The conversation after Saturday’s Gold Cup Final should have been about how the U.S. was thoroughly outclassed by a younger, faster, far superior Mexico team.But instead we were talking about patriotism. Or nationalism. Or whatever you want to call what happens at the intersection of fandom and national identity.
It started with a post-match tirade by red-blooded American goalie Tim Howard.
“CONCACAF should be ashamed of themselves. I think it was a f—ing disgrace that the entire post-match ceremony was in Spanish. You can bet your arse that if we were in Mexico City, it wouldn’t be all in English,” Howard said.
This tirade was coupled with a general sense of unfairness around the location of the game. The final was played on America soil in Pasadena, California, but it was hardly a home-field advantage. The U.S. team was roundly booed by the overwhelmingly pro-Mexican crowd of 93,000.
L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who’s better at writing columns than screaming at you on “Around The Horn”, wrote about the phenomenon of U.S. residents not only rooting for Mexico, but jeering the Americans.
“We’re not booing the country, we’re booing the team,” one fan told Plaschke. “There’s a big difference.”
The fan is right, of course. In fact he’s right about the role of booing all sports.
Fans don’t boo to show their actual disdain for the individual athletes and the cities they represent. They boo to show their disdain for the “opponent”, the identity of which doesn’t really matter.
But things are different when your booing a national team as opposed to a professional team.
National team fandom reaches a level allegiance that pro teams cannot reach. We identify with pro sports teams out of tradition, but there’s nothing actually binding us to the players and the uniform.
With national teams, there are more ties between the team and the fans. In theory at least, every U.S. soccer fan is eligible to be on the team. National team fans aren’t just the people who buy tickets and merchandise, they are the people who the team on the field actually represents.
This is why the boos in the Rose Bowl were so off-putting for American fans. Because unlike our pro teams, the U.S. national team really does represent us and where we live.
At the same time, the distinctions between who is one of “us” and who is one of “them” are becoming more and more muddled.
Three U.S. players who appeared in Saturday’s final were born outside the United States. In
addition, the best American-born player in the world, Guiseppe Rossi, plays on the Italian national team.
Meanwhile, many of those booing probably live and work in America – and probably even consider themselves Americans.
This is why Tim Howard’s tirade is being written off as xenophobic nonsense.
Not to sound all Thomas Friedman-y, but who gets to decide what language ought to be used in an era where people and cultures are so interwoven? Using Spanish in the post-match ceremony wasn’t meant to make a point, it was simply a practical decision.
Nationalism will always be a part of international soccer. But as this Saturday shows, the parameters of nationalism are getting harder and harder to define.
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