Fútbol América:
Hemispheric Sport as Border Studies

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2006, Volume 5, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2006/faflik.htm



David Faflik
Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey

In an age of mass communications, mass marketing, and what an Englishman might describe as the “massive” surge in worldwide interest in “his” nation’s game (Hornby 21-24), it is not just football (a.k.a., soccer) that has gone global. Our combined conception of the nation-state and hence national identity have followed suit, as developments within the academy over the last decade would confirm. During that time, interdisciplinary humanities and social science scholarship in and of the United States proper has experienced a decisive shift away from self-contained study of “America” toward what scholar John Carlos Rowe terms a “New American Studies.” In this “new” view, geopolitical borders generally – but those of the United States in particular – have been translated into permeable “contact zones” where two-way exchange between proximal native and non-native cultures has achieved the kind of normative status to which fans of the most international of games long since have adapted (Rowe 51-64).

My claim is that the two trends – world football’s global growth, and Americans’ deepening cross-cultural awareness – are mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, the New American Studies’ ascendance has been synchronous with football at last finding a U.S. niche. On the other hand, the close overlap between them suggests a relational co-dependence that warrants our attention. I do not wish in what follows simply to repeat that soccer has come to the United States to stay. Instead, I seek to bring to current discussions of American Studies as a field, America as a post-national nation, and popular culture as manifested through sport what Brazilians call the jogo bonito. Evidence suggests that “the beautiful game” has impacted the United States’ sense of itself in relation to its neighbors – intensifying, if not initiating, the very border-crossing mentality that now defines American cultural studies. Football, in other words, not only has arrived on these shores; it has redrawn America’s boundaries and so reconfigured the regional meaning of “border."

***

Notwithstanding the claims of football’s global reach, commentary on its popularity in the West has been sporadic. To cite but several examples of the sport’s hemispheric acceptance, consider that the U.S. national squad now has qualified for four consecutive World Cups, football’s quadrennial showcase tournament; that “Soccer Moms” have altered the country’s demographic landscape; and that Major League Soccer (MLS), the nation’s top-flight league for professionals, celebrated in 2005 its tenth anniversary with the addition of two expansion franchises. The foreign import once called soccer today resides somewhere not far from Main Street, and close to the U.S. mainstream.

In the midst of this rezoning, players and spectators on and off the pitch have confirmed in the arena of sport that aforementioned “New American” paradigm that today permeates university campuses as much as it does contemporary media coverage of football. We might begin at the level of language to test this assertion, with the following observation: even as an increasingly common phrase like “the Americas” has begun to collapse the semantic distinction between the North, South, and Central components of the shared longitudinal land mass that is “America,” football north of the Rio Grande, and south of Canada’s Hudson Bay, has become fútbol among savvy regional (and regionally savvy) enthusiasts. Thus, we now find little hint of irony when non-Latinos roll the Latinate expression for football off their tongues; rather, with one loaded vocal gesture, fútbol speakers pay what seems to be genuine, if perhaps unwitting, homage to the fervor and flair with which Latin Americans historically have celebrated the game during the last century. Witness the gleefully trilled r’s that broadcasters in Fox Sports’ Toronto office indulge in newscast coverage of Argentina’s two-legged apertura (opening) and clausura (closing) football seasons as but one instance of this phenomenon. As our geographic senses have shifted, so, too, has the linguistic register with which we articulate the collective cultural expression that is soccer.

More important is the cognate translation whereby “America” subtly has become the Spanish-inflected América in close correspondence with football’s growing U.S. popularity – a result, I want to suggest, not only of the sport’s having bridged what once seemed an insurmountable, transatlantic football gap with Europe, but also of its having achieved of late such widespread favor either side of the equator. For, if the enhanced currency of an expression like fútbol reveals a growing cosmopolitan appreciation for the game, then the phrase fútbol América only highlights through verbal juxtaposition what today exists as geopolitical, economic, and cultural fact: porous U.S. borders, hemispheric free trade, and Spanish-speaking Republicans all metonymically suggest a cross-continental consciousness whereby the West figures less as an organization of “American” states and more as an array of borders that constitute consummate “contact zones” as posited by adherents to the “new” American Studies. What one scholar calls “tomorrow’s transnational megaregion” has dawned in the form of fútbol (Hise 547).

