11 October 2013

Flattering to deceive: Mexico's history of unfulfilled potential

Friday’s CONCACAF qualifying matches will go a long way to clarifying who will represent the region in 2014 in Brazil. The United States and Costa Rica are already in, while a victory for Honduras would see it grab a spot in the intercontinental playoffs at worst. But by far the most fascinating match of the day is the Mexico-Panama match at the Estadio Azteca. If Panama defeats Mexico—once unthinkable—two things will happen: the canaleros will effectively sew up the playoff spot, moving Panama closer than it ever has been to a berth in the World Cup finals (it is one of only five Latin American nations—the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Venezuela being the others—that have never played in the World Cup); and it would mean that el Tri would likely miss the World Cup for only the fifth time in its history—and the first time since 1990, when the cachirules scandal (discussed below) saw all Mexican teams banned from international play.*
That Mexico might miss the World Cup with its present team seemed unthinkable at the start of qualification. With players like Chicharito and Giovani dos Santos, Andrés Guardado, Pablo Barrera**, and Carlos Salcido—who ended 2011 with a scintillating come from behind win in the Gold Cup—combining with the 2012 Olympic gold medal squad, Mexico should have been battling with the United States for the top spot in the hexagonal rather than fighting for its life.  But somewhere along the way the Mexican squad (and its former coach José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre) lost the script, and the promise held by the team dissipated. The once impregnable Estadio Azteca, where El Tri had lost only once in qualifying between 1961 and 2013 now seems like just another stadium: Mexico has not won a game at home in the hexagonal, tying three times and losing to Honduras.
The fact is that Mexico, long dominant on the regional scale, has rarely translated that success onto the global stage. Mexico’s soccer promise, we might say, often goes unfulfilled. The same might be said of the country: from the Mexican Revolution to the discovery and nationalization of vast oil reserves the Mexican people have been promised much, yet poverty and inequality remain the norm. Indeed, according to Manuel Seyde, Mexico’s few triumphs and “more common disappointments” result in the country and its soccer being “gripped by insecurities.” Its fate, both in sports and otherwise, is to be “a giant in its region and a shadow in the rest of the planet." (1)

Regional Promises, Globally Broken
The Mexican national team disembarked in Montevideo on a chilly winter day in July 1930. The weather did not improve for the first game Mexico played in the inaugural World Cup. If the national team blamed the weather for its 4-1 loss to France, it could not do the same for its next two games: a 3-0 loss to Chile and a 6-3 defeat at the hands of eventual runner-up Argentina. Called “primitive” by the Argentine press, Mexico finished last in the tournament and allowed the most goals. This certainly was an inauspicious start to the Mexico’s World Cup history. In truth, the federation should not have been surprised by the outcome. The Mexican team had practiced little before departing for Uruguay, and arrived in Montevideo after a 26-day voyage only two days before its first game.
            This was not Mexico’s first foray into international soccer. In fact, while national leagues helped bring the country together after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), across the 1920s international play served to bring the nation together as well. In 1922 a Mexican team, primarily made up of the amateur team América, traveled to Guatemala for a three game series, defeating their hosts in two games and tying one. (2) A year later, Mexico again defeated the guatemaltecos, this time at home. These successes created a surge in popularity for the sport. Tours by foreign teams to Mexico, which began in the late 1920s, also led to greater interest in the game, as Mexicans turned out in droves to see how their teams would fare against those from Spain, Chile, and Uruguay. Generally, Mexican teams lost. And while the Tricolor had success in regional championships such as the Central American championships, in international play outside the region, Mexico lost too. The squad that represented Mexico in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, for example, lost both of its matches: 7-1 to Spain and 3-1 to Chile. And though el Tri met success in qualifier matches for the 1934 Cup—defeating Cuba three times—it failed to qualify for the finals, traveling to Rome to lose a play-in game against the United States. Indeed, the Tricolor rarely represented itself well in international tournaments. Between 1930 and 1958, Mexico participated in four of six World Cups, managing only one tie. In 1962 Mexico finally earned its first victory in the World Cup, but that hardly changed its fortunes. El Tri failed to win a game in 1966, and did not qualify for the 1974 or 1982 championships. Nevertheless, notwithstanding Mexico’s poor showings, international play helped to popularize soccer and forge a sense of identity. Indeed, with the exception of nationalizing oil in 1938, soccer was perhaps the most important symbol around which all Mexicans could unite. And eventually the outcomes of Mexico’s matches improved.

