Column (Jamie Kapalko): Hispanic influence to make soccer American sport

Jamie Kapalko

Electrified fans packed the stands. Reliant Stadium rocked fiercely with their cheers. As they groaned, the stadium sank into the marshy Houston earth. As they celebrated, it rose, weightless and shook. Only the rectangle of turf in the middle of the mayhem stayed still.

Serious soccer supporters could have almost felt validated that night last week, watching the U.S. national team playing in front of these fans. Most American sports fans laugh at the idea of serious soccer catching on here. Sure, we watch the World Cup, if baseball’s not on. We’re vaguely familiar with Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan. But soccer will never be American in the way that football, baseball and basketball are. It’s boring, the rules don’t make sense and the players act like babies when they fall.

But at this soccer game, played in our country, how could anyone deny that the sport has a real presence here?

They danced, they cheered and they chanted. They love soccer, and they love their team. They shouted it for anyone within a 100-mile radius to hear:

“Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!”

The stadium held 70,103 people. And most of them were wearing green.

“It’s nice [for Mexico] to have two home countries to play in,” said U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra the last time the two teams met on U.S. soil. How could he, or any other American player, not be a little bit jealous?

In 2007 both the Mexican and the U.S. national teams played in the United States 12 times (matching up against each other twice). The average attendance at Mexico’s games was 53,207, according to the Los Angeles Times. The average attendance at the U.S. games? 32,754.

The 2010 and 2014 World Cups will be broadcast in the United States in English and Spanish. Univision paid $325 million for the rights to the Spanish-language broadcasts. Disney coughed up $100 million to show the English versions on ABC and ESPN.

“There’s a quote from French philosopher Auguste Comte that ‘demography is destiny,’ and it’s pretty apropos to what’s happening in this country,” said Will Wilson, executive vice president of Soccer United Marketing. “It’s very hard to deny the demographic shift that’s happened in the U.S. over the last 10 or 15 years. The high percentage of Mexicans who are part of that shift means the demand for soccer has grown exponentially.”

And if the demand isn’t met by what the country already offers, they’re going to do it themselves. American adults traditionally play in slow-pitch softball or weeknight basketball leagues. Forget the lack of interest in soccer; just imagine the first-baseman from Gilligan’s Auto Parts trying to drag his beer gut around a soccer field for an hour.

High registration fees and the language barrier are also deterrents when it comes to preexisting American leagues.

But soccer is the first love of many Hispanics, and they want to play. Amateur Hispanic soccer leagues have sprouted up all over the country – not just in the Southwest, or in California, where the Hispanic population has become the majority, but in places like Virginia, Delaware, Ohio and Nebraska.

“Twenty years ago, you might find a single Hispanic team in a gringo league,” Tim Wallace, president of one league in Raleigh, N.C., told MSNBC. Wallace’s league today has 40 teams and 1,300 players.

As people scoff and say that soccer simply doesn’t fit the United States, the country transforms to fit soccer. The Census Bureau says that 25 percent of the population will be Hispanic by 2050. In 35 of the 50 largest cities in the country, non-Hispanic whites are or will soon be the minority. Americans debate border control and guest worker programs, and the immigrants keep coming.

Like Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Hispanic immigrants often lived close to each other. The Italians, too, faced a language barrier and lived in poor conditions in “Little Italy” neighborhoods. The Italians, as well as the Irish, faced discrimination. They ate “strange” food and had “weird” customs. They worked the most humble jobs. They were stereotyped as Mafia members or alcoholics, respectively, and Americans hurled nicknames like “wop” and “mick” – just as they fire “spic” or “wet-back” at Mexican-Americans today.

And after awhile, they and much of their culture became seamlessly ingrained in American life.

Right now Latino immigrants play soccer in their own leagues because they aren’t comfortable with the traditional American way, and traditionalist Americans aren’t comfortable with theirs. But someday, like two pieces of firm clay pressed against each other, they will soften and blend, streaks of one running through the other. Someday, soccer will be an American sport. The offsides rule that Americans don’t understand, the theatrics of players faking injury that provoke rolled eyes – these things don’t have to change. America is changing instead.

Right now Latino immigrants fill American stadiums on gameday to root for their home country, and cheers of “Mexico! Mexico! Mexico!” resound loudly throughout the packed venues.

Someday these people and others will fill American stadiums to root for their home country, but the cheers filling the stadium, reverberating off the walls and echoing into the sky will be different: “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”

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Jamie Kapalko is a junior English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]