A Sea of Green, or How Scott Almost Went to Phoenix to Watch a Soccer Game

19 Aug

This is the second installment of our short two-part series on soccer and international relations. Tuesday, we ran Eric Huxley’s reaction to watching the most recent US-Mexico soccer match in a South Tucson pizza restaurant. Today, we’re reaching back a US-Mexico game from 2007.

The US was starting up their international schedule after the previous summer’s group stage exit in Germany at the World Cup. Game number two of that schedule was a friendly against Mexico. It wasn’t a match of any note, importance or impact on standings, but it was against Mexico, it was here in Arizona, and it got Scott thinking about how closely sport and life will border each other in this part of the world.

This article was written for the Burnside Writers Collective. It was well-received but not published, so it sat around, just waiting for Eric to meet John at Peter Piper Pizza, watch a soccer game, and inspire a D&S series on US-Mexico soccer.

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In January 2007, the United States Men’s National Soccer Team returned to actual soccer-playing for the first time since the previous summer’s World Cup, where they fell dismally to the Czechs, battled the eventual champion Italians to a bloody draw (the Azzuri’s sole failure to win during the tournament), and bowed out on a controversial penalty to the Ghanians.

The first opponent of the new year, of the fresh World Cup cycle: Denmark. The soccer-friendly masses in the US were excited and not excited. Yes, there would be new coach Bob Bradley. Yes, there would be replacements for the retired Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, and Eddie Pope. But: Denmark. Denmark’s B-team, even. The Danes are the Danes and they are nice and all, but my friend Brad and I, both soccer fans, did not care all that much.

The second game of 2007 was a different story. The second game was set to be played a few hours north of our Tucson homes in Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium, the shiny new home of the Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl XLII. The US invited Mexico’s Tricolores to Arizona for a “friendly” (it is widely stated by players from both teams that there are, in fact, zero friendly matches between the two nations). Brad and I were hoping to secure tickets to this match through another friend, John, who does camera work for a Spanish-language television station here in Tucson–specifically, a Spanish-language station that usually receives tickets to games like this one.

Disappoinment No.1: Oguchi Onyewu was loaned for the spring from his Belgian side to Newcastle United in England, so the man-mountain centerback of US soccer would not be there to steer wrestle Jared Borgetti, the most prolific of the scorers in Mexican soccer history. Beaseley stayed in England with Manchester City as well, leaving two veteran holes in the Stars-and-Stripes’ line-up.

Disappointment No. 2: John’s employer did not receive any tickets to disperse amongst its cameramen or their friends, so we were not in Glendale, but left in my living room to watch the friendly-that-is-not-a-friendly.

Silver Lining: Not going meant saving gas. And time. And I was scared. A little. When Brad, John, and I were still planning to attend the game, I must admit, I feared the place and the atmosphere. Reports the week before the game indicated that the University of Phoenix stadium gates would open that Wednesday evening to a largely sourthern-North American rooting contingent for this US home game. One of the knocks against soccer that many angry, sports-casting Americans often throw around is the violence perpetrated by fans around the world: hooligan melees, items thrown at players, fan stampedes, and the shootings of underachieving players. I didn’t expect the outrageous or the irrational to ensue in Glendale, but I did picture myself in a sea of green, nervously anticipating the first US goal–and not for sporting reasons, but weighing what I could or should do in celebratory response.

In my living room on game night, the television cameras showed Sam’s Army, US fans eschewing normal attire for Uncle Sam suits, or covered in paint (a three-man U-S-A and a Stars-and-Stripes face-and-bald-head). However, the cheering Americans were surrounded on all sides by green jerseys, enormous sombreros, panchos, and flags bearing snake-eating eagles.

The pro-Mexican crowd pounded drums and screamed wildly through the pre-game, the anthems, and the first half, which was gridlock, tense and choppy; consistent possession by one team was nearly nonexistent. Before halftime, the crowd began to yell: Ole! Ole! Ole! This is generally understood not to be a traditional chant of the United States Sports Fan, and Eric Wynalda, who has played against El Tri a time or two, referred to this as “not good.”

Bob Bradley’s halftime speech must have been inspiring because the second half looked like a real live soccer game, and eight minutes in, Jimmy Conrad, defender for the US, punched in a goal with his forehead. 1-0 Estados Unidos! This awakened Mexico, who wanted a goal of their own. Borgetti missed inches wide and cried out in anguish to the heavens. Guardado (or Torrado; I did not catch his name clearly during the match, but he played on the left wing and was indeed swift) ran ran ran, and had his crosses only barely evade the flying feet of his teammates.