Mexico, 1970 
             The World Cup of 1970 offered an opportunity for unity in Mexico, especially after the 1968 Olympic Games. In soccer terms, perhaps, this opportunity was lost. It is often, though not always, the case that host nations advance farther in the World Cup than they might otherwise. Until South Africa’s crash in 2010, no home team had failed to make it out of the first round. Sweden, for instance, lost the 1958 finals against Brazil. Four years later, Chile, which likely would not have qualified for the championship were it not the host, finished in third place. England too, a perennial quarterfinalist, won the trophy at home in 1966, but has only reached the semifinals one other time. So hosting the Cup and finishing sixth, as Mexico did in 1970, should be seen as a lost opportunity. But in placing Mexico on the world stage, hosting the Cup promised—and in part delivered—much.
            The Mexico team that contested the World Cup in 1970 hoped for better. A strong side, the team raised expectations with a slate of games in early in the year. From February until April Mexico played twelve matches, winning five, drawing five, and losing only two. With one exception, all of the matches were against teams that had qualified for the World Cup. And Mexico started the tournament well, if uninspired, with a goalless draw against the Soviet Union. From there, things began to look up. The Tricolor followed this match with two victories, over El Salvador and Belgium, to qualify for the knockout phase of the tournament for the first time. It was no small achievement. The team advanced with a certain amount of panache, scoring five goals and allowing none. And the quarterfinal match against Italy, played in Toluca, got off to a flying start for the Mexican team, as the Tricolor took the lead in the twelfth minute. Footage of the game shows the team celebrating the goal along with delirious fans. The joy would be short-lived. In the twenty-fifth minute, Italy scored, deflating the stadium’s energy. In the second half Italy scored three more, ending Mexico’s World Cup dreams.
            But the hopes born from the 1970 World Cup related to more than soccer. Rather, as it had with the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the Mexican government had hoped to use a world sporting event to project the image of a developed and modern Mexico. Both events highlighted Mexico’s ability to plan a worldwide event and, to paraphrase historian Eric Zolov, temporarily replaced the myth that Mexico was a land of mañana—where nothing got done—with the notion that it was the land of tomorrow, where anything was possible. All of the advance planning for 1968, however, came to naught. The Mexico City Olympics are remembered not for the transformation of the capital city into a gleaming, friendly, modern metropolis, but for the massacre of student protesters in the Tlatelolco square and the black power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (3) By contrast, though the Mexican soccer team failed to make it past the quarterfinals in 1970, Mexico scored high marks for hosting one of the most memorable World Cups. Indeed, for Mexican commentators, the Cup suggested the country’s potential to enter the ranks of developed nations. It represented, in other words, a promise for the future.

1986 and 1990           
            Within years, however, that promise evaporated in the midst of the boom and bust cycle of the Mexican economy. Economic growth in the decade was offset by rampant inflation and the oils crisis. Discovery of new oil reserves in the 1970s led to higher government borrowing, and when the price of oil plummeted, the Mexican economy collapsed. Yet, in the midst of the “lost decade”, as the economic crisis of the 1980s is known, Mexico hosted another mega event. The World Cup in 1986 was supposed to be held in Colombia, but missed construction deadlines and a simmering civil conflict caused the country to renege on its organizing responsibilities. FIFA reopened bidding for the right to host, and Mexico beat out bids from the United States and Canada. In so doing, Mexico became the first country to host the cup for the second time, causing a surge in nationalist pride and raising spirits in the midst of financial gloom. Moreover, the Mexican government invested millions of dollars to present the country as modern and developed once again.
            In the year before the tournament, Mexico’s soccer star shone brightly even as its economy teetered. Throughout 1985 the team appeared nearly invincible, losing only four of twenty-two games. Mexican hopes for a strong showing at the World Cup seemed attainable; a good showing in soccer would doubtless buoy the national sentiment. And then, disaster struck. On the morning of September 19, 1985, eight months before the World Cup was to begin, an 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast. Between 10,000-40,000 people died and thousands of buildings were damaged in Mexico City alone. But none of the twelve existing stadiums had been damaged by the quake and all of the new structures built for the event had also escaped damage. Nevertheless, Mexico found itself having to run a World Cup in the midst of a massive reconstruction effort, just as Chile had done twenty-four years earlier. Strong aftershocks, over 7 on the Richter scale, could still be felt one month before the tournament began.

