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America, soccer, the better angels of our nature, and the demons that are rising

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The best and worst of the USA as the national teams take the stage

SOCCER: JUN 26 FIFA Women’s World Cup - Quarter-Final - China v USA Photo by Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

Today the US Women’s National Team will play the Netherlands and the Men will take on Mexico, each with a championship on the line. For the women it is a chance at destiny after a dominant tournament in which they have been the stars of the show. Along the way they’ve flipped the script on the pEopLe dOnT waTCh wOmenS sOcCer take and exposed the equal pay debate a giant sexist sham. The men are taking on their biggest rival as they try and build toward a good showing in the Men’s World Cup three years from now. Whatever happens today, America has a lot to be proud of in terms of its soccer teams.

Even when the results aren’t there, in the background are the things which make America great. A diverse group of Americans coming together as a collective to be the best at something rather than individuals pursuing their own self-interests is surely something we can take pride in. At its best soccer is a social game, not an individual one and the Americans are capable of playing that way. Watching both teams play is one thing on the list of what makes me proud to be an American. As the country slides ever more rapidly toward authoritarian white-nationalism, the things on that list are growing ever smaller.

In some ways, the teams represent the best parts of America to me. There’s the son of Haitian immigrants who loves representing his country and explodes with passion whenever he scores a goal.

Panama v United States: Group D - 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There’s the dual national who is realizing his dreams of representing his mother’s country and of course the talented youngster who is getting a chance to possibly become one of the biggest players in the world. At their best the USMNT aren’t favorites against the top teams in the world, but their self-belief can propel them to results in unexpected ways. After watching the team get eliminated by Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, someone said to me, “jugó con ganas” [they played with desire], and at their best, the desire is enough to occasionally shock the best teams in the sport and it’s a true joy to behold.

Then there’s the women going unrecognized, under-marketed and being underpaid despite being the best team in the world, much less their own country, and bringing more money to the sport for any American team. At their best, the WNT is capable of sparking the transcendent moments that are possible when soccer is played at the highest level - creativity, grit, art, determination, skill, and an unrelenting desire to win come together to create a sublime moment in which the fan and player melt into one and the result is an explosion of pure elation - a “feast for the eyes that watch it and a joy for the body that plays it” as Eduardo Galeano might have described the team.

La lucha sigue - three teams, two nations, one fate

Perhaps it’s fitting that the men are playing Mexico. Three years ago the teams faced each other in Columbus, Ohio to play a World Cup qualifier only days after Donald Trump was elected. That morning a newsletter from Andrew Helms of 8by8 Magazine hit my inbox that in part read, “Tonight, we will watch an incredibly diverse U.S. men’s national team, composed of players that could be the targets of racist violence on the streets of the United States right now. They will line up against a group of men representing a nation whose people have been the steady target of hate since Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign from the gilded lobby of Trump Tower in July 2015.” Honestly, I burst into tears when I read it. I had a weird feeling that Tuesday in the back of my mind that even if I didn’t expect it, Trump might win and declined an invitation to join my friends at an election watch party wanting to avoid what it meant if he did. The gravity of the election hadn’t hit me until that moment and that day I really didn’t have much interest in watching the game as I began reckoning with the election results.

To the extent that I did care, I wanted Mexico to win. That night I put on my Vanados jersey I bought when I was living in Mexico earlier in the year and went to a protest and marched against the nationalism, racism, sexism, and fraud of an election that put someone who 3 million people didn’t think should be president in power. The US lost and was eventually on a path that would see them fail to qualify for the World Cup under a manager who criticized playing dual-nationals in the past. To the extent that there was any measure of justice for the people in Mexico I had gotten to know there and for my friends in the States who would have to explain to their children how someone who called immigrants criminals and rapists could be elected president, I guess it felt like a small victory for them even if it was a meaningless one.

After the game the Mexican national team tweeted simply:

It’s an idea I still think about a lot and one that will be relevant again as the US takes on Mexico in Chicago in front of a crowd that will be overwhelmingly clad in the green of the most popular soccer team in the country, El Tri. No doubt, to many this represents “A Problem.” An American team playing in their own country against its neighbor with most of the fans supporting the other side - the symbolism is not hard to parse out and the discussion around who comes to games when the USA plays teams from Latin America has similar political undertones to discussions about the border and who belongs in America itself.

If Mexico and the US are inexorably linked in terms of politics, geography, history, economics, and soccer, it’s perhaps fitting that I watched the 5-2 victory against Japan at an Irish sports bar in Merida, Mexico and was overjoyed when the defensive dynamo from my hometown notched an assist in the win. However, the women also played the week of the election and beat Romania in a pair of friendlies as the team began rebuilding after a disappointing showing in the Olympics. During the election, some players, including Alex Morgan, expressed their support of Hillary Clinton and in the years since players have been more vocal in their opposition to President Trump.

While the game against Romania didn’t spark the same kind of domestic and international conversations that the USMNT does with their matches against Mexico, it was the kind of moment that reminded me that the world isn’t going to stop turning because of the election and that for better or worse the days and years would march on. Something that stuck out to me though weren’t the games, but rather the words of someone whose work inspires me and who I’m honored to write with here at SSFC, Stephanie Yang. After the matches, she went on The Mixxed Zone podcast and said something about the deeper meaning of the WNT: “Sports have a lot of symbolic value for a lot of us, the WNT has represented a goal that a lot of people aspire to and Sunil Gulati is right, that represents a lot. It means something to people and when I see a team that’s more diverse that reflects the community that I believe in, I think that has a simple power in that it just is - that’s the way the team is, they’re not making a statement with it, but I think that’s important to hold on to right now.”

In the years since the election, some WNT players have been more vocal about their opposition to the president. Last March, the team wore kits with the names of women they admire on the back including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Audre Lorde. Then of course there’s Megan Rapinoe who was the first white athlete to join black NFL players in their protest against police brutality, sending a powerful statement while clad in the red, white, and blue of the national team. She further asserted herself politically when she told 8by8, “I’m not going to the fucking White House” when asked if the team would make a trip to Washington if they won the tournament. You probably know the rest, but she’s thrived under the spotlight and is clearly not going to back down whatever right wing pundits think about her opinions. Neither is Ali Krieger for that matter.

In a twist of fate, the WNT are in France set to defend their World Cup title. On first blush the country seems dissimilar from the US in nearly every way, but the far right wing National Front political movement that started there 30 years ago, underpinned by Islamophobia and racism, helped spark the anti-immigrant fervor that traveled across the Atlantic and gave Trump rallies the vitriol and toxic nationalism that hasn’t been seen in the West since the 1930s and 40s. Despite this, both are nations with strong histories of immigration and have had challenges in navigating issues around the subject with fateful consequences.

While the US men and women will don the red, white, and blue kits, I’m proud to watch them and what they represent to me take the field - you better believe I’m damn proud of Mexico too. The patriotic fervor around the team and joy I get in supporting my country through them is juxtaposed by unnecessary deaths occurring in concentration camps being run on the US/Mexico border to house immigrants and asylum seekers as the general rise of the American police state and political repression of minorities marches on unabated as the past weaves its way back to the present once again. That along with a 4th of July military parade that was like something out of a military dictatorship hangs like a cloud over the games and country itself. It’s impossible to say what the future will bring, in politics and history anything can happen and the forces of randomness often push political and economic decisions and policies in unexpected directions. But I do know that at least a small part of me will be proud of our country today win or lose.