August 24, 2009

Pride and Prejudice: ‘Futbol’ Match Highlights One American’s Egotism

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I have heard, on occasion, that I can sometimes be, well, a few ticks to the left of acquiescent. I admit, I can be rather insistent during debates — always friendly discussions, of course — and I should say that my sophomore year I was given the distinctly dubious title of Queen Bellige (as in belligerent). I prefer, however, to think of myself as passionate, rather than hotheaded and tenacious, instead of obstinate. It’s all just semantics in the end, right? Just don’t ask my mother.
This spirited desire to defend various ideals has, predictably, spilled over considerably into my existence as a sports fan. It’s not like it’s my fault, really; everywhere I look people are constantly baiting me: obnoxious, holier-than-thou Yankees fans, obnoxious, holier-than-thou Lakers, and of course my favorites, New York Giants hooligans, who typically just make me want to vomit. Belligerent indeed.
Recently, however, a new rivalry was brought to my attention that really got the good old adrenaline pumping again: the United States versus Mexico — in soccer. Think of the following paragraphs as a mini-lesson on regional sociology, as I attempt to explore the sometimes dramatic results that occur when sport, pride and prejudice overlap.
To preface this, I think it’s relevant to point out that there are not that many Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, or in general students of Mexican origin at Cornell, so this column may be doubly difficult to relate to as it a) involves a sport that consistently is pushed to the bottom of the spectator rankings pile, and b) involves a demographic that, to put it mildly, does not spend much time in the spotlight in this community. Here on the Hill there are students who hail from all manner of Spanish-speaking countries but only a small fraction of these are from our southernmost neighbor. In my hometown of Sacramento, Calif., the polar opposite is true. According to the latest US Census reports, 36 percent of the population of California identifies as Latino, the majority of whom originated from Mexico.
Yet even in California, with its heavily Chicano workforce and classrooms, there still isn’t much “official” attention paid to the actual nation of Mexico. We’ll go over to Cancun, of course, and once in a while our President will pay lip service to their presidente, but come on, right? No one’s fooled. The big, bold United States of America doesn’t have much time for its rebellious little North American cousin. Americans like the idealized image and the cheap products, but we want your physical contact to be limited to a post card image or snapshot. What we don’t want to admit is that despite the billions we pour into border security, the people we try so desperately keep out continue coming into this country anyway, and with them they bring the rich cultural traditions of their own heritage.
But as a seventh-grade English teacher working with Breakthrough Collaborative in Sacramento this summer, issues of demographics and politics were always prevalent. My colleagues and I served a specific population, providing tuition-free core academic classes to a select group of bright students from seriously under-resourced (the politically correct term du jour) schools. These students came from a variety of backgrounds, but the majority were Hispanic, and of these most had some type of familial tie with Mexico.
And now we get to the soccer part of this story.
Soccer, or futbol, may not have been a core academic class at Breakthrough Sacramento (BSAC), but that did not stop the students, and more than a few teachers, from filling their days with the it; lunchtimes were almost exclusively monopolized by raggedy pick-up games on the back field.
The sport’s dominance did not stop on the playing fields either. One of my students, a bright, self-confident girl name Lizbeth always made sure to sneak a soccer reference into her work in English class, whether it be by instigating a lively discussion about inter-league rivals (when we were supposed to be discussing themes from Shakespeare) or devoting her poetic assignments to expressions of devotion for her favorite past time.
I was more than happy to play along, eager to impress my students with my knowledge of their favorite game, or with a few trick moves on the field. After all, I’ve been playing soccer for the past 10 years. I might sunburn at the drop of a hat, but soccer is my favorite sport too — and I’m not afraid to say that fact out loud. I think the game is fast-paced and thrilling. I am even able, usually, to overlook its players’ infuriating habit of flopping in faux anguish all over the field like so many dying salmon.
However, despite my deep-rooted love for the sport, I must admit that when the climactic event transpired this July, I didn’t even know it had happened. I may adore the game, but that doesn’t mean I watch it very often, as the obscure channels soccer diet are light years from my family’s cable package.
And so, on that fateful morning, I was blissfully unaware as my students began arriving, many of them decked out in the cheerful green, white and red of the Mexican flag. What with lesson plans to print out, coffee to brew and about a thousand other things crammed into my overworked, amateur teacher’s brain, I quickly moved on.
