Our VoiceImmigration

Soccer Fans Give Red Card to Tanton Network

Guest Blogger • Oct 02, 2009

By Tom Dunmore - Editor of Pitch Invasion and Vice Chair, Section 8, Chicago

To be anti-immigrant and to still be a fan of soccer, the game that has depended on open borders worldwide, is a contradiction in itself. A recent article by David Seminara of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), “Why Is the U.S. National Soccer Team So ‘American?”, immediately set-off an alert: after all, CIS was created as a project of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration organization that promotes near-zero levels of immigration.

Seminara asks “why aren’t immigrants making a bigger impact playing soccer for the Stars and Stripes?”, citing the low numbers of current U.S. men’s national team players born outside American borders. Yet, this analysis ignores the crucial contribution immigrants and second-generation citizens have made to the men’s national team historically.

Immigration has proven to be central to the development of American soccer and the national team: on June 29, 1950, when the U.S. defeated England in the World Cup to shock the world,  a mix of native and foreign born players turned out for the U.S., including six immigrants born in the British Isles.

Then, in the 1990s, came fruits of immigration from South America: Tab Ramos, Marcello Balboa and most importantly, “Captain America” Claudio Reyna brought the flair and technique of South American football to the U.S. national team. Reyna was born in New Jersey, a second-generation American who played soccer on family trips back to Argentina in the summers of his childhood, honing an intelligent touch the national team desperately needed.

Reyna’s origins and the development of the sport in South America is a microcosm of how the global game has developed and diversified based on immigration patterns. The sport of soccer was brought to Argentina by the British, who in the late nineteenth century codified and exported the game across the world via the sailors, soldiers, industrialists and aristocrats emigrating to almost all corners of the world. 

British emigrants took the game to South America in the form of rules, balls, socks, shirts, and words like “off-side”, but it was soon given its own style in the cities of Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro.

As Eduardo Galeano once wrote: “Like the tango, soccer blossomed in the slums. It required no money and could be played with nothing more than sheer desire. In fields, in alleys and on beaches, native-born kids and young immigrants improvised games using balls made of old socks filled with rags or paper, and a couple of stones for a goal. Thanks to the language of the game, which soon became universal, workers driven out of the countryside could communicate perfectly with workers driven out of Europe. The Esperanto of the ball connected poor Creoles with peons who had crossed the sea from Vigo, Lisbon, Naples, Beirut or Besarabia.”

The South Americans did not just replicate the English game: they innovated, as Galeano explains, a “home-grown way of playing soccer, like the home-grown way of dancing which was invented in the milonga clubs. . . On the feet of the first Creole virtuosos el toque, the touch, was born: the ball was strummed as if it were a guitar, a source of music.”

 The simplicity of soccer gives it a special susceptibility to such transformation. And so the stolid style of play of the British was outdated by the 1950s, the dancing South American nations transformed how the game was played. The sport moved forward via emigration back to the Old World: Take Alfredo di Stefano, an immigrant from Argentina to Spain. He became the best player in the world for perhaps the greatest ever club side, Real Madrid, and played 31 games for Spain, scoring 23 goals.

Decades later, Claudio Reyna brought some of that strumming Argentinian style to the United States. Perhaps Seminara is right in one sense, in that it is curious a Reyna remains all too rare for the U.S.: more Latin flair would do a lot for the national team. But the answer is not cutting down on immigration and ensuring America remains, as Markovits and Hellerman’s book “Offside: Soccer & American Exceptionalism” explains, a country where soccer’s culture is marginalized. Instead, what is needed is for the diversity of America’s immigrant communities to be better integrated into the mainstream soccer community. For too long it has been too expensive and too white and too suburban for many immigrants from the Hispanic population to participate in the American soccer system, which has historically marginalized young new talent into ethnic soccer enclaves rarely seen by professional scouts.

In the next part of this series, we will look at a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities America’s diversity presents for the development of soccer here.

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