            The 1986 World Cup is remembered mainly for the audacity of Diego Maradona. In the quarterfinal match against England he scored two goals: the infamous “hand of God” goal and also his stunning run through the entire British defense to score what many say is the greatest goal of all time. But there are other stories from that Cup: Mexico’s disallowed goal in the quarterfinal against Germany; Manuel Negrete’s beautiful goal, which would have been the best of the tournament had it not been for Maradona. Here is another. The Mexican team took the field for its first game in the 1986 World Cup at the Estadio Azteca in front of over 100,000 fans. As Hugo Sánchez, Tomás Boy, Manuel Negrete, and the rest of the Tricolor stood waiting for the national anthem to start, the sound system failed. Instead, the majority of the fans serenaded the national team.
            As a result of its excellent outcomes in the lead up to the World Cup, expectations for the Mexican team were high. Hugo Sánchez, then a 28-year old phenomenon, had just won his second consecutive Spanish league scoring title (pichichi) with Real Madrid, and he led a formidable team. And they performed well. Belgium posed no threat, with Mexico taking a 2-0 lead and holding on to win 2-1. A rough game against Paraguay ended in a 1-1 draw, and Mexico navigated around a weak Iraq, 1-0. For only the second time, Mexico was through to the knock out stages. There, el Tri would meet Bulgaria, waltzing to a 2-0 win. In the quarterfinals, a hard fought match against eventual runner-up West Germany showed Mexico’s grit and determination. The game ended in a 0-0 draw—with a goal by Mexico controversially disallowed—with Germany winning on penalty kicks. Once again, Mexico’s soccer promises had gone unfulfilled.
            Yet the future appeared to bode well. They could not fail to build off the experience and improve their performances by the time that Italy hosted the next Cup in 1990. Indeed the 1990 competition was supposed to be a coming out party for Mexico: Sánchez would be 32, hardly an old man, while Negrete would just be 31. More, younger players like Carlos Hermosillo and Alberto García Aspe would be ready to take over. And the team wanted to prove that 1986 had been no fluke. The promise of the generation, of Mexican soccer finally arriving as a force to be reckoned with, awaited fulfillment. It was not to be, due to the machinations of the Mexican Fútbol Federation.
The cachirules scandal is one of the biggest to ever hit a national team involving not so much players as the highest heights of Mexican soccer. In 1988, during the qualification process for the 1989 Under-20 World Championship in Saudi Arabia, the Mexican newspaper Ovaciones published an article accusing the youth team of using over aged players. At first, Mexican soccer officials denied the charges. But the Mexican press continued to run stories about the case, and was only too happy to oblige when federation president Rafael del Castillo demanded to see proof. The journalists disclosed that the FMF’s own age registry showed that at least four of the players were too old to play. Two players exceeded the limit by two years, one by three years, and the fourth was seven years older than he claimed. The scandal grew. Other national soccer federations demanded that CONCACAF take decisive steps to punish Mexico. CONCACAF’s disciplinary panel decided to ban the Mexican team from the Saudi tournament and imposed lifetime bans on the FMF executive council members. (4)
            Hoping for a more favorable hearing in front of the FIFA disciplinary board, del Castillo appealed the ruling to Zurich. There, however, he received a harsher rebuke. Instead of earning a reprieve for the Mexican youth team, FIFA banned all Mexican teams from FIFA tournaments for two years and upheld the ban on the FMF executive council. Mexico, with a stunningly talented squad, would miss the 1988 Olympics in Seoul—for which they had already qualified—and the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Both Mexican soccer fans and commentators around the world had expected the team to challenge for the cup. Hugo Sánchez, fresh off tying the Spanish record for goals in a season (38) for Real Madrid, would be back. Carlos Hermosillo, who had scored 24 goals the previous season in the Mexican leagues, was on the squad. With that tandem Mexico would have been difficult to stop, a fact that they proved in the year prior to the tournament. While el Tri had been banned from official tournaments, it could still play friendly matches. Prior to the World Cup, other teams sought games with the talented Mexican squad to warm up against quality opposition. Mexico played five teams headed to Italy: Argentina, the reigning world champion; Colombia; South Korea; the United States, and Uruguay. El tri won all five of these games. Another promise unfulfilled.