This is more than a question of metaphor. What’s at stake in this state of affairs is the autonomy, which is to say the integrity, of nation-statehood. When sport directs fans’ attention outside their respective national spheres – when U.S. and Canadian fans can manifest multi-lingually their emotional investment in a game whose heritage and appeal owe so large a debt to Latin America (Houston 333-63; Moctezuma 88-95) – then “contact’” across the “zone” of the Americas has moved well beyond hypothesis. From the vantage of where we stand in the West, fútbol América already has begun to erode national (and nationalist) distinctions which otherwise might inhibit meaningful American multiculturalism. No doubt fierce football rivalries continue to serve as reminders of the differences and divides that persist between separate states (Elias 23), and in this respect must qualify talk of some seamless, aggregate entity – América – as if it were or ever could be a fully realized absolute. But once U.S. society has effected through soccer what U.S. diplomacy has hardly ventured – which is to say, a sense among civilians that the United States is but a part of a greater American whole – then surely a new plateau has been reached in society and sport alike.

***

We might describe the view from these heights as follows. The place is Frisco, Texas, about a day’s drive from the U.S.-Mexico border. The time is mid-afternoon on a sunny Sunday, the thirteenth day of November 2005. Gathered together at Major League Soccer’s newest field, the soccer-specific Pizza Hut Park of suburban Dallas, are two sides squaring off in the league’s annual winner-take-all championship final. On the surface, it is a match not like any other, save for an impressive attendance of over 21,000. Beneath that surface, the 2005 MLS Cup Final is an Américan moment that reveals those “contact zones” which cross-culturally connect the western hemisphere.

Figure 1


We only need consider the two teams involved for a glimpse of zonal American “contact” in action. The first is the New England Revolution, based in that cradle of the U.S. nation known as Massachusetts: the “New England” of their name, mixed with the red, white, and blue color scheme of their official kits (see figure 1), creates a parochial feel perhaps ill-suited for the global game; the “Revolution” to which their name refers, however, is by contrast explosively expansive, recalling as it does a “shot” heard not only “‘round the world” but that was heeded, hemispherically, by neighboring freedom-fighters engaged in Latin America’s nineteenth-century colonial independence movements. Facing New England’s Revolution are the Los Angeles Galaxy: the name this time defies any hint of the microcosmic, connoting instead a self-titled self-importance perhaps justified by the club’s past success. Theirs is an aggressive team spirit that, if wrapped in their opponents’ stars and stripes, might be interpreted as a kind of cultural imperialism. The organic, earth-tone green and yellow of their jerseys nevertheless soften the Galaxy’s Big Bang threat (see figure 2), without quite alleviating the mean egotism of their “galactic” posture; these team colors suggest indigenous contentment as much as they wave flags of conquest.

Figure 2


Quiet containment, volatile combustibility: such is the paradox that characterizes not only each side’s stance heading into this contest, but that informs the essence of competitive sport as well as a “new” America heralded by this single game. Both teams expect to win; and, although their meeting yields a closely fought affair, players from each camp display behavior that remains within bounds established by an agreed-upon set of rules. By the same token, a similarly tense, yet seldom wholly consensual, co-existence has proved to be the distinguishing feature of the América that this match figures. America, that is to say, might be transnationally whole in the New Americanist scheme of things. The América that emerges in the 2005 MLS championship, however, and in the daily transactions that comprise life in the hemispheric West, involves a constant process of cross-cultural compromise that makes the oxymoronic reluctant belligerence of the Revolution and Galaxy seem tame by comparison. At once disarmingly passive and anxiously unsettled, our athletes, no less than an América that by nature remains under continual zonal contestation, enact all the determined pushing, shoving, and, in this case, kicking that go into any competitive match. But whereas Major League Soccer on this occasion, and many more besides, has reproduced a kind of borderline balancing act appropriate to the “fair play” sanctioned on global sport’s touchline, it has replicated at the same time the complex socio-cultural process that is “contact.” The rules of the former do not apply to the latter, and outcomes in the one are seldom as predictable as they are in the other. Indeed, since “contact” precludes closure, América as such may remain in a perpetual state of becoming.

