Soccer, Politics and the World Cup

Yesterday, I made the trip down to Chicago to see the US soccer team take on Honduras in a World Cup Qualifier at Soldier Field.  It was the first time the US had played a qualifier in Chicago, mostly because the US Soccer Federation is worried that Chicago would not give the US a home field advantage, as there are many immigrants in the Chicago area.   It turns out that they were right, but the US still was able scratch out a 2-1 come from behind win, just about guaranteeing the US a spot in South Africa 2010 with five more qualifying matches to go.  I would guess that at least 35,000 of the 55,000 fans in attendance were sporting el bicolor (white and blue stripes), and it seemed like even more, as the Hondurans knew how to cheer and make noise. There is nothing more intense than attending a well played international soccer game.  

I went to the 2006 World Cup in Germany and have yet to find another sporting event that matched the passion, enthusiasm and national pride of the fans.  I’ve been to some great Badger football, basketball and hockey games, Packer games and Brewer games, but none matched the intensity of even the Costa Rica vs. Ecuador game in the group stage of the World Cup.  The feeling that I had singing the National Anthem in Nuremberg 2,000 or so other Americans was electric and unforgettable.

If you are a soccer fan, or even if you only casually follow the sport, make a point of going to a World Cup Qualifier or Gold Cup Match if there is a game in your area.  The fans are into the game, Sam’s Army is singing and chanting and the opposing fans are playing drums and blowing horns.  It’s an amazing atmosphere and mostly friendly, but I was disappointed by some Americans, mostly drunk college kids, in the crowd who yelled things like “go jump back across the border” or “go back to mexico” at Honduran families.  Its unoriginal and dumb and I wish more people would have told them to stop. In the US, sports and politics don’t usually mix.  

To me, the coolest part of the game  was that most of the Honduran fans were clearly immigrants to the US, spoke English, and were still proud of where they were born.  Many of the  Honduran fans sang the US National Anthem and joined in the cheers of USA, USA, USA after the game, but wore Honduras shirts and cheered intensely for Honduras during the game.  The woman in front of me made it very clear that while she was cheering for Honduras, she “loved the USA” and “cheered for the US” whenever they weren’t “playing Honduras.”  One of the most amazing parts our country is that immigrants assimilate into society and love the country, unlike many European countries where immigrants are shuttered in slums by de facto segregation.  It was also cool to see most Hondurans telling their own fans to stop throwing empty cups over the second deck in the second half when they were upset with a call.

In other parts of the world, soccer and politics mix all the time.  Ivory Coast’s qualification to the 2006 World Cup stopped their civil war.  Iran’s qualification to the 1998 World Cup caused massive celebrations, alcohol fueled parties and women throwing off their veils, that some thought might be the spark that overthrew the government.  When Iran beat the US in France ’98, the entire country rushed into the streets to celebrate.   A 1969  riot during an El Salvador and Honduras World Cup Qualifier caused la guerra del fútbol, the soccer war, that claimed over 2000 lives.

Iran is back in the news as it tries to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  On Friday, the Financial Times featured an article ahead of Iran’s must win Qualifier against North Korea that claimed the Soccer Result Could Affect the Iranian Election.

Some argue that failure to qualify – Iran needs to win its remaining three fixtures over the next 11 days to be guaranteed a place at next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa – could damage the re-election hopes of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the president. “The government of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has shown it would like to make the best use of sports in politics and failure in football will surely have negative impacts on his votes,” said a senior reformist politician. The comment might be seen as wishful thinking by a government opponent but it is echoed by a fundamentalist politician, sympathetic to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad: “The results of these football matches might shift a significant number of votes from one candidate to another.” In an election expected to be close – and where Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the rival reformist candidate, is said to be gaining support – that could be significant.

Iran was banned by FIFA from international competition for a few weeks back in 2008 because the President fired the head of the Football Association and appointed a political hack.  After Ahmadinejad backed down and brought the old FA head back, Iran were allowed to continue to compete. This story put me in the awkward position of rooting for North Korea to do something good for a change, in hopes that Iran miss out on the world cup and throw the horrible Ahmadinejad out of office in favor of a more reform-minded alternative.

In Saturday’s qualifier in Pyongyang, Iran and North Korea played to a 0-0 draw, leaving Iran on the outside looking in.  Iran need to win both of their next two games in order to qualify and hope that North Korea and Saudi Arabia do not do well.  It will be interesting to see how the next few weeks shape up in Iranian soccer, as well as politics.

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