weeks ago the United States hosted a World Cup qualifying tournament that culminated last Sunday night at PPL Park in Chester, PA. The women’s teams of the United States, Costa Rica, and Mexico all qualified for Canada 2015, while Trinidad and Tobago face Ecuador in a playoff series starting tomorrow. In theory this event showcased the best women’s soccer teams in the region. In reality it brought into sharp relief the resource gap in women’s soccer and highlighted the continuing challenges faced by women’s soccer worldwide. Simply put, while some teams get support from their federations, others receive almost none. Women’s soccer, and support for it, is still in a precarious state. Institutions support it, but many do so grudgingly and under duress.

First, the good: Costa Rica’s fifteen-year investment in women’s and girls’ soccer bore fruit with the team’s first World Cup berth. Mexico, though it has stagnated since World Cup 2011, still receives substantial support from its federation. And the United States…well, the US women’s team is the best funded in the region (even if it suffers in comparison to the resources given to the US men). Not surprisingly, the three teams that receive the most financial support advanced.  Funding means—at a minimum—full time coaches and staff, training camps, and equipment. Most teams in the region fail to provide even these basic needs for their women’s teams.

Indeed, the five other teams in tournament—Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago—showed clearly the problems that women’s soccer faces. Guatemala practices only two times per week, in part because the players need to work or study; the team receives no money for stipends. The Haitian team has no funding from the Haitian federation, and has an all-volunteer staff. Trinidad and Tobago also has a volunteer coach—Randy Waldrum, the former Notre Dame women’s coach. His pedigree aside, the Trinidad and Tobago federation has shown little actual interest in the team. When the Women Soca Warriors arrived in Dallas, they had been given $500 to last for a week: from when the team arrived until the tournament began. Waldrum took to Twitter for help, managing to raise nearly $17,000 from a crowd-funding site established by Jen Cooper (including $658 from Haiti, which was returned).

Jamaica too took to social media to fund its team—the Reggae Girlz. But unlike their Caribbean rivals, Jamaica’s campaign was spearheaded by the Jamaican Football Federation and Cedella Marley. Marley, Bob Marley’s daughter and head of the House of Marley enterprises became involved when her son brought home a flyer about the Jamaican women’s team. She initially offered “a donation” to the Reggae Girlz, but the federation had different ideas. It proposed instead that Marley become the face of the team, someone who—in her words— could “get… the word out there about the program, and…bring some sponsors to the table.” For her, the choice was easy: given her belief that “every girl should get the chance to accomplish whatever their dreams are” she said, “I just wanted to give them a chance to represent.” Without intending to, Marley became the Reggae Girlz global ambassador. With the blessing of the federation, Marley quickly put together a fundraising campaign, both inside and outside of Jamaica. Tuffgong Records produced a series of videos to introduce the team, and Marley hired an independent sports marketing firm to create an Indiegogo campaign in the United States. Over all, the team raised about $200,000.

Trinidad and Tobago’s coach Waldrum noted that the crowd funding of women’s soccer shows that “we can all come together in time of need.” And while stories of teams helping each other and “five dollars here, ten dollars there” donations are heart-warming, handouts do little to help the sport in the long run. Indeed, the unconventional and short-term nature of crowd funding could even undercut institutional support for women’s soccer. Financing teams through emergency appeals—much like appeals for humanitarian aid—is neither healthy nor sustainable. Federations cannot adequately budget for coaches and training staff, stipends, meals and housing, if they have no control over the funding stream.

And herein lies the problem for women’s football. While outside support for women’s soccer is great, it should not be necessary. These federations have money, which can be seen in the support and sponsorship for the men’s national team. The Reggae Boyz, the Jamaican men’s team, reportedly received $7.5 million for their failed bid to qualify for Brazil 2014; we did not hear of desperate funding needs from either Haiti or Trinidad and Tobago in the early rounds of men’s CONCACAF qualifying (though Trinidad and Tobago have historical problems with making payments to players and coaches). Federations receive funds from FIFA and from sponsors, and then set priorities and budgets. Up to now, most national federations have opted not to fund women. In fact, many regional member associations provide only the FIFA mandate $37,500 per year for all women’s soccer programs. Only a few—the United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and (with Cedella Marley’s support) now Jamaica—place res

