Sports and Nationalism
May 3, 2006
The global scope of soccer has fascinated me since my teenage years, but not until the World Cup came to America in 1994 did I truly realize the power wielded by this game of rhythm and regimen. The world can't seem to agree on much, but every four years nations gather to crown a champion, and for some of them, a soccer match is their only tangible connection.
On the third day of the tournament, a Sunday, I flew to Los Angeles from Detroit, where I'd watched the USA open its play in the tournament by tying Switzerland, 1-1. The day before, I'd been in Chicago to witness the opening game of the tournament, a match between Germany and Bolivia, two countries separated by much more than the Atlantic Ocean. On this day, Germany one of the top soccer countries and a three-time world champion barely beat little Bolivia, which had lost its only previous World Cup game 8-0, in 1950.
Somewhere in my subconscious simmered this strange pairing of a powerful, European industrial giant and a tiny South American nation of jungle and mountains. My plane landed at Los Angeles International Airport and in a rental car I drove north to attend my third game in three days, between Cameroon and Sweden at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. On the field, black Africans and blond Europeans spoke and moved in their own dimensions as their worlds touched. In no way, save their endeavor to control the ball and their foes, were they alike. All was stark contrast: faces, gestures, physiques, gaits, expressions.
I turned to a colleague, John Jeansonne, a writer for Newsday sufficiently sensitive to contemplate the socio-cultural implications of sweaty men from different continents kicking each other, and asked him, "John, think about this: What do these countries have in common except what they're doing right now?"
He thought a second. "Nothing."
Yet on the field for Sweden that day was Martin Dahlin, a player of mixed race, the son of a Swedish woman and a black Venezuelan musician. How to classify him?
When we see international sport just as sport, as competition bounded by rules and playing fields, referees and clocks, we can forget the inherent dichotomies of peoples jostling and elbowing as they swoop around the turn of a speed-skating track, or smash tennis balls at each other or embrace in exhaustion.
How extensively a nation steeps its identity in sport depends on the nation, and of course, the sport. Some stars are national heroes, and ultimate victory sparks remarkable reactions. Defeat, too, has its price.
During the 1998 World Cup in France, a multi-ethnic squad drawn from immigrant pockets as well as centuries of Gallic bloodlines shattered shells of xenophobia and prejudice simply by winning a few soccer matches. Led by players like Zinedine Zidane, who grew up the son of Algerian immigrants in the slums of Marseille, and Lillian Thuram, one of many who traced their ancestry to Africa, France toppled one team after another and, propelled by a surge of popular support in a land more fond of cycling and rugby, won the World Cup for the first time. Briefly overlooked were the Jean Marie LePen's radical right-wing rants of perceived purity, which had found not only listeners, but avid followers of his Front National. The multi-racial makeup of France's 1998 World Cup champions prompted extensive self-examination of what it means to be French. Yet once the afterglow of triumph faded, the country slowly slid back into factionalism. Last fall, immigrants angered by repression and hopelessness rioted in numerous cities.
Delirious Italians frolicked in the fountains of Rome and other cities after their soccer players won the 1982 World Cup; elimination by North Korea in the 1966 tournament prompted hundreds of fans to greet the team upon its arrival with rotten eggs and tomatoes.
During the 2002 World Cup, city centers throughout South Korea were thronged by crowds in the hundreds of thousands watching their players on huge public TV screens. A nation striving to claim its stake in the escalating economic force that is Asia poured its fervor into a courageous, determined soccer team.
Masses of Czechs poured into the streets of Prague to celebrate a gold medal won by their men's ice hockey team in the 1998 Winter Olympics, so this nationalistic zeal isn't unique to soccer.
But in America, it's unknown. Oh sure, Chicago went nuts when the Bulls won their NBA titles, and I won't soon forget the delirious, tearful scenes in Boston after the Red Sox ended decades of futility by winning the World Series in 2004, but coast-to-coast clamors over a sports result just don't happen.
Maybe we're better off this way. Otherwise, how could our collective psyche cope with our maligned southern neighbor, Mexico, eliminating us at our national pastime, baseball, not only in the 2004 Olympic qualifying tournament but in the recent World Baseball Classic? Immigration issues are sticky enough.
As the 2006 World Cup unfolds, I will examine questions of national identity viewed through a prism of America and its soccer players. Each of the three nations the U.S. will face in the first round Italy, Czech Republic and Ghana have a insightful perspective to this issue, as does the host nation, Germany, which has found unification to be drastically divisive. Also to be examined is the strange, unique symbiosis between the American and Mexican soccer cultures, which intermix on and off the field.