Et tu?
So where does this leave us going into the last matches of the hexagonal? I would suggest that it leaves fans of the tricolor in an all too familiar place: waiting for disappointment. For all the promise of the Tricolor, Mexican soccer fans are used to teams failing to reach their potential. The generation of Hugo Sánchez and Carlos Hermosillo was supposed to go farther than the quarterfinals and then lost its chance at redemption in 1990 due to an inept and corrupt bureaucracy. So too the 1994 edition of the squad (with Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Luis Hernández, and Jorge Campos) promised Mexican greatness. Indeed, this seems to be the narrative of Mexican soccer history and Mexico itself: destined for greatness that, sometimes through no fault of its own, remains just out of reach. And now the hopes of the so-called golden generation—with established players like Chicharito, dos Santos, Salcido, and Rafa Marquez and the newer additions such as Marco Fabian, Javier Aquino, Hiram Mier and Miguel Layún—hang by the slimmest of threads. At the start of qualification, many Mexicans believed that this team represented the best chance that el Tri had to finally bring home the World Cup and to show that Mexico could compete on the world stage. Now they have to wait to see: will this group of players salvage the campaign and qualify, or will it collapse under the pressure of expectation.
            Anthropologist Roger Magazine has suggested that Mexico lacks a “prominent national mythology” about the national soccer team. Mexicans, he argues, “closely scrutinize the performance of the national team” but do not use it as a measuring stick for the nation. (5) This may indeed be true. But perhaps this curiosity, the lack of investment in the team, comes from the expectation that the Tricolor will fall short of its goals. Just as the national mythology that glorifies the Revolution as an equalizing force has never fully delivered on its promises, so too the Tricolor flatter to deceive. In other words, like the nation itself, Mexican soccer offers perpetual promise and unfulfilled potential.

* If Mexico loses there is still a slight chance that it could qualify for the intercontinental playoff, but it would be highly unlikely. It would need to defeat Costa Rica in Costa Rica and overtake either Panama or Honduras (or both) on goal differential.   
** I admit to being a huge Pablo Barrera fan. Though he has not featured regularly in the national set-up since a knee injury in 2012, and is never the flashiest of players, he has a certain intangible quality and toughness that Mexico has lacked of late. Moreover, the team plays better when he is on the field. Since 2009 in games that matter (tournaments and qualifiers) with Barrera on the pitch: 14-1-2. In 2013 with Pablo: 1-0-1; without: 0-4-2.

1. Manuel Seyde, in Greco Sotelo, Crónicas del fútbol mexicano, volumen 3: El oficio de las canchas (1950-1970), (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998), 14; and Ramón Márquez C., “Introducción,” in Carlos Calderón Cardoso, Crónicas del fútbol mexicano: Por amor de la camiseta, volumen 2 (1933-1950), (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998), 10.
2. There is some debate about the tour. RSSSF, the statistical database for soccer, shows that the tour took place in early January 1923 and that Mexico lost one game 3-1. Galindo and Hernández, however, claim that the tour occurred in December 1922, and that Mexico won two games and tied one. See Galindo and Hernández, 49; and http://www.rsssf.com/tablesm/mex-intres.html. On the 1930 World Cup, see Galindo and Hernández, 65-66.
3. Eric Zolov, “Showcasing the ‘Land of Tomorrow’: Mexico and the 1968 Olympics,” The Americas 61:2 (October 2004), 163. See also Keith Brewster and Claire Brewster, “Cleaning the Cage: Mexico City’s Preparations for the Olympic Games,” The International Journal for the History of Sport 26:6 (April 2009), 790-813; and Kevin B. Witherspoon, Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008).
4. "Los Cachirules: Escándalos Deportivos,” Televisa Deportes, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=so1gW3LuClg, accessed December 20, 2011; Leon Krauze, Crónicas del fútbol mexicano (volumen 5): Moneda en el aire (1986-1998), (Mexico City: Editorial Clio, 1998), 28-29; “Caso ‘cachirules’: negro recuerdo,” El Universal (April 20, 2008), http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/deportes/99513.html, accessed December 20, 2011.
5. Roger Magazine, Golden and Blue Like My Heart: Masculinity, Youth, and Power Among Soccer Fans in Mexico City, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007), 17.

