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Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images

America's Soccer Mono-culture

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“To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people.”

 Cesar Luis Menotti

American football, meaning soccer ─ as only the individualistic Americans persist in describing the most democratic sport in the world ─ may be understood ─ or misunderstood ─ at first glance.  If you go to watch any professional soccer match anywhere in America, or observe from a distance or up close any pick-up game in a park in the Midwest, East or West Coast, you will notice upon more serious observation, or just with that mere glance, the various classes and ethnicities, maybe even ethnocentrism, as part of the culture of football or soccer that manifest with harsh clarity.      

America's Soccer  Mono-culture

You will see the footballers of America, whether amateur or professional, do not exhibit a multi-ethnic integration like that of the World Cup Belgium and French national football (soccer) teams which played such brilliant football in the FIFA World Cup in 2018 held in Russia. Sportswriter Taha Memon noted, “The current squad is a mixture of individuals who all come from different regions and have mixed origins, and yet, they gel well. They have adapted, they have learnt to put whatever differences they may have aside for the welfare of the nation.”[i]                                

However, before I turn away from the success of other nations in attaining a more progressive integration of football as societal harmony, I need to point out class and racial contradictions that haven't been widely discussed concerning the footballers of France. One canny sports reporter indicated,” In the years since, there have been other accusations France operated a 'quota' to limit the number of black and Arab players in the national team. In part, this was justified as a means to limit the number of bi-national players trained by the French youth team, who may choose to play for a country other than France..However, transcripts which formed part of an investigation found the rationale also  extended to racial stereotypes that white players were more 'cerebral' and 'team oriented' than their 'fast and strong' African and Arab counterparts.”[ii]                                                                                    

"African Lions" Football Team With Coach. May 18, 2014

Therefore, it is important to point out, the United States is not the only county in the Western world with its dark and troubled side in the greatest sports spectacle on earth. What is progressive about the French National Football team is the very idea of achieving in part class and racial parity from theory into deed. The people of France have created a football team of multi-ethnic ability, forged through multi-cultural unity amid adverse socio-economic conditions of France, and this diversity contributed to their victory in the 2018 World Cup.

In America there is a growing menace of class and racial discrimination in the soccer culture, building up into a pattern of deliberate exclusion and ethnocentrism, pitch by pitch, stadium by stadium. The New York Times Magazine, in examining this development, declared, “There is another  sort of elision happening, one that’s more disturbing than middle-class Americans’ cosplaying working-class traditions from the Continent. The spread of Europhilic American soccer culture excludes much of the population of American soccer fans, a healthy portion of whom are Latin American immigrants… There are now two separate American soccer cultures: one white, the other Latino.”[iii] 

After coaching high school soccer, I went on to manage a football team I created called FC VERMONT-CHAMPLAIN in 2010-2014. The team was the subject of a news story in the Burlington Free Press during the World Cup in South Africa. From our team's vantage point, I have seen first-hand the class and racial tensions in what was supposedly the first multi-cultural team in Vermont.

FC Vermont Champlain Shield/Luis Lazaro Tijerina

The football team was composed of white middle-class footballers, most coming from a college or university background, South American working class and middle class young men, as well as African, Russian and South Asian youth who also joined the team, many of them without funds to pay for helping to rent a pitch for training practices and league membership fees. Some even lacked money to buy decent boots to play in matches. Not only were there economic liabilities, there were also the individualistic behavior the majority of the players had adopted from the example of Anglo-Americans. 

FC Vermont-Champlain lasted only four years due not just to lack of funds to keep the team afloat in an outdoor and indoor league, but also the lack of genuine commitment to a club, which the players professed to understand, though intellectually and emotionally they could not grasp because of their immaturity about the deeper aspects of club football and its ties to the overall community. Racial disputes and petty jealousies also played its part in the destruction of the team FC Vermont-Champlain.

However, as coach and manager of such a unique football team in Vermont, it taught me valuable lessons of the harsh reality of football in American culture. The demise of the team which I had created through a rather false idealism actually made me paradoxically more realistic and revolutionary about how I wanted to coach and define football culture in America.

Now, situations like those I encountered with my Vermont football team have only worsened in America. Seattle sports journalist Les Carpenter described the regional and national consequences of class and race more bluntly: “Finding places for his Latino immigrant soccer league to play matches had become quite a challenge: the area’s soccer fields were always snatched up by wealthy, mostly white clubs who had the money and expertise to navigate the city’s leasing process. It was a complaint he often heard from other clubs in Seattle’s lower income communities.”[iv]  

Sportswriter Carpenter was referring to the genuine complaint from a Latino coach, Exequiel Soltero, who had trouble renting soccer fields from white soccer officials in theoretically liberal, suburban Seattle. The teams that Soltero coached were from the working class and lower classes rooted in Latin and Hispanic cultures. 

But it is not only economic and racial struggles that define contemporary American soccer, it is also the lack of an actual intellectual idea what constitutes American football nationally and internationally. 

FC Vermont Champlain Shield

From Vermont in New England to the Pacific city of Seattle on the West Coast, there is a smugness of middle class and upper middle class Anglo-Americans that they are the ones capable of making the United States a football power among the world’s elite national football teams, when in reality they do not even have a clue what constitutes not only the national character of football in America in general, but for the American National Football Team as well. 

There must be a revolutionary idea of a diversified team composed of the many nationalities that make up American society and its progressive, political customs, as well as bringing in working class footballers from the ghettos and barrios of the inner cities and the agriculture heartland of the Midwest.  In others words the idea of American football or soccer must be a football of élan and verve, attacking this football tradition with audacious creativity. There must be art and a scientific understanding of the game across the pitches and stadiums of the United States that transcends American exceptionalism and stifled bourgeois football as practiced by American colleges, universities and middle-class soccer academies. 

For American football, that is, American soccer, to ever achieve greatness, there must first and foremost be the idea of football as the American people’s game ─ both subtle in character and artistic in its various tactical and strategic options.  Intellectual perception or the innovative strategy for creating a national football team in the United States, as well as a passion for the game in terms of élan and verve on the pitch based on academy, and democratic awareness between players and coach, are necessary elements for great and spontaneous football.

Football, to borrow a thought from the great military strategist Baron Von Clausewitz, is political war by another means. Football is the art of the people, an expression of the masses. Football embraces all the circumstances and conditions of a country, and in understanding this political observation, I will quote what a high-school-and-college-soccer-playing French-Canadian friend of mine, Nora, said to me as we watched the final of the World Cup between France and Croatia in an Irish pub in Vermont ─ “It is a very important Cup given the geopolitical landscape of the world. This team represents the diversity of France and its complexities of a diverse culture which includes a history of openness to immigrants and its history of imperialism.” 

Football in America must be a revolutionary ambition, an idea that brings dignity and vitality to the American people, a sport which helps take them out of their own cruel imperial behavior.  The geopolitical landscape of the world is waiting for American football to become a part of world community.

Author: Luis Lázaro Tijerina