Tension rose as the game neared the end, when Landon Donovan intercepted an errant pass off the referee, evaded two men at midfield, avoided Mexico’s goalkeeper, Oswaldo Sanchez, at the top of the box, and found himself alone with the yawning goal, and there, there it was, the second, the icing, the nail. Oswaldo, frustrated beyond frustrated, attempted to trip a celebrating opponent. Brad cheered. I erupted from my chair and ran into the next room.

The United States won this friendly 2-0 (the same score as 2002’s World Cup knockout stage game in Jeonju, Korea against these same Tricolores). After the match, Mexico’s side left the field, refusing to shake hands. The Mexican fans, however, when shown on the jumbotron, and thus, televisions in many homes like my own, still waved their hands and smiled wildly while cheering and beating their drums. Perhaps it was just a friendly and losing proved easier to stomach than expected. Perhaps these are people who are pleased that they are on the large screen in a stadium plus countless televisions across the country. Many of the Mexican-American fans did drive many miles (the broadcast team mentioned some fans who made trips down from Canada) to see the men who represented Mexico in Germany in 2006, a team that went further in the competition than the US contingent, and perhaps seeing their heroes play under the stadium lights was enough. They cheer and keep cheering; beyond the game and its television broadcast, they cheer.

Here, here is where I wonder: Is this what makes men from far away Washington, DC angry about our borders? Is it these moments and ones much like them that make these men say, “They come here and live and work, and then root against us? They drive from all over the US to watch their national team, to hold and wave their flag?” I can see these men seething in their offices, removing suit jackets and loosening ties, tirading to other seething men or to wide-eyed interns, learning that some even drove from Canada (“Canada! Why aren’t they more angry?”), dreaming up policies and legislation for a black line in the desert.

The site of this particular friendly, near the border and far from DC, against this particular opponent, did effect the uneven constitution of its crowd–a fact I’m wagering was not overlooked by the US Soccer Federation in the scheduling of the match. But, as news- and conversation-worthy as the border is in the southwest and in the capital, I know it is not the only place where border issues–socioeconomics, history and culture, language barriers, etc.–resonate.

I watched that 2002 US-Mexico World Cup game as a resident assistant for a summer on-campus tutoring program for at-risk high school students at Emporia State University in southeast Kansas, a place many assume to be full of wheat-growing blond people wearing overalls. About fifteen students begged the director of the program to let them stay up on a Thursday night to watch a game that started at 1:30 the next morning. The only one of those fifteen who cheered along with me for the US was a junior from El Salvador. The rest were teenagers who attended a high school in Kansas where assemblies were preceded by the Mexican national anthem as well as the Star-Spangled Banner.

These students were hoping to be the first in their families to attend college, students whose parents had moved to Kansas to work at either Emporia’s beef processing plant or its industrial bakery. Because Emporia’s large employers provided ample job opportunities for families, it grew to resemble the culture I find here in the southwest. It was an anomaly, surrounded on the map by the small towns people ask me about when I tell them I’m from Kansas (farms, tractors, wheat, etc.). Growing up where I did, I knew nothing of any border issues of any kind.

Arizona is where opportunity and culture, future and homeland, collide on a regular basis–a phenomenon magnified by the US-Mexico friendly and broadcast to the nation (yet widely unnoticed) on that Wednesday night, but constant here. “Illegals” and “undocumented” are part of the vocabulary of the local news. Some citizens here leave water in the desert for thirsty migrants while others sit in lawn chairs, patrolling that same land through binoculars and walkie-talkies. No mas muertes struggles to translate into English via signs in vintage clothing shops and restaurant windows on Tucson’s Fourth Avenue. In Arizona, the border is less a black line decided by history and wars and politicians, and more a political and social tripwire. It is less an issue and more a part of everyday life, and it is not to be ignored or even casually regarded here.

And I live here now: from somewhere else, and here now. I feel like I live here, I really do, but I also feel foreign. My hair is blond with curls that make friends and strangers say words like farm and wholesome. My skin is fair, scared of Tucson’s incessant summer sun and inherited from immigrants from across a natural border, a vast blue one.

I am here where a game officially labeled a friendly transformed into cultural tensions that play out on a large green space divided by white lines. Watching the game, even anticipating the game, I had clearly chosen a side; I knew who I was rooting for and against. I hope that life here does not mirror sport here, with both sides consumed with the idea of some sort of victory, fooled into thinking only about either side of the line.

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