***

Our team rosters, meanwhile, have achieved a multi-ethnicity fitting for a global game, and so underscore the hemispheric implications of border crossing (Halpin). The starting squads for each of the League’s 2005 Cup finalists provide a glimpse of the eventual “winners” and “losers” in a fast-diversifying region. Of New England’s starting eleven, only the name Daniel Hernandez suggests something other than northeastern Anglo-centrism. Surnames like Parkhurst, Dempsey, and Twellmann better represent the side that eventually goes down to defeat. Los Angeles, for its part, and in keeping with its accepted designation as the “Border City” (Hise 547), by contrast has assembled a team with strong ties to latitudes south. At the sound of the starting whistle, the Galaxy’s lineup includes the Brazilian-born Paulo Nagamura, in addition to U.S.-born players of Latin American descent like Pasadena’s Peter Vagenas and L.A.’s own star striker Herculez Gomez. Then there is the substitute’s bench. Coming on as an eleventh-minute replacement is another native Brazilian, Ednaldo da Conceicao, while Guatemalan midfielder Guillermo “Pando” Ramirez makes his fateful entry just past the hour mark. It is Ramirez’s right-footed shot in the seventeenth-minute of extra time that breaks a goalless stalemate, clinching the win for Los Angeles. No “shot heard ‘round the world,” Pando’s breakthrough did remind ABC Sport’s television audience of the obvious: despite being based in the United States, Major League Soccer derives much of its quality, and not a few of its charms, from a Caribo-American network of players, coaches, and staff. The fact that the Galaxy did not even field substitutes Pablo Chinchilla (Costa Rica) and Marcelo Saragosa (Brazil) in the Cup Final speaks volumes as to the ethnic depth at Los Angeles’ disposal. That the League claims fully half its fan base as Latino is but emblematic of the inter-American context within which MLS, like its American Studies cousin, increasingly functions.

And yet Major League Soccer has instituted such tight controls over players’ place of origin as to risk opposing contact in practice. Of the twenty-eight players allowed teams under MLS regulations for game day selection, only four can be senior internationals, whom the league classifies as “non-domestic” (The Official Site). In order to qualify as “domestic,” a player must be a U.S. citizen, hold a green card as a permanent resident, or else have been granted refugee or asylum status by the federal government. Los Angeles’ Galaxy demonstrated relative restraint when it fielded but three internationals on the day of its Cup victory. The question is whether the League will maintain a similar sense of proportion. If stretched to their conservative limits, current MLS guidelines on player profiles could result in an excessive ethnic vigilance whereby “Pando” Ramirez’s match-winning exploits come to mean less than the fine print on his passport. If casually relaxed, they could replicate on team rosters a kind of unmonitored migratory traffic. Neither prospect seems likely, or desirable. More significant is how one sport’s attempts at measuring “Americanness” alter the complexion of transnationalism.