So what did this tournament show us? In terms of soccer, it showed that the skills gap is closing. But more importantly–and disturbingly–the CONCACAF Women’s Championship reinforced that women’s soccer has a long way to go in the region before it is sustainable. And while in Jamaica Cedella Marley has committed to supporting the Reggae Girlz for the long-term, most women’s soccer teams will have to continue without the backing of national federations. After Trinidad and Tobago’s loss to Mexico, which sent the island nation to a home-and-away playoff series against Ecuador, a journalist asked coach Waldrum how the team would find resources to prepare. His immediate answer was simple: “I don’t know.”


[This post was cross-posted on the occasional blog ¿Opio del pueblo?]

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Oct 19 2013

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Mexico: Stayin’ Alive

Filed under CONCACAF

I know a lot of people may have watched the USA vs. Panama game on Tuesday night, but did everyone catch the significance of this game for Mexico? Soccer gods must still exist.


I remember when I was under 15 playing in regionals for soccer in Cary, North Carolina. In the US youth soccer system, teams go through state cup where the winner advances to regionals and then if fortunate enough to win they advance to nationals. My U-15 year consisted of a round robin that will scar me forever. I remember it so vividly. My team was playing against a team from Louisiana right beside the field where two Texas teams, D’feeters and Lonestars, were playing each other in a Lonestars must win game for us. My team had to beat the Louisiana team by 4 and we were already winning 6-0, while Lonestars had to beat D’feeters 2-0 for us to advance to the semifinals. Everything was going as planned, Lonestars was up 2-0 with 10 minutes left and we were up 6-0. My coach even took the starters off the field and put them on the bench to rest up for the semifinal game the next day. The tide quickly turned after that though. D’feeters banged in two goals with 5 minutes left to make the score 2-2. Of course, what we needed to happen to advance did not. When does it ever work out the way you need it to in sports anyway? NEVER…well hold that thought. Mexico would beg to differ. Mexico was about 60 seconds away for not qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil when the miraculous happened. Everything fell into place for them Tuesday night as the USA defeated Panama 3-2 and kept Mexico’s World Cup dreams alive.


Here are highlights in case you missed it. It is worth the watch:

USA vs. Panama Highlights



The weirdest thing about this whole story is that the USA did not need to win the game against Panama to advance to the World Cup. They were going to go regardless. Panama had no doubt in their mind after their 84th minute go-ahead goal that they too were going to advance as a 4th seeded team In CONCACAF. All hope seemed doomed for the Mexican side after this. However, the USA squad was not going to quit. For many players on the USA squad that night, it was a huge opportunity to show head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, that they deserved the minutes they got and that they could compete for starting positions. I am sure Graham Zusi’s injury time equalizer and Aron Johannsson’s game winner off the last play of the game silenced any of Klinsmann’s doubts. This game also brought to Klinsmann’s attention the brutal aspect of the sport and the persistent attitude of the US squad.

“This is just how football writes these crazy, emotional stories, and you’re in the middle of it, because we all felt all of a sudden when Graham scored that header that it was all quiet, silence, and you feel for them,” Klinsmann said. “Maybe it’s a little bit in my culture, in the German culture you never stop before the referee blows the whistle, because I have won many, many games in the last minute. And hopefully, we keep on winning more. But it was a very sad moment for all here in Panama. We understand that.”


Right after the match, “Gracias USA” was trending all over Twitter. US Soccer replied:


Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 10.15.42 PM



Mexico will have to face New Zealand next month in a two-legged playoff game if it wants to play in Brazil 2014. It is great that Mexico can advance, but an important take away is that game changers were born Tuesday night for the US squad. Soccer is a crazy and unfair sport at times. Unfortunately, one team’s triumph means another team’s defeat. Although the US side has not been deemed world cup title worthy as of yet, they  have shown that they are a team no one will want in their group come Summer 2014. The Panama vs. USA game definitely showed that anything can happen throughout the course of a game. This brutal aspect of soccer will make for a very interesting World Cup in 2014. Hopefully for the USA team, keeping Mexico in it does not turn around to haunt them later.




