08 December 2014

Marimachos*: On Women’s Football in Latin America

Note: this post first appeared on The Football Scholars Forum. The Forum is hosting a discussion on women's soccer on Thursday, Dec. 11 at 2 pm. For more information on how to participate via Skype, contact Alex Galaraza at galaraza.alex@gmail.com

By Brenda Elsey and Joshua Nadel
Dr. Brenda Elsey is an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and the author of Citizens and Sportsmen: Fútbol and Politics in Twentieth Century Chile. Follow her on twitter @politicultura. Dr. Joshua Nadel is assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history and associate director of the Global Studies Program at North Carolina Central University. His book Fútbol! Why Soccer Matters in Latin America was published in 2014. Follow him on twitter @jhnadel

Not to complain, but it’s not easy to be a feminist and a scholar of sports. On the one hand, many researchers are hostile to feminist scholarship. On the other hand, many feminist scholars express disgust at the mere mention of studying sport, seeing it as an overdetermined site of sexism. Even scholars who have embraced the study of masculinity and recognize the importance of gender often neglect to discuss how it shapes women’s lives. In practice, this has meant that men remain the protagonists of history.

In Latin America, there is a further criticism from our peers. Some argue that feminism is an imperialist imposition, an import that has distracted from the need to analyze economic and political inequalities, despite the fact that gender is a prime determinant of one’s position in both of those hierarchies. It is surprising how otherwise critical and brilliant minds react to this work. Several of the reactions can be grouped and, when taken seriously, reveal important assumptions that need to be overturned. In her excellent post, Jean Williams mentions similar misconceptions. We think it’s worth reflecting on them at length.

The first cluster of responses can be categorized as a “defensive reaction.” Instead of recognizing that the history of women’s sport sheds light on broader histories of the body and gender, a common reaction is to defend the neglect of women in previous studies. This line of argumentation features phrases such as, “it’s a different game altogether,” “women’s football doesn’t have a long history,” or the related, “not that many women play.” These unsubstantiated declarations require the feminist sport scholar to re-hash examples of women’s presence in football since the late nineteenth century. In Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador, women’s teams formed in port cities shortly after the first men’s teams. Scholars too frequently adopt the rhetoric of sportswriters to come to such conclusions.

Another problematic reaction is a discussion of the supposedly inherent inferiority of women athletes. It is problematic, firstly, because it is not a research question posed by historians. In other words, it is a tangential point. Furthermore, the assumption is that because women are less skilled than men, “no one” watches women’s team sports. This response falls flat on at least three counts. Firstly, academics do not study cultural practices only if they are popular. If we did, there would be much less scholarship out there. The inferiority argument assumes that preference is objective and rational, rather than relational. Long ago, Pierre Bourdieu demonstrated that taste is not created in a vacuum. Unfamiliarity and preconceptions shape the way we view women’s sports.

The more writers naturalize difference and taste, the more they support a ridiculous intellectual fallacy. It is easy to think of sports teams that are beloved, though not successful (the Detroit Lions and Chicago Cubs stand as two examples of this), or where truly inferior play is tolerated and televised (low-ranking Premier League teams). The rhetoric that no one cares about women’s sports because they are inferior should be recognized for what it is, a sexist exercise, in which the writer enjoys hero worship of male athletes, while dismissing women’s accomplishments.

Finally, the argument is ahistorical. Not only have women been playing soccer since the 19th century, people (gasp!, men too) have been watching women’s soccer for a long time: roughly 8,000 people showed up to watch two Costa Rican teams play in 1949, while average attendance at the 1971 Women’s World Championship in Mexico hovered around 25,000 per match.The finals saw the Estadio Azteca packed to capacity--over 100,000 people. This in spite of the fact that the Mexican Football Federation threatened professional teams with sanctions if they let the tournament play in their stadiums.