Parallel developments across the Atlantic suggest a precedent. In its 1996 Bosman ruling, the European Court of Justice overturned a quota system that until then had prevented European clubs from at once fielding more than three foreign and two foreign “assimilated” players. Post-Bosman, clubs may field as many foreign players from other European Union states as they wish, although restrictions on the number of players from outside the E.U. remain. U.S. support for comparable restrictions in the States has earned it good standing with the sport’s Zurich-based world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, or FIFA. A certain irony attends compliance, however. Whereas Bosman empowers teams from Europe’s Union to draw without limit from a pool of continental and British talent, and thereby capitalize on a nascent European-wide identity, quasi-Bosman MLS rules ensure that U.S. club teams drink but sparingly from their own regional wellspring of footballers. América as New Americanists understand the term simply has not been written into Major League Soccer’s bylaws. The end result is this: L.A.’s Galaxy, or even an ethnically challenged Revolution, must bypass players from neighboring nation-states, since they count locally as “foreign” in a way that unionized Europeans do not among their member nations. MLS endures despite thus being penalized. But it seems that insular notions of country here lag behind progressive conceptions of culture.

Recognizing its dilemma, MLS has discovered a way to turn multicultural without compromising its policies. Quite simply, Major League Soccer has crossed the border. Of the two expansion franchises to appear in the League for the 2005 season, neither Los Angeles’ Club Deportivo Chivas USA nor Real Salt Lake has enjoyed score-sheet success. At the same time, Chivas – or “Goats,” as the name translates from Spanish – typifies the ethnic direction in which MLS now is headed. With an official logo that reads “Adiós Soccer. El Fútbol Está Aquí" (“Good-bye Soccer. Football is Here.”), Chivas has emerged as L.A.’s “other” team in more ways than one. Although restricted like all MLS sides to only four internationals, Chivas embraces a Mexican American identity suitable to its Los Angeles origins (Sánchez 13); likewise, its overt ethnic politics announces the arrival of an Américan culture in the West whose Latin influence extends beyond football. If, as filmmaker Tim O’Mahoney states, the league “wasn’t thinking through the ethnic question early on” (qtd. in Davis 10), it is now.

Aficionados will recognize the “Goats” as the legendary Guadalajara side from Mexico’s Primera Liga, or First Division. Chivas’ being La Liga’s best-supported team stems in part from its principled policy of fielding only Mexican nationals – a rarity in an age of global sport, and at a time when domestic competitors have not hesitated to sign athletes from Central and South America. Such are Chivas’ native claims that Mexico City-based sports columnist Ricardo Castillo Mireles deems them Mexico’s “second national team.” “There is,” he adds, “nothing more Mexican than Chivas” (Davis 11).

But there is Chivas USA, which has redefined MLS much as football is realigning the Americas. Owned, like its parent team, by Mexican millionaire Jorge Vergara, Chivas USA is no less a cultural landmark for its being a clever financial venture. Vergara was well aware of MLS in 2002, when he assumed control of the Chivas original. But he thought league efforts to date at generating interest among Mexican fútbol fans ineffective. More important, he felt that U.S. soccer as expressed through MLS lacked Latin American football’s visceral appeal. Invoking Chivas’ famed red-and-white-striped jerseys – which feature enough blue trim to symbolically recall Mexico’s official designation, Estados Unidos Mexicanos, or “United States of Mexico” (see figure 3) – Vergara states, “They [MLS] needed the shirt – the colors, the tradition, the passion” (Davis 11; Stevenson A11). So for its inaugural campaign of 2005, Chivas USA received the first of the football assets stipulated by Vergara: the Guadalajara club donated both its “colors” and team logo to the cause. Also forthcoming was veteran midfielder Ramón Ramírez, a former star player at Chivas Guadalajara and a mainstay for the Mexican national side over the previous decade. In fact, alongside Ramírez and several other first-choice Mexican nationals, Chivas USA has assembled a squad whose roster reads as the ethnic reverse of New England’s, and the epitome of what the Galaxy’s could become. Hispanic names of California locals predominate, with even the Anglophonic Martins (Brazil) and Hendrickson (St. Vincent, Caribbean) lending a promiscuous subtext. To appreciate Chivas’ feat of expansion is to comprehend an América “united” not only through sport with Mexico, but that finds itself leagued by a global game whose hemispheric status as a lingua franca revises the very idea of region.

