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Many Americans still seem to consider soccer a boring sport. I know the feeling that some sports can be boring for some people, as I fell asleep the few times I attended a baseball game. It was not because I had had a beer – I didn’t! I hardly ever drink especially when I have to drive, and besides drinks are very expensive at the stadiums. The thing is, I didn’t grow up around baseball, but I did grow up around soccer. Whether it bores YOU or not, the fact remains that soccer is the world’s most popular game.
When I came to the USA from Chile, I was surprised how popular soccer is among young Americans, and especially surprised when I saw all the girls’ and women’s teams. My oldest daughter went on to play in the JUSA league, a recreational league covering Anaheim, Yorba Linda and Placentia. Her cousins back in Chile couldn’t believe it when they saw her team picture.
It was even more surprising to them when the USA won the 1999 Women’s World Cup. The pictures of Briana Scurry, the African-American goalkeeper flying to save China’s third penalty kick, and of Brandi Chastain, the blonde American who scored the winning goal captivated not only the USA, but girls all around the world. I only mention the ethnicity of these two players because they reflect the diversity of Americans, and because race still has an ugly connotation in soccer, especially in Europe. Black players, including Americans playing there, are subject to racist taunts from some fans. We can proudly say this is not tolerated in the USA, thanks to people like Jackie Robinson, the baseball player who broke the racial segregation in sports.
Another blow against prejudice in major professional sports was made by a young California soccer player, Robbie Rogers. He became the first openly gay male athlete to join Major League Soccer (MLS). He played at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, and then for several professional teams, including the US National team. This February he announced that he is gay, and decided to retire fearing that the fans, players and club owners would not accept him. After receiving overwhelming support, he decided to return to professional soccer and is currently playing for the LA Galaxy. The MLS has a sound policy on respecting diversity, and suspends players for homophobic remarks – even before Rogers came out. Go Galaxy!
Jorge Villafaña plays in Los Angeles’ other team, ChivasUSA. He is from my hometown of Anaheim, attending Anaheim High School after spending some time in Mexico. He is a dreamer, not because where he was born. He was born in Anaheim, but got the nickname of “Sueño,” dreamer, after participating in a reality show called Sueño MLS. This allowed him a try-out. After becoming a professional player, he changed his last name to Villafaña to honor his mother who raised him. (His parents had divorced when he was an infant.)
Jorge is a role model for many youngsters in Anaheim, who are caught between gangs and a society that does not provide adequate support and opportunities for them to reach their dreams. Besides Jorge, another young man from Anaheim, Carlos Borja, also plays for this team. The Chivas’s goalkeeper, Dan Kennedy from Yorba Linda, is one of the best in the league, and played in Chile for a few years. Arriba las Chivas!
Bob Bradley was the coach of Chivas, and then became the US National Team’s coach. He led the team to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The USA won its group, for the first time since 1930, but did not advance to the quarter-finals. Bradley was replaced by Huntington Beach resident Jurgen Klinsmann, a successful former German player and coach. Bradley is currently coaching Egypt’s soccer team. This team is on the verge of classifying for the 2014 World Cup, which is making Bradley a very popular person. He has won the respect of Egyptians not only because of his coaching success, but also of because of his determination to stay and coach in a country in which soccer has deep political volatile overtones. The NY Times writes:
“After being dismissed as coach of the United States national team, Bradley landed in Egypt in September 2011 and was witness to that country’s turbulent Arab Spring that saw the overthrow of a government and civil unrest. Through it all, Bradley has become a kind of folk hero.
His handling of the delicate political situation and his role in helping to revive the national team led to the filming of a new documentary, “American Pharaoh: Bob Bradley & the Egyptian Soccer Team.”
Boring or not, soccer in many places bring out passionate behavior, as in Egypt. A book,“Soccer in Sun and Shadow,” describes soccer as a choreographed war:
In soccer, ritual sublimation of war, eleven men in shorts are the sword of the neighborhood, the city, or the nation. These warriors without weapons or armor exorcise the demons of the crowd and reaffirm its faith: in each confrontation between two sides, old hatreds and old loves passed from father to son enter into combat.
The stadium has towers and banners like a castle, as well as a deep and wide moat around the field. In the middle, a white line separates the territories in dispute. At each end stand the goals to be bombed with flying balls. The area directly in front of the goals is called the “danger zone.” In the center circle, the captains exchange pennants and shake hands as the ritual demands.
The referee blows his whistle and the ball, another whistling wind, is set in motion. The ball travels back and forth, a player traps her and takes her for a ride until he gets pummeled in a tackle and falls spread-eagled. The victim does not rise. In the immensity of the green expanse, the player lies prostrate.
From the immensity of the stands, voices thunder. The enemy crowd emits a friendly roar:
“¡Que se muera!”
“Let him die!”
“Kill, kill, kill!”
Ah, how lovely….