There are a handful of situations in which you might find yourself swallowed amongst a chorus of “U-S-A!” chants. An international soccer match between the United States and Mexico, I can say with great certainty, is a safe bet to be one of them.
Yes, I had expected a friendly between the U.S. men’s national soccer team and Mexico to be rife with aggressive displays of jingoism, but I hadn’t quite considered how these fan behaviors would manifest in the stands, parking lot, and bathrooms of my very own Lincoln Financial Field on a warm August evening in Philadelphia.
As we approach the stadium on foot, with trumpets blaring into the night sky and the crowd’s hum increasing with every step, I become giddy with anticipation. It is Jurgen Klinsmann’s first match as head coach of the U.S. national squad. Drenched in the darkness of the increasingly vacating parking lot, I find myself both lost in the haze of the moment and acutely aware of my surroundings. As we enter through the stadium gates, drunk kids in their twenties roll through the promenades like posses of bumblebees–large and loud, clumsily straying from the back from time to time, but all together harmless.
I stroll up to a concession stand and look from side to side. People are dressed up, faces painted, outfits and wigs in every direction. It’s as though someone combined the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Cinco de Mayo into one holliday. Amongst the chaos of colors and costumes, there is a sense of multicultural anonymity. Soccer games in the U.S. tend to draw a diverse mix of people. Namely, because of America’s hesitancy to embrace soccer (which, although rapidly diminishing, still exists), professional matches tend to attract immigrants who come from countries where soccer=life (i.e. every other country besides the U.S., and perhaps Canada), as well as U.S.-born minorities who have ties to soccer-obsessed communities.
I order a bucket of curly fries with cheese sauce and a few beers as I glance over at a girl next to me. She is roughly 21-years-old and has face paint on each rosy cheek of her light brown skin–a blue stripe, followed by a red one, and then white. I ask her if she is French as some sort of visceral reaction to these rectangular blocks of paint. The colors, of course, are to show support for the Americans–yet my initial assumption had come from some sort of international lens through which I was viewing the events of that evening. Soccer, to me, is still somewhat of a niche spectator sport in America. It would not have surprised me to see a French girl there simply to support the game and watch a good international match. Alas, the American girl’s paint merely resembled the French flag and after a short chat, we bid her adieu.
As we make our way to our seats, I quickly confirm my suspicions that I had purchased tickets in the Mexico cheering section, directly behind the goal that, for the first half, will be guarded by U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. Scanning the crowds, I realize that there are multiple families here, some of which take up entire rows. Young and old people alike chat enthusiastically as the players emerge from the tunnel. Others chant songs, hopping up and down in unison. The stadium is by no means sold-out. The upper-levels are mostly empty, but the lower sections are seemingly packed , creating a vibrant atmosphere at least resembling that of a sell-out crowd. In front of us are some shirtless drunks. They are white male college students who seem out to gain as much enjoyment from causing a ruckus in the stands as they will from watching the game.
During the Mexican national anthem, one of the more portly members of this group stands on his seat and turns around. Behind us, there is at least six or seven rows of Mexican supporters–mostly young men, but also parents with kids and a few senior citizens. The shirtless yank raises his hands high in the air as he gives both middle fingers to the crowd behind him. I am caught off-guard at the audacity of this disrespectful maneuver. I had expected vulgarities and insults, sure, but this display of ethnocentric contempt is so assertively diffuse–so noticeable in sheer garishness–that I had to take pause. Even his buddies tugged at his shorts as the anthem carried on. As I turn around to gauge the reaction of the Mexican fans, I am met with a surprisingly blasé, if not amused, set of looks.
Many of the young Mexican men are returning the favor, silently giving back the middle finger, while others throw chips and fries in the shirtless offender’s direction. The Mexican fans are laughing though, clearly unintimidated by a singular jack-ass, almost impressed by the enthusiasm of his taunt. The Mexicans seem to be welcoming this sort of animosity and, oddly, from all of this, I notice early on that there is a camaraderie developing, not amongst the Mexican fans (who are already as close-knit as family), but between the supposedly conflicting U.S. and Mexican supporters.
During the second half, as the ball is played back and forth on the far side of the pitch, a young Mexican fan about my age attempts to strike up some conversation with me and my friends. I attempt to focus on the game, but he is very friendly and persistent, so I eventually engage with him. I throw in some Spanish, he asks me if I’m a student, but it’s not long before he wants to see if I need some mota for the post-game party. He is especially persistent now that the score is 1-0 in favor of Mexico, his thinking being that I won’t be as interested if the U.S. does indeed end up losing. I assure him that won’t be the case, and thanks anyway, but I stop for a minute to consider the relation between the game at hand and this young man’s leverage in a drug deal.
Perhaps he thought that if the U.S. lost, I would be less inclined to speak with him after the game, let alone do business with the “enemy”. It seemed clear to me that he believed I would not handle the bitter taste of defeat very well. And to his credit, I think his assessment of the temperament of the U.S. fans in general that evening was accurate. The Mexican fans are withered veterans of the taunts and insults that occur between fans each game, not to mention of everyday racism that goes on outside of the stadium. They seemed more at peace in the presence of el juego bonito (“the beautiful game” of soccer) than their white, American-born counterparts. They seemed in control, especially with the comfort of knowing that their squad has historically been superior to the American side.
After ending my conversation with the young man, I return my attention to the game. Shortly after, the U.S. scores an equalizer and me and the young man shake hands in approval of a hard-fought draw.
As we filter into the bathrooms before leaving the stadium, drunk American men seem more petulant than their Mexican counterparts. They mutter racial slurs under their breath and continue on with the U-S-A chants. The Mexicans in the bathroom are also rowdy, chirping at each other from across stalls about the game. One Mexican man laments the absence of Chicharito, Mexico’s best player, claiming his presence would have resulted in a Mexican victory.
After navigating through throngs of people on our way to the AT&T subway station, we find our way onto one of the train cars. There, a young man in cargo shorts with a red, white, and blue wig appears to be taunting a young Mexican couple standing on the platform. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the clownish white man pulls out a wad of cash from his pocket and spreads it out across his hands. It’s a comical display, yet there is something disturbing about its implications. Both parties curse at each other between the glass window of the subway car as we slowly accelerate north toward City Hall.
You didn’t have to be crazy about soccer to have enjoyed this game. A friendly soccer match between two neighboring nations is a cultural event as much as it is a sports event. As families, college students, soccer fans, and everyone in between poured into the stadium that evening, we left behind the traditional boundaries and divisions from the outside world. Many of the outspoken American supporters engaged in typical displays of chauvinism and arrogance, while Mexican fans treated the rivalry with confident respect. There are certain rules of behavior that accompany soccer culture, many of which Americans have yet to learn. Of course, hooliganism and other violent fan behaviors exist outside of the United States, but I still worry about the underlying racism and xenophobia that went on that night. The Mexicans handled these disrespectful behaviors with ease, temporarily assuaging my fears of any serious conflict. Sometime soon, however, I hope American fans can foster a deeper respect for their opponents. In doing so, perhaps Americans as a whole can come to foster a deeper respect for their fellow citizens, no matter their race or nationality or which international soccer team they happen to support.