The narrative of inferiority fits conveniently into the narrative of women being uninterested in the sport, which is the story that FIFA and national federations like to tell. In this version of history, women began playing only in the 1980s, and when they did they found a supportive FIFA. This is a particularly cynical version of history, as it ignores successive attempts by soccer institutions across the world to impede the development of women’s soccer. In soccer terms, the English FA was the first to ban women’s soccer, in 1921. There are other well known prohibitions of women’s soccer, including Brazil. In the case of Latin America, where professionalism officially began later than Europe, women’s teams were part of the broader expansion of amateur clubs (see Brenda’s Citizens and Sportsmen). In addition, women took the lead in organizing official fan clubs. Football club statutes always stipulated categories for women, either as participants, or as “madrinas,” or godmothers.

Beyond the official exclusion of women, men have marginalized them, seeking an escape from domestic obligations within football. In the stands, fans insult the masculinity of opposing teams, characterizing them as feminine and questioning their heterosexuality. They have hinged weakness onto femininity, so women players invert one of the basic building blocks of the sport. Thus, female players are viewed as threatening, not only on the pitch and in the clubhouse, but in society more broadly. While Costa Rican women’s clubs gained respect throughout the region by the 1950s, they also prompted congressional hearings about the sports’ threats to public health. Brazil’s ban rested on the same “science”(see Josh’s Futbol!).

National football associations, which liberally use public funds, have neglected women athletes in Latin America. For example, the Argentine Football Association has not provided the thirteen professional women’s clubs with technical support, decent facilities, or publicity. To make matters worse, female coaches are terrified of being accused of improper sexual behavior towards others, and report that their community is on “high alert.” The result is that there is a reluctance to support female leaders. Mexico has had the same coach for the women’s national team since 1998, and he has retained his position after a year in which El Tri lost three times to its main rival, the United States, by a combined score of 15-0. No men’s team coach would survive.

On the eve of the draw of the Women’s World Cup of 2015, there has been even less media interest than four years ago. No television station picked up the Women’s Copa America, the qualifier for the Women’s World Cup, until after the tournament started, even though rights were free. When Argentina failed to qualify for the tournament, none of the major newspapers covered it. Last Tuesday, Ecuador played Trinidad and Tobago for the final spot in the World Cup 2015, but to find any mention of the Ecuadorian women, one has to dig below the headlines: English Premier League rankings or Barcelona players’ debt. On a regional level, despite the failure of the Boca Juniors’ women’s team to reach the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores, the South American club tournament, sportswriters had no comment. Instead, the following day El Gráfico picked up a story that ranked the “hottest” girlfriends and wives of male players.

If we place the blame on ourselves and journalists, it’s because fans are conditioned to care about people they know and to watch the sports they read about. For every writer like Grant Wahl, who has done a great service to women’s soccer by telling the stories of the USWNT and focusing attention on the sport, there are many more who think it’s unimportant. Worse still, many media outlets continue to belittle women athletes by commenting less on athletic prowess than on physical beauty and questioning women athletes about their desire for family life (which are never asked of men). Some, in fact, only discuss women in the context of botineras--wives and girlfriends--and always accompanied by sexualized imagery. And even coaches discuss the potential “benefit” of using “sex“ to market the game. This last link, just to be clear, is to a 2008 article originally published in Soccer Journal, the official publication of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

Radical ways of thinking about women and football are frequently dismissed as impractical, but are worth considering. Title IX, for all of its value, has consecrated segregation in sport. But If sport is indeed an idealized version of the world, why wouldn’t we want that place to be integrated? So we could argue in favor of integrated teams--like mixed doubles in tennis--at least at the Olympic level or as a stand alone event. Also, as Jean Williams and Jennifer Doyle have argued in the British and U.S. context, Latin American women may do better, so long as segregation is the rule, to form independent associations. Finally, we think that masculinity, as traditionally defined in the Americas, needs to be critiqued from the perspective of its harm to women. Allowing stadium violence, forgiving fans for misogynist chants, and ignoring the domestic violence abuses perpetrated by players, encourages homophobia and sexism. Despite its claims to care about women, FIFA showed no qualms about awarding a World Cup to Russia and Qatar, neither of which can claim to adhere to human rights protocols in regard to women or LGBT communities.