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Sep 12 2013

Profile Image of Ian Bruckner

America’s Team

The USA Men’s Soccer starting lineup for its World Cup qualifier vs. Mexico on Sep. 10, 2013. The USA won 2-0, clinching a World Cup berth.

America’s Team. Fans across the country lay claim to this label for their favorite sports team. As a result of this dilution, this moniker largely has lost its meaning. So if you’re still searching for the real America’s Team, look no further than the USA Men’s Soccer team. As you no doubt know by now, Tuesday night it clinched a World Cup Birth by beating arch-rival Mexico 2-0. This is America’s Team.

We like to celebrate the U.S. as a melting pot, a place where people of myriad races, ethnicities, cultures, religions etc. identify as one nationality: American. Nowhere is this more apparent than the lineup for USA Men’s Soccer games (see image above). Eddie Johnson, who is black, headed home the game’s first goal from the corner of Landon Donovan, a white player who is perhaps the team’s most famous. Donovan also tapped in the USA’s second goal, thanks to a low cross from Mix Diskerud, who was born in Norway. The USA’s defense alone is a microcosm of the melting pot. In defense, the USA fielded Jermaine Jones, who is black and grew up in Frankfurt, Germany, as well as the Texan Omar Gonzalez, DaMarcus Beasely, an African-American from Indiana and Fabian Johnson, who also grew up in Germany.

Blacks, whites, Hispanics, immigrants — the USA Men’s Soccer lineup reads like a Census report. This team paints a more accurate picture of this country than any other of its national teams. The USA Men’s Olympic basketball squad, the Dream Team, is probably the nation’s most well known national team. Led by Duke’s own Coach K, featured thirteen blacks and one white players. Blacks might be racial minorities but that lineup is not diverse.

Unsurprisingly, given the demographics of the national team, the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gave Major League Soccer an A+ for its players’ racial diversity in its 2012 Annual Racial and Gender Report Card. Professor Orin Starn often used to say during his Anthropology of Sports lectures, “What you play is who you are.” When it comes to America’s Team, USA Men’s Soccer is the real deal.

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Jul 24 2013

Profile Image of Joshua Nadel

Invisible Men? Racism in Honduran Soccer

* This article is cross-posted with the blog ¿Opio del pueblo?

During the Mexico-Trinidad/Tobago Gold Cup quarterfinal the other night, I was part of an engaging twitter discussion about racism in CONCACAF soccer that centered around these posts:

It has struck me how much blatant racism you see around #GoldCup chat sites/twitter directed at Caribbean teams. @StaycoolFanzine @jhnadel

— Laurent Dubois (@Soccerpolitics) July 20, 2013


Conversation with @jhnadel makes me ponder why racism in Latin American football is discussed/addressed less than in Europe. Or am I wrong?

— Laurent Dubois (@Soccerpolitics) July 20, 2013

In the United States we hear a lot about racism in soccer, but it is always in the context of events in Europe. Most people who follow the sport know about the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand affair, for which Terry was stripped of the England captaincy. And many are familiar with the more recent cases involving fans making monkey sounds at  Kevin Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli. Even when a Latin American player is involved–such as in the  Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra incident–the question of whether or not something qualifies as racism is interpreted through a European (not to mention a U.S.) lens. 

As the above tweets suggest, however, issues of race are very much alive in Latin American soccer.  Yet very few anglophone soccer fans in the United States are aware of racism in the Latin American game. This is in part because the European game is so much more visible in this country–ESPN shows highlights of the EPL and the Serie A, but not the Liga MX or the Argentine Primera División. But it is also because in much of Latin America questions of race have been consciously obscured. As a result, for most people in the United States race and racism in Latin America are almost completely invisible.

Racism has existed in Latin American soccer since the arrival of the sport.  Chile famously protested its loss against Uruguay in the 1916 South American Championship due to the presence of two “Africans” in the Uruguayan squad. In Brazil, after the 1924 season, Rio’s major teams (Flamengo, Fluminense, and Botafogo, among others) formed a breakaway league rather than play against the mixed race Vasco da Gama (in Portuguese, scroll to 1923).  Racism is, in fact, embedded in the definition of Brazil’s futebol arte, but that is a post for another day. Today, I’d just like to call attention to some recent cases of racism–and fights against racism–going on in Honduran soccer, and look at some of the historical context behind questions of race in Honduras.

