Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Stagnation

In Long form, Soccer on August 10, 2011 at 8:58 am

At first glance, international soccer would seem to be the last refuge of the xenophobe. In few other contexts is it considered acceptable for the most genteel of Brits to intone combative verses celebrating the downing of World War II German bombers. The stereotypically neutral Swiss suddenly hate everybody. And Paraguayans morph into bellicose brawlers, particularly when hated Uruguay is involved. Even the impeccably mannered Japanese get involved, with nationalist chanting reverberating throughout a recent Asian Cup match against China.

Those tensions rapidly fade, however, when foreign players suddenly switch nationalities to suit up for a host nation. The United Arab Emirates—a society open in its pursuit of oil wealth, but regrettably despicable in its treatment of immigrant workers—was downright gleeful when Brazilian Alexandre Oliveira, a prolific striker who was an immigrant worker that just happened to play professional soccer, announced his intentions to suit up for Al Abyad. The Brazilian Alex has also found instant acceptance in another predominantly closed society, Japan, when featuring on the left side of the Japanese midfield. Throughout the world, players have switched nationalities like never before to maximize their international potential by flocking to weaker national sides—the most striking aspect of the oft-debated role of globalization in international sport.

Yet in many ways, the United States has existed apart from this construct. In others, it fully embodies it.

What does xenophobia mean for a much celebrated nation of immigrants? In a region in which the original inhabitants comprise 0.8% of the population, no single race is able to constitute more than a plurality, and 13% of citizens are born abroad?

These are questions without clear and direct answers. But they form the crucible into which a German steps as United States Men’s National Team head coach.

In a soccer context, nothing is as purely American as taking on arch-rival Mexico with all the tenacity, fervor, and willpower of an old-fashioned U. S. of A. squad. The Yanks counter Mexican artistry through superior strategy, high fitness, and mental toughness—so the conventional wisdom goes—in logic that proves at least some elements of nationalism (perhaps subtle racism) exist among the American soccer fan.

And Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster will likely stick to that narrative this evening. Overblown cliché or not, the Americans have long favored a stodgy, generic form of play in which the side is content to chase possession and wait for its opponent to tire. The strategy has seemingly been institutionalized as the modus operandi for the Red, White, and Blue, to erratically mixed results.

But last week, a foreigner was installed as head coach, only the second of the post-1990 rebirth, modern era. Immediately Klinsmann began speaking of tapping into the growing Latin population to attract more free-flowing players. Attacking fullbacks Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco, and Tim Chandler were called in, while Freddy Adu and Jose Torres were brought back to spruce up the midfield—all are foreign born or play in the Mexican leagues. Surely Klinsmann, who sparked Tuetonic Germany to an attacking verve that catapulted it into the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup would abandon the old traditions and instill a wide-open, cerebral style of play that would take American soccer to the next level.

The available evidence might suggest otherwise.

From 1990 onward, foreign players and those with foreign roots have long been a staple of the United States national team, predictable for a country with a high ratio of immigration and mixed cultural heritages. That pioneering 1990 squad counted only three foreign born players, out of 22, but they were each key contributors. Six were born outside the United States on the 1994 World Cup roster, and five in 1998. Those numbers have dropped slightly on subsequent World Cup squads, but the influence of players with recent African, Latin American, and to a lesser degree European roots has exploded.

This has not, however, changed the Americans’ style of play in the slightest. Despite rearings in foreign soccer cultures, foreign rooted players have overwhelmingly adapted to the U.S. institutional culture, instead of bending it to encompass their background. Players with heritages as disparate as Jermaine Jones, a German born to an American father, and Oguchi Onyewu, the son of Nigerian immigrants who has spent his formative years in European systems, have reverted to the strategies of American coaching at the international level. Indeed, conversely, the one player who has successfully and consistently broken through that style, translating the fluidity and rhythm of the Latin game, is Clint Dempsey, a Texan born and bred. After 21 years of gradual progression in a talent sense, the Yanks’ strategic arsenal remains roughly equivalent to that of the unsophisticated sides of the early 1990s.

If case studies from abroad hold true, a new and energetic coach should be expected to change little. Few professions are as transient as that of a soccer coach, and few nations have consistently employed coaches of a similar nationality and style. In 2001, on the eve of a World Cup, England brought in Swede Sven-Goran Erikkson to invigorate a national side sorely in need of a strategic injection. He was the first non-English manager in the lengthy history of the Three Lions. Erikkson vowed to remake English soccer into a unit replete with the most current strategies of continental football. Yet his England teams played precisely as the decades of England teams before him, defending in numbers and sending long balls over the top of the defense to lone target forwards. The results were predictably similar as well; England finished second in Group F, before getting bounced by Brazil in the quarterfinals—a decidedly English performance. When Italian Fabio Capello took over the side at the 2008 World Cup, his teams featured quite similar in manner to Erikkson’s.

The same has been true of Japan, managed currently by an Italian with appearances by a Brazilian, Bosnian, and Frenchman in the last decade. None have altered the Japanese’s disciplined, technical style of play. African nations have also witnessed a host of foreign managers shuttle through the continent with similar results.

Which takes us back to the larger societal issue. It makes sense that the styles of England and Japan, deeply traditional societies with rigid social structures and hierarchies, remained constant. But why has the United States, a nation which retains the traditions of myriad peoples, openly accepts cultures of all persuasions with rare hostility, and is founded upon the premise of multiculturalism, developed, in soccer terms, with every bit of that adherence to a custom that failed to produce overwhelming results?

In America, it is not a spectacle when a player of a foreign nationality or upbringing takes the pitch, much similar to the ability to trust the minority son of a Kenyan father, raised away from the American mainland, with the keys to the most powerful office in the world. So why, again, has its national soccer program defied this attitude and remained close-minded?

That, too, is a question without a clear and direct answer.

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