The study of sport from a feminist perspective, regardless of the challenges it faces, requires optimism: the study of oppression opens opportunities to explore how it can be overturned. Those who reject studying women’s football ignore strong evidence that athletic activity in young women’s lives improves their health, expands educational opportunities, and lessens their susceptibility to drug addiction and eating disorders. When we care about women’s football, we care first about women. That’s why the constant diminishing of its importance continues a long tradition of sexism.

* marimacho is a term that can be translated as tomboy or butch lesbian, depending on the context. For many years, it was an epithet thrown at women and girls who played soccer in Latin America. While less common than it once was, women’s soccer players still contend with embedded attitudes about sexuality and soccer.

07 November 2014

On the precariousness of women's soccer

Under the radar of our sports inundated country, two weeks ago the United States hosted a World Cup qualifying tournament that culminated last Sunday night at PPL Park in Chester, PA. The women’s teams of the United States, Costa Rica, and Mexico all qualified for Canada 2015, while Trinidad and Tobago face Ecuador in a playoff series starting tomorrow. In theory this event showcased the best women’s soccer teams in the region. In reality it brought into sharp relief the resource gap in women’s soccer and highlighted the continuing challenges faced by women’s soccer worldwide. Simply put, while some teams get support from their federations, others receive almost none. Women's soccer, and support for it, is still in a precarious state. Institutions support it, but many do so grudgingly and under duress.  

First, the good: Costa Rica’s fifteen-year investment in women’s and girls’ soccer bore fruit with the team’s first World Cup berth. Mexico, though it has stagnated since World Cup 2011, still receives substantial support from its federation. And the United States…well, the US women’s team is the best funded in the region (even if it suffers in comparison to the resources given to the US men). Not surprisingly, the three most well-funded teams in the tournament advanced. Funding means—at a minimum—full time coaches and staff, training camps, and equipment. Most teams in the region fail to provide even these basic needs for their women’s teams.

Indeed, the five other teams in tournament—Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, and Trinidad and Tobago—showed clearly the problems that women’s soccer faces. Guatemala practices only two times per week, in part because the players need to work or study; the team receives no money for stipends. The Haitian team has no funding from the Haitian federation, and has an all-volunteer staff. Trinidad and Tobago also has a volunteer coach—Randy Waldrum, the former Notre Dame women’s coach. His pedigree aside, the Trinidad and Tobago federation has shown little actual interest in the team. When the Women Soca Warriors arrived in Dallas, they had been given $500 to last for a week: from when the team arrived until the tournament began. Waldrum took to Twitter for help, managing to raise nearly $17,000 from a crowd-funding site established by Jen Cooper (including $658 from Haiti, which was returned).

Jamaica too took to social media to fund its team—the Reggae Girlz. But unlike their Caribbean rivals, Jamaica’s campaign was spearheaded by the Jamaican Football Federation and Cedella Marley. Marley, Bob Marley’s daughter and head of the House of Marley enterprises became involved when her son brought home a flyer about the Jamaican women’s team. She initially offered “a donation” to the Reggae Girlz, but the federation had different ideas. It proposed instead that Marley become the face of the team, someone who—in her words— could “get… the word out there about the program, and…bring some sponsors to the table.” For her, the choice was easy: given her belief that “every girl should get the chance to accomplish whatever their dreams are” she said, “I just wanted to give them a chance to represent.” Without intending to, Marley became the Reggae Girlz global ambassador. With the blessing of the federation, Marley quickly put together a fundraising campaign, both inside and outside of Jamaica. Tuffgong Records produced a series of videos to introduce the team, and Marley hired an independent sports marketing firm to create an Indiegogo campaign in the United States. Over all, the team raised about $200,000.

Trinidad and Tobago’s coach Waldrum noted that the crowd funding of women’s soccer shows that “we can all come together in time of need.” And while stories of teams helping each other and “five dollars here, ten dollars there” donations are heart-warming, handouts do little to help the sport in the long run. Indeed, the unconventional and short-term nature of crowd funding could even undercut institutional support for women’s soccer. Financing teams through emergency appeals—much like appeals for humanitarian aid—is neither healthy nor sustainable. Federations cannot adequately budget for coaches and training staff, stipends, meals and housing, if they have no control over the funding stream.