It wasn’t until students began chanting “Mexico, Mexico” on their way to and from classes that I really began to take notice. Unsurprisingly, it was Lizbeth who ultimately filled me in. The conversation began with a look of mischievous sorrow.
“Miss Meredith, I’m so sorry.”
“You’re sorry about what, Liz? Did you forget our homework?”
“Oh, no, I’m just sorry you lost.”
“Lost what, exactly, Liz?”
The game, Liz gleefully replied. Mexico had indeed defeated the United States in the finals of the Concaf Gold Cup the night before, winning by a rather humiliating (for soccer) margin of 5-0. I mean, it wasn’t even a good match. Mexico’s stars such as Giovani Dos Santos and Carlos Alberto Vela Garrido (who both scored during the embarrassingly lopsided second half) ran circles around their northern counterparts. The Americans couldn’t even score once. Ouch.
Given that I had not even known about the match ahead of time, my response could be judged as slightly reactionary. I was furious. How could we lose like that? How could we lose like that, to Mexico?! When BSAC’s young program director — decked out in her very own Mexico jersey — got up and gleefully announced the final score at our daily assembly, I had had just about enough. As the shouting hordes charged from the auditorium, flags flying, I snapped back, “What country do you live in, anyway?”
Part of me I suppose was offended by the sight of the next generation rooting passionately against the home team. That, I thought, is simply not done. America actually has a pretty good team. In fact, our team is ranked above Mexico’s team, a point that I repeated loudly throughout the day to no avail. I was a lone voice shouting into the brassy blare of a dozen Mariachi bands.
Desperate to restore a bit of dignity to the home team, I shamelessly took my frustrations out on my boss. Twenty-four, tireless and with a sarcasm that could (almost) match mine, Marianne was the perfect target. And so, the next day I, shall we say, “redecorated” her car. To put it plainly, by the time I was done with it, Marianne’s Camry could have been the showcase of any Fourth of July parade, complete with streamers, flags, glitter, and 40 assorted red, white and blue balloons that I had managed to blow up before work and sneak into her backseat. It was a masterpiece.
Ah, the ignorance of my American pride. Despite my liberal background and supposedly progressive ideology, here I was, moved to patriotic fervor by a defeat most of my peers did not even know about, in a sport that my country still considered too wimpy, too boring and too, well, un-American for primetime. We like our sports the same way we like our steaks — thick, manly, and with a little bit of blood.
In fact, we should be glad to even have our foot in the door, as far as international soccer is concerned. It was not that long ago that the US team was the whipping boy of FIFA, the amateur of amateurs in an era when greats such as Brazilian superstar Pele stalked the sidelines.
Across the world, sports have always held a special place in the global culture. Like music, sports and sporting events have the power to transcend national boundaries, bureaucracy and petty international disputes. They can become powerful messages of hope and tolerance—as when Jessie Owens proved to Hitler during the 1936 Olympic Games that all the Aryan sprinters in the world were no match for his grace and breathtaking speed, or when the Iraqi soccer team, a team that for years had been forced to compete under the thumb of one of the world’s most brutal tyrants, qualified for the 2004 Olympic Games for the first time since 1988, following the toppling of their country’s dictatorship.
Americans especially crave competition. We have woven it into the very fabric of our society. We take the idea of winners and losers very seriously and situations very quickly can escalate into a “you” versus “us” mentality. However, when athletic competition becomes an excuse for nationalism, no matter the scale, there develops a very serious problem.
Undoubtedly, the pure jubilation of the victors, my students, had a lot to do with my own reaction to the American team’s loss. And while I may not follow them religiously, I do consider myself a serious supporter of the USA soccer teams (note: the women play too, and they are damn good!)
But in the interest of putting some of my job’s excruciating hours of diversity training to work, I dug deeper. I appreciate sporting rivalries as much as the person, quite possibly more, actually. The process of self-discovery takes many forms. Was my reaction, I asked, a simple display of juvenile hijinks brought on by an exaggerated competitive streak? Or was it something more: the physical expression of a systematic egotism and inherently dominating worldview that consistently shunts countries like Mexico to the side of or national consciousness. We belittle the sport they love, but are outraged when we lose to them. Now what kind of ridiculous, backwards logic is that?