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.