Divided Loyalties in the Home of the Brave

Divided Loyalties in the Home of the Brave

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.