Context for Columbus: USMNT vs Mexico

There is an expectation in polite American society that political matters are not to be mixed with religion, dinner, fun among friends, an etiquette.  Politics is dirty business but supposedly necessary, so there may be pandering, campaigning, fact bending, but that type of gamesmanship is thought to live in its own realm.  We practice the façade of stuffing political feelings in a box to keep from poisoning other aspects of our lives. Agree to disagree. It’s just politics, as they say.

Never has the attempt to compartmentalize been so misguided and farcical.  It’s not just politics. It’s real life. The American electorate has launched into power a man that campaigned on divisiveness, fear, disdain and a general apathy for the laws of the nation he will now lead. The effects for so many across the nation are palpable. Parents trying to convince themselves as they comfort their children that everything will be okay. Immigrants and their families fearing for their place in this hypocritical nation of immigrants. Women of all ages being given a dramatic powerful example of the lasting strength and pervasiveness of misogyny and sexism in this country.  It’s never been just politics. This week has made that clearer than ever.

Against this surreal backdrop, the Mexican national team visits Columbus, Ohio to play the United States Men’s National team in the first match of the final round of World Cup Qualifying on Friday. Like most meetings of international soccer teams, overt nationalism will be at the forefront.

US Soccer places this match in the small confines of MAPFRE stadium with clear intent. This Ohio stadium with limited capacity and hefty allocation to US supporters’ groups ensures that the seats will be filled with a group that will largely reflect the slogan of US Soccer – One Nation, One Team. Quite unlike every other of their appearances in the United States, the most popular football team in the nation will have little representation in the stands.

But, pride in one’s nation and people is a respectable quality, even in these toughest of times. Patriotic feelings naturally enter the sporting equation when national teams play. Supporting the team of your heritage, residence, or even one for which you possess a general affinity makes international soccer one of the sports that so many hold close to their heart. In the idyllic sense, players aren’t on the field for themselves, a paycheck, or a badge, but they are representing a nation, a culture, and a people. Even the style of a player is often tied to his cultural identity.  It would be hard to overstate the emotional investment that can be involved, making matches memorable and historic for fans and players.

Yet hyper-nationalistic tendencies are not far removed from the realm of national superiority.  The cross-over from wanting your national team to succeed on one end of the spectrum, to cheering for the unconnected failure of competitors happens with regularity.  We call it rivalry. It’s acceptable to outwardly display disdain for another national team that clearly represents much more than a game to those involved.  It’s just sports, as they say.

Many Mexican-Americans, both the soccer fan and otherwise, support El Tri for what they represent. When Mexico plays, it’s a chance to celebrate a culture and heritage.  Granted, I’m an observer without firsthand understanding, but I see it as a fan, immersed in the game. This team means more than the sport to so many.

When asked about the results of the presidential election, US goalkeeper Tim Howard responded with a somewhat evasive response: "It’s politics [sic] and this is football. Mexico is going to try to kick our asses and we’re going to try and kick theirs. It’s got nothing to do with politics." It’s not a particularly surprising comment.  Perhaps his publicist gave him a wink and a high five for dodging.  It created nothing to warrant headlines. For Howard, and for surely others on the pitch, this match is just about the sport. Professional athletes often tuck things outside of the playing lines away to better focus on the job at hand. It’s expected, especially for someone who couldn’t be bothered to vote in this election.

There no denying the greater meaning of this match for so many directly impacted by the election this week.  The United States of America has empowered someone who referred to people from Mexico as killers and rapists while baiting voters with a ridiculously impossible but symbolically looming border wall. These shocking statements along with countless other horrid sentiments and actions didn’t sway voters away from his candidacy and selection. It doesn’t take any great stretch to see the clear statement sent to this particular part of our nation.  

Those supporters donning green that were lucky enough to get a ticket for this US-Mexico match will be met with a familiar scene for this venue. They will be part of an unwelcome minority supporting an unwelcome team, representing an unwelcome people. The election result and the choices of individuals behind it guarantees that this will be emblematic of much more than sport.  There is no possibility of a game without context. Then again, it’s never been just football. This week has made that clearer than ever.




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