Before looking at all of that, I want to point out the parallel racial/ethnic dynamics in Honduras and some European nations. France is roughly 85 percent European, with a mixture of North African, Caribbean, West African, and Asian making up the rest of its population. In Italy, nearly 95 percent of the population is white, while England’s white population stands at around 85 percent. Honduras is ostensibly a mestizo nation: according to official statistics approximately 90 percent of the population is a mixture of indigenous and European. Afro-Hondurans officially make up about 2 percent of the population, and indigenous peoples comprise the rest. [1]  Given the similar ethnic profiles of Honduras and European nations–and the propensity of racism in European soccer–perhaps racism in Honduran soccer should not come as a surprise. 

If you look at the Honduran national team, however, you could be forgiven for not thinking that Honduras was predominantly mestizo: roughly 50 percent of the players are of African descent. Of course, sports teams often do not accurately reflect the ethnic or racial make-up of a nation, as socio-economic realities of minority populations–in many places around the world–make sports seem like one of the only viable avenues out of poverty.  


The Johnny Palacios Affair

In October 2011, a couple of weeks before the Suárez and Terry incidents, Johnny Palacios made a stir in Honduras after receiving a red card in league match for talking back to the referee. Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and played for the Honduran national team from 2009-2011 (and whose brothers Jerry and Wilson still play on the national squad), accused the referee of racial abuse.  Asserting that the referee, Mario Moncada, had used racial epithets in the past, Palacios explained that he had grown tired of the taunts and was defending himself. According to Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and the Honduran national team, the referee called him a “black homosexual (negro culero).”[2] Moncada denied the charges, claiming that since he had a black grandchild he could not be racist and certainly would not use racist language. True or not, the allegations opened up a nagging question for Honduran soccer and Honduras in general. Palacios, by the way, received a three-game suspension for his red card. 


Wilson Nuñez, et al.

Palacios was not the first player to complain of racial abuse in Honduras. Milton “Tyson” Nuñez, a leading player on Honduran national teams from the mid-1990s until 2008, complained in 2009 of racial taunts that he suffered as a soccer player. Nuñez recounted that in stadiums and on the street people hurled racial slurs at him. Rodolfo Richardson Smith also remembered hearing racist chants during games in the Honduran professional league. More surprising, he said, was that even when playing for the national team, Hondurans insulted him based on his race. Smith noted that when he played well he had no problems, but if made a mistake on the field fans used racial epithets and threw rocks at his house. In 2013, while playing in professionally in Guatemala, Nuñez took off his shirt and shorts and walked off the field in the face of racist chants from opposing fans.  


Osman Chávez

In May 2011 Osman Chávez, central defender for the national squad and captain for the 2013 Gold Cup, began discussions with other Afro-Honduran players. They had grown tired of hearing racist taunts during games and seeing comments to articles posted on the Web that denigrated them based on their race. As a result, the players–Chávez, David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Hendry Thomas, and Wilson Palacios–along with non-black members of the national team agreed to boycott national media until the Honduran newspapers’ online versions filtered out Web comments that disparaged their race. While the long-term effects of the campaign remain unknown, it generated a good deal of immediate interest. All of the Honduran newspapers picked up the story and one, Deportivo Diez, created an antiracism Facebook page. Chávez has begun to speak out whenever he can against racism.    


Institutional Soccer Racism?

Fans and referees are not the only ones accused of racism. In the past coaches and team directors discussed the “problems” of having “too many blacks” on the national team. Indeed, many coaches refuse to play black players in midfield, which is considered to be one of the more cerebral positions on the field. Instead, they prefer to play them in more “athletic” roles in defense, as strikers, or as wingers. One Honduran politician suggested that black players “are not intelligent” and bring down the play of the squad.Others think that racism does not exist in Honduran soccer and accuse black players of imagining the problem. Former national team psychologist Mauro Rosales suggested that Chávez and his colleagues overreacted to racist comments, claiming that “blacks, by nature, have low self-esteem and therefore look for ways to call attention to themselves.” Still others affiliated with Honduran soccer dismiss charges of racism entirely. In an interview with the newspaper Proceso Digital, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, the president of the Honduran Soccer Federation and ex-president of the country, not only denied claims of racism in Honduran soccer but suggested that the word “racism” be “completely erased from the language” because Hondurans were not racist people. 


