It’s been one week since the Gold Cup Final and the stories have, thankfully, reverted to questioning what’s wrong with the USA National Team and projecting how good the Mexico team could become. For a few days, it seemed possible for the event to be used by nativist or conservative commentators to make a political point.* While it wouldn’t be to the extreme that occurred in France after a “friendly” with Algeria, a great post on the Soccer Politics blog makes the connection and sounds the warning about extrapolating too much from a single event and small subset of the fans in attendance.
*That such a point would involve admitting to watching soccer is probably why it did not get made.
At the same time, another post on the same blog, casts the entire rivalry into the politics of decolonization and immigration. I don’t quite buy this either. If anything, the USA-Mexico rivalry is about minority identity rather than politics.
Identity question #1: To whom does soccer “belong”?
The USA is a great at absorbing and sanitizing other cultures—think Mexican food (Chevys, Taco Bell, Chipotle), Cinco de Mayo, and the most interesting man in the world. We haven’t taken soccer. Yet. But we’re trying.
That soccer is identifiably non-American makes it something which minorities in this country can use as shorthand for their culture. A large part of the USA-Mexico soccer rivalry stands in for the struggle over American appropriation of Mexican culture to the point where it almost seems like there’s been a line drawn in the sand: “Hands off our fútbol you pinche gringos.”
Identity question #2: Which team does a Mexican-American support?
To-date, most of them support Mexico. Even my 3rd-generation wife supports Mexico.* The typical American thing to do is to support Team USA first, ethnic background second, then the big-name team of your choosing third. Sometimes the second two are switched** but, except in the case of Mexico, it’s almost always USA first.
*Somewhat to her surprise. We were watching the Gold Cup Final and she just found herself rooting for Mexico.
**I support Spain over any of my ethnicities. Though, in my defence, I am part German.
I suspect that a large reason why Mexican-Americans tend to support Mexico is because of the answer to question one. Soccer is currently part of Mexican culture and so, enjoying soccer is an exercise in enjoying being Mexican.
However, another reason is that the US team does a horrible job at getting Mexican-American players (or, really, latinos of any sort) into the system. I think Jose Torres is the only one right now. It’s not like those players are playing for Mexico either, there’s just a huge untapped player pool and a huger untapped market for new fans. When the US national team has a Mexican-American star who my wife’s generation can identify with, I suspect a huge number of them will start supporting the US team instead.
Identity question #3: What does it mean to be a USA soccer fan?
It’s not enough for most US soccer fans to root for victories. It’s all about playing the game correctly, behaving correctly, and not letting down the rest of the group by dong something stupid. Games always have a bigger picture issue about dictating the place of the game in US society. Since rivalry games bring out the worst in everyone, the US-Mexico game is probably the most stressful.
On the field, it’s important to show that the US is not a joke of a team. If the team is competitive, it’s easy to explain to non-fans why we watch and helps to grow the sport.* If the team sucks, our sanity is questioned by everyone and there’s an existential crisis regarding the future of soccer in America.
*It’s not clear how much many of us want to actually see the sport become popular here. There’s a certain hipster vibe where we enjoy the exclusivity by obscurity and complain when things become mainstream during the World Cup.
Off the field, it’s even stranger. We feel like we have the responsibility to show that we’re not stupid Americans and that we actually understand world soccer. We have to simultaneously embrace the passion of the game without fully succumbing to it lest we become the bullies that we are in other fields. And we have to accept and enjoy (and even prefer) Spanish-language broadcasts and majority-Mexican crowds because, without them, there would be no market at all for soccer in America.