Midfield General

Divided Loyalties in the Home of the Brave

Why do some immigrant soccer fans root for the United States, while others don’t?

In England, it was called the Tebbit Test. The right-wing politician Norman Tebbit suggested in 1990 that immigrants from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean would not be truly assimilated until they supported their new country, rather than their respective homelands, in cricket. Thankfully, we have no such test in the United States; in a nation of immigrants, plenty of people feel allegiance to more than one team. But why is the American World Cup squad winning over more and more people with strong links to other nations?

It's such a facet of soccer culture here that even advertisers have addressed it. A World Cup commercial playing right now shows "Luis," who seems to be college-aged, setting up a TV in his garage to watch a game. His father, clad in a green jersey that seems to represent Mexico, casts a baleful glance at his son's arriving guests, decked out in red, white, and blue regalia -- clearly fans of the United States. It's a family version of the United States/Mexico rivalry, one that is undoubtedly playing out in a few households across the country. But rivalries like this one need not be zero-sum.

Back in 2006, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati had relatively modest goals for the organization, claiming that one aim was to become the "second team" of many Latino soccer fans. "My goal is to figure out for those people that have a great avidity for the El Salvadoran and Mexican national teams is how we become their second team," he said, "so that if we're playing Mexico they may not cheer for us, but when we're playing Argentina, they cheer for us."

The thing is, soccer passion doesn't exactly work that way. Yes, there are many fans who have developed an affection for the American squad that runs a distant second to the loyalty they have for their primary team. Here's Gulati's vision has come true, especially for U.S.-based fans of teams that did not even make the World Cup, such as El Salvador, Panama, and Guatemala.

For them and many others, cheering the American team on is a novelty, because their own homeland has never competed at the same level. Filipino-Americans may cheer for the team partly because American goalkeeper Nick Rimando shares a connection to the island nation, or perhaps simply because it's an opportunity to celebrate the excitement of soccer's biggest tournament?

It's a sentiment I can relate to, given that my mother's family is from Nicaragua, and my father's background is Puerto Rican. Neither team -- yes, Puerto Rico has its own, as in baseball and basketball -- is likely to ever make a World Cup tournament. 

Yet today there are also many immigrant fans whose appreciation of American soccer has gone even further. They consider the United States Men's National Team (USMNT) their true team, their first choice to cheer and support.

An important factor is the diversity of the American team, often a product of immigration as well. People who often represent "diversity" themselves can feel comfortable cheering for a team with players of Hispanic, African-American, European, and multiracial backgrounds. The team speaks a mix of different languages, notably including German and Spanish, along with English, giving the squad an international flavor in keeping with the worldwide reach of the sport.

A simple issue of quality is at play as well. Soccer in the United States is coming of age, and there's not really a reason for even dedicated aficionados to cringe when the USMNT takes the field. They're a pretty good team, worth a cheer.

For some, the American squad also promotes a national identity that they support. This includes the popularity of the sport among female players and their acceptance in the national culture as full participants, not just cheerleaders, of the beautiful game.

Finally, as the commercial suggested, there's also the generational issue. Young immigrants in the United States may not feel the ties that bind to a faraway homeland in the same way as their parents do. Coming out of the closet of American fandom is a way of establishing their own distinct identities as sports fans. It's saying, essentially, that they love the game in the way the older generation taught them to care for it and respect it; they just cheer for another team.

Michael Brown / Getty Images


Hong Kong Gets Out the Vote

And Beijing is not happy.

Over the past four days, more than 700,000 people in Hong Kong have presented the Chinese government with one of its worst nightmares: a peaceful process that challenges Beijing's authority under international law. As of June 23, according to some estimates, as many as one in five registered voters have cast ballots through a non-binding, city-wide referendum to choose among three proposals for political reform in Hong Kong -- ignoring threats from the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the process.

The challenge Beijing faces is clear: should it grant real autonomy to Hong Kong's 7.2 million citizens, and allow them to decide whom to elect and how? Or should it try to crush democratic aspirations among its citizens, as it has done many times before?

On June 20, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a democracy advocacy group founded by academics in Hong Kong, launched the 10-day vote, which is open to people carrying Hong Kong identification cards. Beijing has promised Hong Kongers universal suffrage. But people in Hong Kong -- although freer than their compatriots on the mainland -- have long been denied full political rights. Hong Kong was under British colonial rule since the early 1840s, but its first legislative elections were not held until 1991. The Basic Law, Hong Kong's quasi-constitution which went into effect in 1997, envisioned progress towards universal suffrage for all elected offices as early as 2007 and guarantees the territory a "high degree of autonomy."

This, however, is not true in practice. Under its byzantine electoral system, all eligible voters can cast a ballot in a geographical constituency, while several thousand people have an additional vote via professional or "functional" constituencies in the Legislative Council, the territory's legislature. Only 1,200 people -- hand-picked by Beijing -- get to vote for the territory's chief executive. The fundamental problem is that the vote of one elector is not, as stipulated by international law, equal to the vote of another.

Over the decades, Beijing, pro-China leaders in Hong Kong, and many in the territory's important and influential business community, have repeatedly claimed that the territory's citizens are interested only in making money, not in politics. But Hong Kong regularly posts respectable turnout rates for elections, and tens of thousands in the territory participate each year in the candlelight vigil to commemorate the anniversary of Beijing's Tiananmen Massacre.

Some casting ballots via Occupy Central with Love and Peace have expressed growing frustration and a sense of marginalization. In diverse policy areas -- from planning for a new town to education policy -- the Hong Kong government has failed to respond to the interests of the majority.

Hong Kong and Beijing authorities should see this vote as demonstrating deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. Without the long-promised electoral reforms, some Hong Kongers will continue to consider their government as doing the bidding of the territory's privileged few and of Beijing, and will continue to oppose many of its policies.

For the Chinese Communist Party, the idea of allowing greater political rights in Hong Kong appears to be anathema. After all, for 60 years it has insisted that it is the people's choice of governing party -- while refusing to allow a vote that might disprove that belief. In Hong Kong, Beijing has long made its views clear by insisting that it would decide who should be eligible to run the territory based on that person's "loyalty" and "patriotism." Worryingly, on June 10 Beijing issued a white paper that appeared to gut key elements of the Basic Law, including Hong Kong's autonomy, and the idea that the nomination process for chief executive could be made democratic. Anyone relying on Chinese compliance with agreed international treaties should be worried by such conduct.

If Chinese central and Hong Kong authorities fail to generate proposals for electoral reform in Hong Kong that conform to international standards, Occupy Central with Love and Peace has pledged to take its online activism on to the streets, in a gesture of peaceful civil disobedience. Judging by Chinese leaders' reactions to popular demands elsewhere -- whether from house church members, ethnic minorities, or urbanites concerned about the environment -- Beijing's response is unlikely to be moderate.

Meanwhile, the international community has been largely silent in the face of Beijing's threats and intimidation towards Hong Kong. The United States, European Union, and Britain all backed the international treaty known as the Joint Declaration that governed Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty and set out unambiguous human rights guarantees -- and all have identified progress towards political rights in Hong Kong as a priority. Now is the time for them to loudly voice their support for basic rights and freedoms.

Many Hong Kong citizens have made their views perfectly clear. From the right to participate in politics, the right to express those views, and their right to demonstrate peacefully as a means of manifesting change, international law is on their side. Who else is?