Figure 3

Chivas USA has its detractors. Vergara’s Mexicans-only hiring policy across the border – and a mostly Mexican approach to manning his MLS side – strikes many as an ideological (and tautological) assertion of Mexico’s independence. Vergara, for his part, has courted controversy. Indeed, Chivas USA President Ivas Sisniega proudly announces that his owner’s overriding concern is to counter the perception up north that Mexicans are “second-rate citizens” (Davis 11). And Vergara himself has disrupted league and locals alike by casting L.A. rivals the Galaxy as the ethnic “whites” they are not. Vergara describes the situation this way: “It’s the Latins versus the Gringos. And we’re going to win” (Davis 29). Given the Galaxy’s sizeable Latino contingent, team general manager Doug Hamilton resents Vergara’s “gringo” charge (Martinez B13). At the same time, a growing chorus of MLS spectators has greeted Vergara’s public relations gambit with a reciprocal charge. Chivas USA’s heavily Mexican roster has prompted heated online chat room discussion of the “Mexicanization of MLS” (Connolly).

Students of American popular cultural studies might question whether Chivas USA’s ethnic exclusiveness is at odds with the catholicity that is “contact.” Some take the view that “loyalty to soccer” in general can be a way for “immigrants” to “resist assimilation into American culture” (Davis 10). Such an opinion rests upon a threefold assumption. One is sociological: that ethnicity is synonymous with difference. The second pertains to soccer, and inheres in the belief that, as J. MacClancey summarizes, sports function as “vehicles of identity” which “provide people with a sense of…classifying themselves, and others,…latitudinally and hierarchically.” Assumption three returns us to our starting point, the cultural geography of the Americas. The “American culture” rejected by both the immigrant resistance theorists and Vergara’s ethnic rhetoric is no less real for its being based in a subjective response of opposition. Yet it functions oppositionally at all – “latitudinally” and “hierarchically,” in MacClancey’s formulation – because of a lingering resistance to understanding the Américas on longitudinal terms. As MacClancey again suggests, ethnicity and sport might reduce to difference in theory, but they need not work that way in practice (MacClancey 1-20). What I have styled Fútbol América is today a testing ground for Americans across the hemispheric West to engender a shared sense of culture. Under the right conditions, Chivas could bring Américans together, rather than keep a minority of MLS supporters apart.

***

Such conditions are in place now, and already have forged through football an inter-regional identity whose common denominator is América. We must look no further than Mexico City for an illustration of the contemporary western nation-state’s having succumbed to sport. There, under the auspices of La Liga’s elite Club América, fútbol has demonstrated such practical disregard for self-contained statehood as to turn cross-cultural contact into a rule of the game.

One nominal “Club” has re-discovered, or simply reasserted, in its Américan modifier the hemispheric sensibility that underwrites a comparative approach to popular culture. Club América is, to begin, cosmopolitan in a way that arch-rival Deportivo Chivas is not; La Liga’s wealthiest team spurns the Guadalajarans’ pro-Mexico policy, spending freely to obtain its allowance of international standouts. It also plays home matches at a venue conspicuous and capacious enough for an entire continent, maybe two: resting at an elevation of 7300-feet above sea level. América’s Estadio Azteca lends the side a bird’s-eye view of a holistic West; seating 105,000, Azteca truly suits an unabashedly ambitious club that plies its trade in the world’s largest city.