24 July 2013

Invisible men? Racism in Honduran Soccer

During the Mexico-Trinidad/Tobago Gold Cup quarterfinal the other night, I was part of an engaging twitter discussion about racism in CONCACAF soccer that centered around these posts:

In the United States we hear a lot about racism in soccer, but it is always in the context of events in Europe. Most people who follow the sport know about the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand affair, for which Terry was stripped of the England captaincy. And many are familiar with the more recent cases involving fans making monkey sounds at  Kevin Prince Boateng and Mario Balotelli. Even when a Latin American player is involved--such as in the  Luis Suárez-Patrice Evra incident--the question of whether or not something qualifies as racism is interpreted through a European (not to mention a U.S.) lens. 

As the above tweets suggest, however, issues of race are very much alive in Latin American soccer.  Yet very few anglophone soccer fans in the United States are aware of racism in the Latin American game. This is in part because the European game is so much more visible in this country--ESPN shows highlights of the EPL and the Serie A, but not the Liga MX or the Argentine Primera División. But it is also because in much of Latin America questions of race have been consciously obscured. As a result, for most people in the United States race and racism in Latin America are almost completely invisible.

Racism has existed in Latin American soccer since the arrival of the sport.  Chile famously protested its loss against Uruguay in the 1916 South American Championship due to the presence of two "Africans" in the Uruguayan squad. In Brazil, after the 1924 season, Rio's major teams (Flamengo, Fluminense, and Botafogo, among others) formed a breakaway league rather than play against the mixed race Vasco da Gama (in Portuguese, scroll to 1923).  Racism is, in fact, embedded in the definition of Brazil's futebol arte, but that is a post for another day. Today, I'd just like to call attention to some recent cases of racism--and fights against racism--going on in Honduran soccer, and look at some of the historical context behind questions of race in Honduras.

Before looking at all of that, I want to point out the parallel racial/ethnic dynamics in Honduras and some European nations. France is roughly 85 percent European, with a mixture of North African, Caribbean, West African, and Asian making up the rest of its population. In Italy, nearly 95 percent of the population is white, while England's white population stands at around 85 percent. Honduras is ostensibly a mestizo nation: according to official statistics approximately 90 percent of the population is a mixture of indigenous and European. Afro-Hondurans officially make up about 2 percent of the population, and indigenous peoples comprise the rest. [1]  Given the similar ethnic profiles of Honduras and European nations--and the propensity of racism in European soccer--perhaps racism in Honduran soccer should not come as a surprise. 

If you look at the Honduran national team, however, you could be forgiven for not thinking that Honduras was predominantly mestizo: roughly 50 percent of the players are of African descent. Of course, sports teams often do not accurately reflect the ethnic or racial make-up of a nation, as socio-economic realities of minority populations--in many places around the world--make sports seem like one of the only viable avenues out of poverty.  

The Johnny Palacios Affair
In October 2011, a couple of weeks before the Suárez and Terry incidents, Johnny Palacios made a stir in Honduras after receiving a red card in league match for talking back to the referee. Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and played for the Honduran national team from 2009-2011 (and whose brothers Jerry and Wilson still play on the national squad), accused the referee of racial abuse.  Asserting that the referee, Mario Moncada, had used racial epithets in the past, Palacios explained that he had grown tired of the taunts and was defending himself. According to Palacios, who plays for Olimpia and the Honduran national team, the referee called him a "black homosexual (negro culero)."[2] Moncada denied the charges, claiming that since he had a black grandchild he could not be racist and certainly would not use racist language. True or not, the allegations opened up a nagging question for Honduran soccer and Honduras in general. Palacios, by the way, received a three-game suspension for his red card. 