Context (because I’m a historian)

In fact, there is a long history of racism in Honduras, which is visible in the Honduran narrative about how Afro-Hondurans got to the country. According to the dominant history of the country, there are three Afro-Honduran groups, all of whom arrive well after colonization: the Miskito (a mixture of runaway slaves and indigenous), the Garifuna (deported to Roatán from St. Vincent by the British in 1797), and the negros ingleses (free blacks who left British Caribbean in the early- to mid- 1800s and settled in the Bay Islands, augmented by people brought to work on banana plantations in the late 1800s and early 1900s). Late arrivals, these populations never fully integrated with the rest of Honduras, and stayed segregated on the north coast and on the Bay Islands.  Or so the story goes. 

In fact, the Afro-Honduran population was much more integrated in Honduran society than many would have liked.  African slaves were a major part of Honduran society from its colonial beginnings. Though Honduran mines never contributed more than 5 percent to Spanish coffers, they still produced a good amount of ore and required slaves.  By 1540 more than 2000 enslaved Africans worked in Honduras. Comayagua, a town in the center of the country near Tegucigalpa and a major mining center throughout the colonial period, had at least four hundred enslaved Africans working in the mines. In the 1600s population statistics for people of African descent get spotty. Still, entire towns were populated by people of African heritage. In 1801, according to Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, the 7,910 people who lived in the towns of Yoro and Olanchito were “all mulattos.”[3] In other words, when we scratch at the surface of race in Honduras, it becomes clear that the dominant narrative obscures more about race in Honduras than it shows.

In the early twentieth century, nationalist elites further obfuscated the question of race by consciously crafting a mestizo history for the country. This was happening in much of the region, as the indigenous past became a powerful tool for uniting people behind the idea of the modern nation. This drive had its most famous proponent in the Mexican José Vasconcelos. He wrote about a cosmic race, born of racial mixing in Latin America, which would lead the way to a greater human existence. Vasconcelos nevertheless retained a highly eurocentric view of supposed racial characteristics. To form the cosmic race, European rationality mixed with African passion and Native American simplicity and honor.



In Honduras intellectuals and government officials such as Alfonso Guillén Zelaya, Jesus Aguilar Paz, and Gregorio Ferrera followed Vasconcelos’ lead. They began searching for indigenous heroes to add to the Honduran pantheon and to confirm the country’s status as a mestizo nation. In the process they minimized the country’s “primitive” African past by crafting historical narratives that excluded or vilified blacks. In the mid-1920s Honduran officials found their national hero: Lempira. A warrior from the Lenca indigenous group, Lempira valiantly led the fight against Spanish invaders in the 1530s until his death at the hands of the conquistadors. Although no images of the indigenous leader existed, the Honduran government produced one (which can still be seen today on the Honduran currency that bears his name). He fit the bill: he represented the racialized ideal of the indigenous man as noble, strong, and honorable.[4] In embracing Lempira, Honduran nationalists of the early twentieth century consciously chose to create an image of the nation built on European and indigenous bases, thereby ignoring–and erasing from national history to the extent possible–the black population. In other words, it was only in the early twentieth century that Honduras invented itself as a biracial nation. This bi-raciality was reinforced throughout the twentieth century in the Honduran education system and the census, which failed to recognize any category that allowed for African heritage.[5]


And So?

So these are some of the historical roots of racism in Honduras. What does it mean in soccer? On one hand, perhaps, little: since the first Honduran national soccer team took the field against Guatemala in 1921, Afro-Hondurans have been included on the team. On the other hand, national sporting icons who are black still suffer racist treatment at the hands of their compatriots.  There are no black coaches or referees in the Honduran first division. After generations of being invisible in the national narrative, Afro-Hondurans are still not considered fully Honduran. They remain outside of “normal” Honduran identity due to their skin color, and present a challenge to the dominant narrative that says to be Honduran is to be mestizo.

