The New Soccer Wars

Whenever I write about soccer, I inevitably write about loyalty. Now, I know I’m treading on obvious territory: a childhood in Texas and over three years in Pittsburgh have taught me that all sports are territorial and arbitrary allegiance-based battles waged by two sides differentiated by what appears on their shield or banner, as well as lines drawn on maps. I get it. Sports are like games are like war. Go, team, go!

But when I write about loyalty in soccer, in futbol (ahem), I am referring to the unique status of the immigrant in regard to their multiple and shifting affiliations when it comes to picking a side (so wordy!). Or, to be fair to other immigrants that are not myself, this immigrant has issues when picking a side. My parents, as good Latin-Americans do, watch futbol. I was raised in a household with a running gag (which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before on the blog or at some other time): a Colombian mother, a Mexican father, and a daughter raised in Texas are watching the World Cup. People ask about the tension in the room. Who would win in a fight to the death (my money is on my mother)? Who does the daughter root for? The answer, for me, was and is Mexico. But not without consequences.

Oh, I’m not talking anything too dramatic. Just my mother’s passive aggressive comments during the game about my ungratefulness to the Colombian side of the family tree (“guess you don’t like at least one of your X chromosomes”). Or my boyfriend’s textual anger. [A recent message after a crucial Mexican victory: “I hate you and your people.” He’s not really mincing words there.] Or my perpetual involvement in the debates about Mexican versus American futbol. I’m not suffering too much for my allegiance.

I like to think that I cheer for the US second. Mexico is number one, the US number two, and Colombia three. Having an order should simplify things. And I have good justifications for that order, justifications that appease everyone: I was born in Mexico and watched a ton of Mexican league on TV growing up. It makes sense that I would root for the guys I know first and best. I do live in the US and was mostly raised here. This is the country where I work and pay taxes. And, of course, My mother is Colombian, my father half. Number three is not as big of a slight as it could be.

I’m writing around my subject now. What I sat down to write about today, what I wanted to talk about was the game between the US and Brazil at the end of the Confederations Cup earlier this summer—a game between the gods of soccer and plucky “underdog” gringos. A game where I should have rooted for the US. A game where I had every intention of rooting for the US until they were winning, 2-0. Until the change arrived.

USA+v+Brazil+FIFA+Confederations+Cup+Final+ZDzlWArijdAl(June 28, 2009 – Photo by Gallo Images/Getty Images Europe)

Because I was once a poet (always a poet?) who read poetry, I like to think that everything is a poem. And in a way, this one has already been written. Tony Hoagland is right: there are moments when history passes you so close, you can not only smell its breath, but feel its sweat. And watching the US beat Brazil for thirty-six minutes broke something in me I wasn’t prepared to admit existed.

I could not, I would not, accept that the US was an underdog. Something about it rubs me wrong. There was a goodness to having our plucky little developing nations whoop the US, a country with so many resources and discipline, talent and privilege. Watching the US lose for years, although I rooted for them, made sense. Oh, I would say, we’ll do better soon. And then we did. And then things changed. Because I realized that I hated the US for winning when I felt they didn’t deserve it.

What a horrible thing to say! No student who’s ever had a scholarship is proud to say something like that—everyone deserves what they work hard to achieve. But I kinda believed the opposite here. The US didn’t deserve to win, because it doesn’t mean anything to win at soccer for this country. It maybe means something to the eleven guys on the field, and to the small percentage of the population who played as a child and thinks watching it is cool. But as Colbert put it… the average American sports aficionado believes soccer is boring.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Is It Time To Care About Soccer? – Alexi Lalas

Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Meryl Streep

The fact that not caring about soccer is such a joke in this country makes me angry when the US wins. Because a world in which the US is a dominant force in a sport they don’t even care about seems bullyish, reeks of colonialism and imperialism and other isms, although I’m not even sure I want to draw out those parallels right now. I’m not even sure I believe they hold up.

Think about it this way…   If the hot quarterback tries out for the soccer team his senior year, and then earns not only the captain’s band, but the only scholarship to some badass soccer school, I bet the other kid on the team who worked his ass off for fifteen years and led the team to victory before, I bet that kid hates that quarterback. Maybe he wants his former teammate to succeed when asked, but also, deep in his heart, he wants that dumb quarterback to fail.

Now imagine that the quarterback  is also pretty rich, good-looking, dating the head cheerleader, and valedictorian. Oh, and his family hates soccer and thinks it’s a dumb sport. In fact, they make fun of their son for taking that fancy scholarship.

Now imagine you, a casual observer, eat dinner in that household every night, and you’re related to the other kid, the one that worked hard at playing for years and developing his foot-technique.

Every time they open their mouths, you can’t help but want their child to fail. Just a little. Just to get them quiet. Now, imagine your joy when you hear that the quarterback got benched. But not only that, your kid walked on the team and took that quarterback’s spot. Victory! Sweet, victory!

For the petty. For me.

So when Brazil came back in the most beautiful second half of soccer I’ve seen them play in a while, soccer like they’re being chased by horses on fire, like the ball was another muscle, temporarily detached and fully under the player’s control, its sides rolling with purpose… so when Brazil came back, I couldn’t help but cheer, but pray, just a little, for the beach gods of soccer to reign a little longer. Just a bit. I wanted to hold on a little longer before the game changed.

Before caring about soccer means something new, something different, something American.

My cheers continued. Through the US’s loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup Final, although every US fan I spoke to afterwards pointed out that the “US played their B-team.” My hoorah deepened last Wednesday, when A-squaded and relentless, the US lost to Mexico 2-1, in a hard-fought World-Cup-qualifying match between two neighbors, not as friendly a game as it could have been.

And I watched it, in a friend’s living room in Pittsburgh, wearing my green and red jersey in a room of whites and blues, inadvertently yelling “ay!” when things got hairy. And, of course, my friends made fun of me.

But no one was angry at the end of the game. Because it was soccer, and really, who cares?