Wilson Nuñez, et al.
Palacios was not the first player to complain of racial abuse in Honduras. Milton "Tyson" Nuñez, a leading player on Honduran national teams from the mid-1990s until 2008, complained in 2009 of racial taunts that he suffered as a soccer player. Nuñez recounted that in stadiums and on the street people hurled racial slurs at him. Rodolfo Richardson Smith also remembered hearing racist chants during games in the Honduran professional league. More surprising, he said, was that even when playing for the national team, Hondurans insulted him based on his race. Smith noted that when he played well he had no problems, but if made a mistake on the field fans used racial epithets and threw rocks at his house. In 2013, while playing in professionally in Guatemala, Nuñez took off his shirt and shorts and walked off the field in the face of racist chants from opposing fans.  

Osman Chávez
In May 2011 Osman Chávez, central defender for the national squad and captain for the 2013 Gold Cup, began discussions with other Afro-Honduran players. They had grown tired of hearing racist taunts during games and seeing comments to articles posted on the Web that denigrated them based on their race. As a result, the players--Chávez, David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Hendry Thomas, and Wilson Palacios--along with non-black members of the national team agreed to boycott national media until the Honduran newspapers' online versions filtered out Web comments that disparaged their race. While the long-term effects of the campaign remain unknown, it generated a good deal of immediate interest. All of the Honduran newspapers picked up the story and one, Deportivo Diez, created an antiracism Facebook page. Chávez has begun to speak out whenever he can against racism.    

Institutional Soccer Racism?
Fans and referees are not the only ones accused of racism. In the past coaches and team directors discussed the "problems" of having "too many blacks" on the national team. Indeed, many coaches refuse to play black players in midfield, which is considered to be one of the more cerebral positions on the field. Instead, they prefer to play them in more "athletic" roles in defense, as strikers, or as wingers. One Honduran politician suggested that black players "are not intelligent" and bring down the play of the squad. Others think that racism does not exist in Honduran soccer and accuse black players of imagining the problem. Former national team psychologist Mauro Rosales suggested that Chávez and his colleagues overreacted to racist comments, claiming that "blacks, by nature, have low self-esteem and therefore look for ways to call attention to themselves." Still others affiliated with Honduran soccer dismiss charges of racism entirely. In an interview with the newspaper Proceso Digital, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, the president of the Honduran Soccer Federation and ex-president of the country, not only denied claims of racism in Honduran soccer but suggested that the word "racism" be "completely erased from the language" because Hondurans were not racist people. 

Context (because I'm a historian)
In fact, there is a long history of racism in Honduras, which is visible in the Honduran narrative about how Afro-Hondurans got to the country. According to the dominant history of the country, there are three Afro-Honduran groups, all of whom arrive well after colonization: the Miskito (a mixture of runaway slaves and indigenous), the Garifuna (deported to Roatán from St. Vincent by the British in 1797), and the negros ingleses (free blacks who left British Caribbean in the early- to mid- 1800s and settled in the Bay Islands, augmented by people brought to work on banana plantations in the late 1800s and early 1900s). Late arrivals, these populations never fully integrated with the rest of Honduras, and stayed segregated on the north coast and on the Bay Islands.  Or so the story goes. 

In fact, the Afro-Honduran population was much more integrated in Honduran society than many would have liked.  African slaves were a major part of Honduran society from its colonial beginnings. Though Honduran mines never contributed more than 5 percent to Spanish coffers, they still produced a good amount of ore and required slaves.  By 1540 more than 2000 enslaved Africans worked in Honduras. Comayagua, a town in the center of the country near Tegucigalpa and a major mining center throughout the colonial period, had at least four hundred enslaved Africans working in the mines. In the 1600s population statistics for people of African descent get spotty. Still, entire towns were populated by people of African heritage. In 1801, according to Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, the 7,910 people who lived in the towns of Yoro and Olanchito were "all mulattos."[3] In other words, when we scratch at the surface of race in Honduras, it becomes clear that the dominant narrative obscures more about race in Honduras than it shows.