And herein lies the problem for women’s football. While outside support for women’s soccer is great, it should not be necessary. These federations have money, which can be seen in the support and sponsorship for the men’s national team. The Reggae Boyz, the Jamaican men’s team, reportedly received $7.5 million for their failed bid to qualify for Brazil 2014; we did not hear of desperate funding needs from either Haiti or Trinidad and Tobago in the early rounds of men’s CONCACAF qualifying (though Trinidad and Tobago have historical problems with making payments to players and coaches). Federations receive funds from FIFA and from sponsors, and then set priorities and budgets. Up to now, most national federations have opted not to fund women. In fact, many regional member associations provide only the FIFA mandate $37,500 per year for all women’s soccer programs. Only a few—the United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and (with Cedella Marley’s support) now Jamaica—place res

So what did this tournament show us? In terms of soccer, it showed that the skills gap is closing. But more importantly--and disturbingly--the CONCACAF Women’s Championship reinforced that women’s soccer has a long way to go in the region before it is sustainable. And while in Jamaica Cedella Marley has committed to supporting the Reggae Girlz for the long-term, most women’s soccer teams will have to continue without the backing of national federations. After Trinidad and Tobago’s loss to Mexico, which sent the island nation to a home-and-away playoff series against Ecuador, a journalist asked coach Waldrum how the team would find resources to prepare. His immediate answer was simple: “I don’t know.”

23 May 2014

Divided City, Divided Loyalties?