And what of our perception in the United States?  We could say that U.S. lack of understanding of racism in Honduran (and Latin American) soccer results from a double invisibility: it exists due to the historical invisibility of people of African descent in the region and is exacerbated by the overweening focus in the United States on the European game.

**Note: Some of the foregoing is material adapted from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, being published by the University of Florida Press. 


[1]  República de Honduras. Características generales de las Garífunas conforme a los resultados del XI censo nacional y de vivienda, año 2001, (Tegucigalpa: INE, 2001).

[2] Some sources report the slur as being “negro de mierda” (fucking black).

[3]Luz María Martínez Montiel, ed, Presencia Africana en Centroamérica (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 9; and Rafael Leiva Vivas, “Presencia negra en Honduras,” in Presencia Africana en Centroamérica, edited by Luz María Martínez Montiel (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 123. Gold peaked in production prior to 1565, after which it declined. But between 1540 and 1542, more than 200,000 pesos worth of gold came from Honduran mines. See Linda Newson, “Labor in the Colonial Mining Industry of Honduras,” Americas 39, no. 2 (October 1982), 186, 193. See also William L. Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Colonial Central America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972). Sherman notes that black slaves were “more desirable” than indigenous people, and cost more–between 100 and 200 pesos in 1550. See ibid., 232-33 and note 387; and Robinson A. Herrera, “‘Por que no sabemos firmar': Black Slaves in Early Guatemala,” Americas 57, no. 2 (October 2000), 247 note. See also Robinson A. Herrera, Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Sixteenth-Century Santiago de Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, La Intendencia de Comayagua (Tegucigalpa: Litografía López, 2004), 12. 

[4] Dario Euraque, Estado, poder, nacionalidad y raza en la historia de Honduras (Choluteca: Ediciones Subirana, 1996), 79-81; and Breny Mendoza, “La desmitologización del mestizaje en Honduras,” Mesoamérica 42 (December 2001): 266-68.

[5] The Honduran census of 2001 included African descended ethnicities for the first time since the early 1900s.







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Feb 10 2013

Profile Image of Joshua Nadel

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? (

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Sep 07 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois


An interesting story is shaping up in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying games with two consecutive victories by Haiti. They’ve now followed up a 6-0 trouncing of the Virgin Islands with a 2-0 defeat of Curacao, and are at the top of their qualifying group.

Haitian football has, of course, been through a lot during the past years, including the death of key personnel during the earthquake, a harsh post-earthquake 9-0 loss to the U.S. women’s team in early 2010, and the quarantining of the men’s youth team in Jamaica. They didn’t make it into the Gold Cup this year. But the dreams of Haitian football are still there, always kept alive by the shared memory of the nation’s one appearance in the World Cup, in 1974, and of a particular goal made by Manno Sannon against Italy in their first game.

Haiti lost that game 4-1 and didn’t get out of the group stage: but no matter, Sannon was and is a national hero: one mural portrayed him alongside Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in a pantheon of Caribbean heroes. Might a new set of heroes emerge from the national team’s current roster? Already, fans have been delighted by the recent games, a needed respite and challenge to the discouraging news that surrounds them.

James Montague wrote a nice piece about Haiti’s recent trouncing of the Virgin Islands for CNN, alongside a second piece in The National.

Meanwhile Laura Wagner, our intrepid Haiti football correspondent, contributes this narrative of her attempt to see the game with her friends Claudine, G-Love, and a new friend named Jean:

Claudine, G-Love and I arrived at the stadium at about 1:30 pm for the 3 pm match, just as the rain began to pour.  We stood for some time under a street merchant’s tarp, where we bought a little bottle of cheap Roi de Coq rum and chatted as the rain poured down.  Fans wearing Haitian flags and red and blue jerseys streamed down the street, lined with tarp-and-sheet-metal homes, beauty salons, and businesses.  While G-Love ventured off to try to by some more tickets from scalpers, I went and checked out the line, and was stunned to find that it stretched all the way from the stadium entrance up past the Ministry of Public Health.

“We have to go stand in line,” I told Claudine.  She put a plastic bag over her hair, and off we went.

This was smart thinking, as it turned out.  After the rain let up, people moved en masse into the line.  It stretched from Rue de l’Enterrement all the way up Rue O. Durand, up to the Champ-de-Mars.