In the early twentieth century, nationalist elites further obfuscated the question of race by consciously crafting a mestizo history for the country. This was happening in much of the region, as the indigenous past became a powerful tool for uniting people behind the idea of the modern nation. This drive had its most famous proponent in the Mexican José Vasconcelos. He wrote about a cosmic race, born of racial mixing in Latin America, which would lead the way to a greater human existence. Vasconcelos nevertheless retained a highly eurocentric view of supposed racial characteristics. To form the cosmic race, European rationality mixed with African passion and Native American simplicity and honor.

In Honduras intellectuals and government officials such as Alfonso Guillén Zelaya, Jesus Aguilar Paz, and Gregorio Ferrera followed Vasconcelos' lead. They began searching for indigenous heroes to add to the Honduran pantheon and to confirm the country's status as a mestizo nation. In the process they minimized the country's "primitive" African past by crafting historical narratives that excluded or vilified blacks. In the mid-1920s Honduran officials found their national hero: Lempira. A warrior from the Lenca indigenous group, Lempira valiantly led the fight against Spanish invaders in the 1530s until his death at the hands of the conquistadors. Although no images of the indigenous leader existed, the Honduran government produced one (which can still be seen today on the Honduran currency that bears his name). He fit the bill: he represented the racialized ideal of the indigenous man as noble, strong, and honorable.[4] In embracing Lempira, Honduran nationalists of the early twentieth century consciously chose to create an image of the nation built on European and indigenous bases, thereby ignoring--and erasing from national history to the extent possible--the black population. In other words, it was only in the early twentieth century that Honduras invented itself as a biracial nation. This bi-raciality was reinforced throughout the twentieth century in the Honduran education system and the census, which failed to recognize any category that allowed for African heritage.[5]

And So?
So these are some of the historical roots of racism in Honduras. What does it mean in soccer? On one hand, perhaps, little: since the first Honduran national soccer team took the field against Guatemala in 1921, Afro-Hondurans have been included on the team. On the other hand, national sporting icons who are black still suffer racist treatment at the hands of their compatriots.  There are no black coaches or referees in the Honduran first division. After generations of being invisible in the national narrative, Afro-Hondurans are still not considered fully Honduran. They remain outside of "normal" Honduran identity due to their skin color, and present a challenge to the dominant narrative that says to be Honduran is to be mestizo.

And what of our perception in the United States?  We could say that U.S. lack of understanding of racism in Honduran (and Latin American) soccer results from a double invisibility: it exists due to the historical invisibility of people of African descent in the region and is exacerbated by the overweening focus in the United States on the European game.
**Note: Some of the foregoing is material adapted from my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Fútbol!: Why Soccer Matters in Latin America, being published by the University of Florida Press. 
[1]  República de Honduras. Características generales de las Garífunas conforme a los resultados del XI censo nacional y de vivienda, año 2001, (Tegucigalpa: INE, 2001).

[2] Some sources report the slur as being "negro de mierda" (fucking black).
[3]Luz María Martínez Montiel, ed, Presencia Africana en Centroamérica (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 9; and Rafael Leiva Vivas, "Presencia negra en Honduras," in Presencia Africana en Centroamérica, edited by Luz María Martínez Montiel (Mexico City: Dirección General de Culturas Populares, 1993), 123. Gold peaked in production prior to 1565, after which it declined. But between 1540 and 1542, more than 200,000 pesos worth of gold came from Honduran mines. See Linda Newson, "Labor in the Colonial Mining Industry of Honduras," Americas 39, no. 2 (October 1982), 186, 193. See also William L. Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Colonial Central America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972). Sherman notes that black slaves were "more desirable" than indigenous people, and cost more--between 100 and 200 pesos in 1550. See ibid., 232-33 and note 387; and Robinson A. Herrera, "'Por que no sabemos firmar': Black Slaves in Early Guatemala," Americas 57, no. 2 (October 2000), 247 note. See also Robinson A. Herrera, Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Sixteenth-Century Santiago de Guatemala (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003); Mario Felipe Martínez Castillo, La Intendencia de Comayagua (Tegucigalpa: Litografía López, 2004), 12. 