Not sure why it took me so long to post this, about Kosovo's first official match...But here it is..
A number of people asked me which side I was on prior to the Haiti-Kosovo friendly in Mitrovica 6 weeks ago. I seem to be a rarity among my friends: I lived in both places and experienced soccer in both places—in vastly different ways. 
Two experiences stand out in Haiti. The house I lived in was in a zone of Port-au-Prince called Bois Patate. In the hills above was a religious school called the Grand Seminaire de Notre Dame de Cazeau, which at the time had a dusty soccer pitch that constantly teemed with people playing pick up. A housemate of mine and I would go running, and occasionally we’d end up at the Seminaire, sweating and covered in a combination of diesel and dust, watching the play as we cooled down. The games were always good-natured, but rough in the kind of haphazard way that pick up soccer often is: players have less control than they think they do, so bodies hit the ground with something bordering on regularity. One day after our run we were sitting on a wall watching the proceedings when some young men approached and asked if we wanted to play. We probably tried to beg off playing—having just been running we were tired, we weren’t very good—to no avail. After not playing soccer for more than ten years, I was thrust into a game. I don’t remember much from the game, other than gasping for breath, and Haitian youth running around and over me. And I remember the joy. 
I returned to Haiti in June 1998 to do some research on my thesis. The country was caught in the thrall of the World Cup. To me, the preparations and celebrations around the tournament reflected sociocultural realities. As one traveled in Port-au-Prince or Delmas, residents demarcated their neighborhoods with colors hanging from the telephone wires and electrical poles. The yellow, green, and blue of Brazil by far dominated the cityscape, with smatterings of Argentina’s blue and white. But the second most common flag was the tricolor of France. Especially as you drove up the hill into the posher neighborhoods around Petionville, Brazilian flags gave way to the blue, white, and red of La France, displaying the cultural affinities of many wealthier Haitians. I watched the final at a beach resort, surrounded by French supporters, and celebrating with them as if I had wanted les bleus to win. But with the end of the World Cup, as so often happens, victors and vanquished came together in celebration. 
Working with the International Rescue Committee in Kosovo, I lived in a couple of different cities, but I eventually moved to the southern part of Kosovo, to Gnijane/Gjilan. The region was divided into ethnic enclaves—Serbian villagers travelled to the gas station in heavily protected military convoys—and each Serbian town had a small military post on the main entrance roads. Yet , one of the signal successes of IRC in Gnjilane/Gjilan was the creation of a multi-ethnic youth center in town. And the opening celebration happened to coincide with the semi-finals of the 2000 European Championship. Along with the usual self-congratulatory speeches, the event had food, a dj for dancing, and—crucially—inside a small 8x10 room was the one thing that everyone wanted: a television to watch France-Portugal. The night was marvelous. Serbian and Albanian youth—male and female—gathered together to watch a sporting event whose outcome mattered little to them. But the force of the event, more even than the youth center opening, brought them all into close proximity for the first time in months, even years and gave them a sort of common ground. 
But sometimes soccer outcomes mattered in Kosovo. The Kosovo soccer league is serious business. Not because of the quality of play, but because it is a business. Outside of FIFA auspices at the time, the league was riddled with corruption at all levels, and the outcome of games could be accurately predicted well before kickoff.  I attended one game when I lived in Gjilan/Gnjilane, a local derby between Drita K.F. and Gjilan K.F. that would go a long way to deciding that season’s Kosovar Cup. As with all local derbies, tensions ran high in town for days in the lead up to the match, even though there were no ethnic affiliations on the line: both clubs comprised Kosovo Albanians. Security was tight. The local UN civilian administrator had ordered the UN police out in force, so a unit of Turkish police lined the front of the stands on either side of the pitch. I attended with a co-worker of mine whose brother would go on to captain the Drita to the Cup championship the following year. 
I admit that I don't remember the details of the match. Drita took the lead in the first half to the delight of our section, and people around me began shaking the chain-link fence at the front of the stands. The second half started 2-0 Drita. But then a goal for Gjilan brought them back into the match. Drita fans and players alike called for offsides. The goal stood. The Drita players began focusing on the referee more than on the game, with the Drita goalie refusing to go back to his goalmouth. A yellow card. He walked back towards his goal. Five minutes later, the referee gave a penalty kick for what was a clear dive by Gjilan’s striker. The entire Drita team rushed the referee, complaining about the call. He walked away, Drita followed. The Drita stands shook with rage while across the field Gjilan supporters celebrated their good fortune: all they needed was a tie to move on in the competition.  After another ten minutes of complaints, threats, and yellow cards handed out by the referee, it happened. 
Out onto the pitch walked a man in a suit. He was flanked by U.N. police and carried a microphone. As the UN municipal administrator spoke, the fans sat in stunned silence. What was happening? Then the translator spoke and the fans erupted: due to the attitudes on the pitch, the U.N. representative canceled the game and gave the victory to Gjilan KF. 
Somehow the teams—and the referee—made it off the field safely. But then pandemonium broke loose. On our side, the Turkish police extended their collapsible metal batons to full length and began beating the hands of fans shaking the fence. They used mace on the people closest them. Meanwhile, the Gjilan fans streamed across the field, provoking even more rage from the Drita fans. UN police seemed unable to stop the advance of the Gjilan crowd, which would have spelled disaster had they reached Drita. Sensing the impending danger, the unarmed Kosovo Security Force—the fledgling security force made up of former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters—made a line at the edge of the field, linking hands to keep the surging Gjilan crowd back. Suddenly, the situation defused. The Gjilan fans respectfully stayed behind the KSF line, while we in the Drita stands began to tend to fingers and faces. Within a half-hour, the whole crowd was walking back through town, amid U.S. armored personnel carriers and other military vehicles that had been called in as back up. 
It’s hard to imagine what members of the Haitian national team thought about Kosovo in March. I spent a couple of very long, very cold months in Mitrovica, then as now a city divided physically and ethnically by the Ibar River. At the time, the only way to cross from the Albanian dominated southern Mitrovica into the Serbian northern portion was through French military checkpoints over a bridge thick with brambles of barbed wire. Certainly, the Haitian players would have picked up on the tension in the air. I remember it as palpable, and the name of the soccer stadium—Adem Jashari Stadium—suggests that reconciliation remains a long way off. Jashari is considered the father of the Kosovo Liberation Army and was killed, along with over fifty members of his family, in 1998. 
And, for those who care: my heart was with Haiti. 

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.