But it is the telling iconography of the team’s logo and mascot that best suggests the ramifications of fútbol América for New Americanists. The former presents us with a familiar image of North, South, and Central America, drawn in a color we might call continental blue. Paneled quadrants, meanwhile, again in blue, appear against a gold backdrop, reminiscent at once of the stitching on a football and the contours of a globe. A capital red “C A,” for Club América, flanks the territorial center, and announces in the club’s crest an unmistakably hemispheric agenda. América visually appears to spread outward in concentric circles from its Mexican epicenter. The message is simple, if unsettling: Club success spells inexorable Américanization for all lands within contiguous footballing distance of the side’s home turf. All America must and will be one in its Américanness. No less provocative is the team animal mascot. The imagery for football’s reworking the meaning of region takes corporeal form in the cartoonish figure of Las Águilas, or “The Eagles.” Club América makes non-nationalist use of a U.S. icon when it invites fans everywhere to join the team’s climb to heights worthy of Azteca. The club website even grants its brown-feathered Águilita, or “Little Eagle,” powers of speech, which he employs with border-collapsing effect: “Escribe aquí tu correo electrónico,” he says, “y recibirás información exclusiva de tu equipo favorito. Sí eres Águila de corazón, intégrate a la comunidad americanista” (Club América, Sitio Oficial). Translation: “Enter your email address here and receive information exclusive to your favorite team. If you are an eagle at heart, join the Americanist community.” Team “information” might be “exclusive.” In contradistinction with Chivas USA, however, Club América has made an inclusiveness exclusive to the Américas its aim by turning region itself into an occasion for “community.” Far more bold than bald is this eagle.

***

Fútbol América entails more than one club. The list of instances of its inter-hemispheric impact is as evocative as it is long. At the club level, professional leagues in both Brazil and Colombia feature a club América of their own, while Mexico’s América is considering an MLS expansion franchise in Houston similar to Chivas’ in L.A. Consider, too, that the prestigious Libertadores Cup – an annual tournament featuring the top professional teams from South America – in recent years has allowed non-continental Mexican sides to compete. Libertadores itself, or “Liberators,” refers to the leaders of Latin American revolutions who secured independence from Spain. It seems of no little interest, then, that talks continue over whether to include MLS teams in the tournament as well: we face the intriguing prospect of watching a side like New England’s Revolution square off against Latin teams that precede them in football provenance, follow them (chronologically, at least) in politics, and share with them a common cultural geography.

International football at the regional level has followed a like trajectory. Notwithstanding sport’s potential for sustaining a belief in fundamental cultural “difference” (Crolley and Hand 157-58), football as a cultural practice can serve an alternate purpose. It can build and sustain community where there was none before, or else strengthen what might have been tenuous at best (MacClancey 9). To take a timely example, football’s World Cup competition draws at least as much of its inspiration from the tangible regional affiliations that qualification entails as it does from any faith in an Olympic-style human collective. Case in point: like all would-be participants, the United States must qualify for the “Final,” global stage of football’s premier event by first working its way through a round-robin tournament featuring various regional teams. U.S. competition includes countries that fall under the umbrella of CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Football Association). Accordingly, U.S. players have far more “contact” with opponents from Trinidad and Tobago, say, or rivals Mexico, Costa Rica, and Canada, than they do with World Cup regulars like England, South Korea, or France. Conditioned, then, to prioritize region over world, western footballers could expect to internalize a unified view of América instilled in them by their playing experience.

The semi-hemispheric Copa América promises much the same. Played every three years, and alternating with World Cup summers, the so-called Copa has accomplished for the West a regional commonweal not unlike that sought by its planetary counterpart. Perhaps inevitably, organizers of the “American Cup” admitted teams outside South America for the first time in 1999, when Mexico and Costa Rica participated. The United States has yet to be invited, but many expect U.S. involvement at the next staging in 2008. Here sport looks poised to consolidate, not to separate.

It is no more than FIFA could have expected. After the Second World War, it had responded to the increasing number of nation-states applying for admittance by urging the regionalization, and thus de-centralization, of its own administrative functions. That meant limiting the role of mighty Europe within football’s power structures; it meant as well, and not without another touch of irony, frequent European complaints from the 1970s forward that newly enfranchised Latin American nations were wielding cabalistic control of the organization. We hear similar complaints today against emerging football nations (Sugden et al. 11-13), so it seems only proper that talk of Football Africa and Asia has become common. If Pacific Rim Football, or Football Arabia, is on the bill for tomorrow, it is Fútbol América making headlines today.


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