At least standing in line was not boring.  It was, rather, an active process requiring constant engagement and vigilance.  People wedged their way into any gap in the line, so everyone had to “kole” against the people next to them.  Claudine was pressed against me, while I was pressed against a chubby middle-aged guy in a red T-shirt.

“I’m all up against you and I don’t even know your name,” I told him.

He smiled, displaying a gold tooth.  “I’m Jean.”

“Pleased to meet you.  I’m Laura.”

The line moved incrementally.  Vendors hawked water, sodas, ice cream, conch in spicy sauce, fried plantain chips, Haitian flags (both on sticks and in bandanna form), red-and-blue banners with “Haiti Chérie” on them (five gourdes apiece), fresh coconuts, hot dogs, and so on.  “What do you want to eat when we get inside?” I asked Claudine.  Wet from the rain, I was thinking hopefully of a cold beer and a bag of salty plantain chips.  Claudine, G-Love and I bought Haiti flag bandannas, which we tied around our heads.

A smallish man appeared to our right.  “The back of the line is no good for me,” he said in a quiet reasonable voice.  “Let me in here.”  We all squished together again, immediately and instinctively, to firm up any gaps between people.

Claudine laughed.  “For whom exactly is the back of the line good, monchè?”

Soon after, we began to notice a lot of police cars, and people began to say that Martelly’s entourage would be arriving any moment.  Sure enough, within seconds the president appeared on foot, wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt and flanked by armed bodyguards.  People cheered and shouted “Martelly!”  He waved and headed toward the stadium.

A woman walked down the street, clad head-to-toe in the Haitian flag.  Her head was wrapped in a Haitian flag scarf.  Her dress consisted of two flags.  Her earring were flags.  Even her umbrella was red and blue.  I stopped her to pose for a photo.

A bunch of foreigners went straight to a metal gate alongside the main entrance and seemed to get in expeditiously and without hassle.  I was curious about these foreigners and their badges, and how one might get this VIP-blan access.

We moved closer to the stadium, glacially.  As we got closer, we saw men breaking the fence and sneaking through.  A bunch of people in line decided this seemed like a good idea, and hopped out of line to try this new tactic.  Claudine and I stayed in line.

In the end, we, and possibly thousands of others, never made it into the stadium.  As people on the streets said, “Our tickets died in our hands.”  There was so much upheaval and so much shoving that they locked all the entrances to the stadium and began beating people back with police batons.  We don’t know if too many tickets were printed, or if there were counterfeit tickets on the street, or if simply too many people pushed their way in ticketless, but in any case, an awful lot of people who paid for their tickets never made it into the game.  We stood outside as we heard the crowd erupt in cheers with each goal, and bitterly wondered what was going on.  Among that crowd were soccer fans who had gone without food so that they could buy those tickets — those ultimately useless tickets.

As the dezòd mounted and it looked like violence was likely, Claudine and I split.  We found a restaurant with a TV on Rue Capois and watched the second half of the game there.  “Pòdyab Îles Vièrges” we said, sipping our drinks and eating banann pese in peace.  “Poor things.”  6-0 is a pretty sad score.  We were happy not to be at the stadium.

Haiti’s changes of qualifying for the World Cup are, of course, pretty slim. They’re at the top of the group now, and might well hold their position there against Antigua, but the Round 3 of the qualifiers will pose a more serious challenge.

Still, these two victories are nevertheless something significant, and suggest something might be afoot worth following with the team. Last year at the World Cup I saw a few Haitian flags carried and displayed during the games in South Africa, and I know plenty of Haitian fans who would consider it about the highlight of a lifetime to go watch their team play in Brazil in 2014. There would be a nice symmetry to it if, forty years after Sannon’s goal, that happened. If there’s a bit of justice in this world, maybe it will.

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Jun 28 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois


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.

You can get a good feel for the event from this clip from the film Les Yeux dans les Bleus:

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.

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Jun 26 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

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 clip 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.






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Jun 13 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

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.

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Jun 10 2011

Profile Image of Laurent Dubois

“You’ve Never Heard of Chicharito?”

Filed under CONCACAF,Gold Cup,Mexico

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.

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