Hispanic identity and US Soccer (Part 1)
Extending from Colorado along Texas' southwest border and into the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande has long held symbolic value for Americans. Just south of the river, the language becomes more romantic, the food gets spicier, and the temperature hotter. But for all of Mexico's qualities that could enamor its northern neighbors, Americans have always been most fascinated by the people.
During the Mexican revolution, El Paso residents would climb the mountains to watch the bloody fighting between the federalis and the Villistas. As they looked upon Juarez, two assumptions permeated American minds: This was a violent, lawless race of people; and Mexicans were somehow different from us. We looked down on our neighbors with delight, disgust, fascination, and contempt, but with a voyeuristic zeal more akin to 2010 than 1910, we couldn't take our eyes off them.
Brad Friedel punches a cross targeting Mexico's Jared Borgetti at the 2002 World Cup. The United States would go on to win the Round of 16 match, 2-0. (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images).
Flash forward to Korea/Japan - the 2002 World Cup. A resurgent US Men's National Team faces off with regional rival Mexico. The Americans puts on a gritty, hardworking defensive display and are lethal in front of net, nicking two goals on counter attacks. Down two goals in the waning moments, Mexican defender Rafa Marquez loses his cool, delivering a brutal elbow to veteran Colbi Jones and is shown a straight red card. The athletic Americans conquer violent Mexicans, indisputably putting them on top of the CONCACAF mountain.
And so it was that even in soccer, the US could look down upon its rivals to the South, right?
US men's soccer presents a paradox. We can beat European Champion Spain 2-0 in a pre-World Cup tournament in South Africa, but then we lose to Panama at home during the Gold Cup. How does this happen?
You can blame the coach. Others might blame the players. Some blame ephemeral concepts like form, while many have diagnosed the problem as tactical: The US can counterattack against better teams but struggle to play a possession game versus inferior opposition. We can sucker punch like Floyd Mayweather but can't dance like Mohammad Ali.
Others still blame the technical foot-skills of the players. They claim that current US soccer youth system produces track stars who can run, cross and head but lack soft enough feet.
And what is the magic bullet to this problem? Hispanics. Without batting an eye, commentators imply that intrinsic Latin American flair can spice up the US team, presumably with salsa-swinging hips and merengue-dancing feet. The short, hip-swiveling folk with the almond eyes will be US soccer's savior, the story goes. As second generation Mexican-American, I'm not so sure.
From a cultural standpoint, this view paints with a pretty broad brushstroke. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper examined the soccer-star-as-immigrant hypothesis, concluding that the reality is probably closer to the Malcom Gladwell-popularized 10,000-hour rule. According to the axiom, to become great at any activity, you need to put in 10,000 hours. Kuper hypothesized that immigrant children, such as Didier Drogba (who moved from Cote d'Ivoire to France as a 13-year-old), could often reach the 10,000-hour plateau earlier due to economic and social factors. However, not all Hispanics are immigrants. And not all Hispanics are poor. The NBA has long struggled with a similar idea of specific race plus poverty equals talent pool, but the equation is unlikely to be so simple.
Before we send scouts with scholarships to the barrio, we need to decide: What do we really want, and how we can truly get it?
In soccer (as in other sports), imitation is the name of the game. The top club team in the world is FC Barcelona while the current European and world champion is Spain, teams which basically share the same roster. And guess what? Their style of play is not kick-and-run; rather, it’s tiki-taka, where players pass sideways, backwards, and occasionally forward, carefully mine-sweeping their way to the opposing goal. Their player prototype is not large and powerful Shaquille O'Neals, but rather tiny and nimble Spud Webbs. This obviously tosses a wrench into the American sporting machine, where our drafts double as stock shows, and we fawn over a player's height, weight, and 40-yard dash time.
But six years ago, Spain was a perpetual underachiever, the international game’s chief example of talent without titles. Barcelona had only won a single Champions League while Spain was still without their first World Cup. The established powers in Europe were the neurotically defensive Italians and the athletic cross-and-counter Germans, styles which have led those nations to a combined seven world titles.
The US can pack the box. We can sit back and counter. We can play with the characteristics that have led to Italian and German success stretching back over 60 years. So is there a really a problem with US Soccer, or have we been swept away by the currents of the day?
Clint Dempsey advances toward Panama's Felipe Baloy during group play at the 2011 Gold Cup. The United States would lose the match, 2-1. (Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images).
Anybody who saw one minute of the US game versus Panama can answer a resounding yes. The US is clearly behind the times. While we can play catenaccio and counter against the big boys, we lack the ability to shift gears and play possession-soccer against lesser teams – an ability that Italians and Germans have always possessed. And as globalization has opened doors for Hondurans, Panamanians, and Costa Ricans to play in Europe, the so-called "lower teams" of the regions have become more talented. The US needs to be to be Mohammad Ali and dance against these teams while being able to punch when least expected against the big boys. Right now, we can’t.
If the US currently play German's style at about 70 percent effectiveness, then we want to play Spain's game at about a 70 percent level. And we have to be able to, if we want to qualify for the next World Cup.
Now that we know what we want, we have to realize that this will require the right players, the right youth system, the right coach, and above all, time. Progress will be measured in months and years, not days and weeks.
We also have to examine our own prejudices, assumptions, and baggage, including an often ignored history of racial discrimination, segregation, affirmative-action, and the affirmative-action backlash. We have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, realizing that superficial neutrality can mask exclusion and meaningful participation.
Put another way, we must come down from the mountain and see eye-to-eye. Overstating the problem is bad enough, but placing burdens and romanticized stereotypes upon an entire people comes at a very deep price. You not only set up players to fail when they can’t meet expectations, but you also degrade them with the worst kind of tokenism. That's not to say don't emphasize possession-soccer at the youth level or perform outreach to Hispanic communities.
Those changes needs to be made, but they need to be made in a meaningful way and not just as a token gesture. And even if they’re done right, Hispanic integration is not going to cure all of US Soccer’s ills.
In Part II of Elliott's series on Hispanic integration into US Soccer will be available Monday, October 10.