[4] Dario Euraque, Estado, poder, nacionalidad y raza en la historia de Honduras (Choluteca: Ediciones Subirana, 1996), 79-81; and Breny Mendoza, "La desmitologización del mestizaje en Honduras," Mesoamérica 42 (December 2001): 266-68.

[5] The Honduran census of 2001 included African descended ethnicities for the first time since the early 1900s.

08 February 2013

On context (Hexagonal, part 1)

The U.S. Men’s National Team’s loss to Honduras on Wednesday generated a small wave of surprise and recrimination. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has come in for criticism for showing either a lack of respect for Los Catrachos or a bit of naïvete by playing a young defensive line with no cohesion. The surprise stems from the fact that while the Estadio Olimpico has been a difficult test for many national teams in the recent past, it has not been so for the United States—Honduras’ only home loss in the past two World Cup campaigns (2006/2010) was to the United States, which had won three straight in San Pedro Sula prior to Wednesday.

In fact, the loss should—and has been—put into context: away matches in the CONCACAF Hexagonal are always difficult, often due to the atmosphere in the host country. Typically, away teams confront sleepless nights defined by raucous crowds outside their hotels, see offensive graffiti on walls lining the route to the stadium, and face heaps of abuse—batteries and bags of urine, according to Jozy Altidore—at the hands of local fans. Matches themselves are scheduled to maximize the home team’s advantage.  For Wednesday’s game, the Honduran government called a national holiday in order to insure a packed stadium and streets full of supporters, and scheduled the game at 3 p.m. to maximize the mid-afternoon tropical heat. This is the case for all teams that play in Central America during the Hexagonal.

But soccer—especially international soccer—is rarely just soccer. Thus, the U.S. team often engenders more hostility than others, a fact that U.S. media outlets never fail to report. In the run-up to the February 6 match, however, journalists went beyond the usual commentary on hostile crowds. Instead, they highlighted the difficulty of play in a country as dangerous as Honduras, noting the “bleak picture of life in this beleaguered Central American country.”  Another recognized that conditions in Honduras were “much worse” than the last match between the two teams in San Pedro Sula, played months after a coup ousted democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. (Of course, social conditions tend to affect journalists much more than players, who travel to and from the field under heavy police protection and are very rarely victims of random crime, but that is another story.) Telling the U.S. audience about crime rates, however, does little more than set the scenario for the match and reinforce two-dimensional pictures of Central American nations as violent.

Just as the U.S. loss needs context, then, so too understanding conditions in Honduras can help explain why the U.S. team faces greater hostility than other opponents. Even if U.S. soccer pedigree fails to inspire fear in Central American fans, U.S. economic and political influence raises the symbolic stakes in qualifying matches. Historically, from the mid-nineteenth century filibustering expedition of William Walker to early twentieth century occupations and late twentieth century support for unpopular governments, the United States has played an outsized role in the domestic affairs of most Central American nations.

In the specific case of Honduras, the heightened emotions surrounding Wednesday’s match stem from more recent concerns. The short version goes something like this: in June 2009 Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from power and flown out of the country by the Honduran military. The U.S. government reportedly knew of the coup before hand, and in the immediate aftermath blocked the Organization of American States from suspending Honduras. It further legitimated the removal of the president by supporting new presidential elections. Since the inauguration of the new, more pro-U.S. president, Honduras has become a focal point in the U.S. War on Drugs, with increased funding and training for Honduran security forces.  But this has come at a cost. Some claim that 40 percent of the Honduran police are part of organized crime syndicates, while human rights abuses under the new government have skyrocketed. Indeed, the spike in the Honduran crime rate coincides with the 2009 undermining of democracy in the country. Little wonder, then, that Hondurans relish making the U.S. team as uncomfortable as possible.

While—given the present climate—San Pedro Sula is likely the hardest place that the United States will play in the Hexagonal, the team should expect a similar treatment in Panama later this year. Even in Costa Rica and Mexico, where U.S. interventions are farther in the past and influence-peddling seems less obvious, U.S. players should expect extra hostility. Soccer aside, the United States remains the regional hegemon. For the U.S. sports media, mentioning why the U.S. team is unpopular might help fans move beyond simplistic conceptions of Central America as violent or unstable to a deeper understanding of the politics at play in an international soccer match.