First SwineFlu, Now This

Muhammad Umar JawedCorrespondent IAugust 12, 2009

Barack Obama and a number of his cabinet members are only the second-most prominent American team to descend on Mexico this week (the U.S. president traveled to Guadalajara for the annual "Rodney Dangerfield summit," where Canada and Mexico try to get some respect from their disinterested neighbor). Most Mexicans are paying far more attention to the visit of a different delegation from north of the Rio Grande, the U.S. national soccer team that takes on Mexico in a crucial World Cup qualifying match at Mexico City's imposing Aztec Stadium on Wednesday.

No matter how bad things were at any given time, and no matter how powerless their country appeared in the shadows of the colossus to the north, Mexicans used to count on being able to trounce the gringos at soccer, which kind of made up for everything else. The United States, which for decades failed to qualify for any World Cup, did not beat Mexico once in the world's most popular sport between 1934 and 1980.

I grew up in Mexico, and I can tell you: Games in the 1970s and '80s were so one-sided they were painful to watch. Think the U.S. "dream team" taking on...well, Mexico, at basketball. Back then, the disparity in playing levels between the countries was so great that I can recall feeling like Pelé when playing against Americans my age at summer camp, even though I was nothing exceptional back home.

All that has changed, of course, as the popularity of soccer exploded in the United States, at least as a youth activity. In the last two decades, the U.S.-Mexico rivalry for regional supremacy has become one of the fiercest in all international soccer. And the United States has gained the upper hand more recently in head-to-head match-ups, though it has yet to win in Mexico City. Ever.

Which is why Wednesday's match is huge. Only three countries from the Caribbean, Central American, and North American regions will qualify for next year's World Cup in South Africa (a fourth could sneak in, but I will spare you the details). Despite an impressive win against the Americans in New York last month, Mexico has been floundering in this round of World Cup qualifying matches, losing to the likes of Costa Rica and Honduras.

The Americans are doing far better, and there is much anxiety in Mexico that in this year of epochal plagues (severe U.S. recession + swine flu virus = GDP plummeting at a more than 10 percent rate last quarter, and that's not even mentioning the drug wars) the gringos could finally conquer "El Tricolor" in Mexico City, a trauma that could jeopardize Mexico's ticket to the World Cup.

It's hard to overstate what a blow this would be to Mexicans' collective psyche. But the rise of U.S. soccer is equally galling to people in other countries, who feel the United States is crashing the only party it doesn't already preside over.

Soccer, after all, is the only form of global pop culture not made or dominated by the USA. Take kids from Mexico, Ghana, Germany, and Japan, and all the things they will have in common—English possibly, music, movies, consumer brand allegiances—will likely be American. Except, that is, for soccer. Throw an American kid in the mix, and he is likely to be the only one to draw a blank as the others express dismay at Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo's $133.5 million transfer fee from Manchester United to Real Madrid.

But if international soccer is the sole threat to American cultural hegemony, the United States has become the sport's China. People around the world chuckled at Americans' claims during the run-up to the 1994 World Cup (held in the United States) that their country would soon become a true player in the world's most popular sport. They laughed at Deng Xiaoping in the mid-1980s, too, when he announced he was going to open up and modernize China's economy.

Much like China, the United States has a vast labor force to tap into (young soccer players, that is, straining the analogy). Most of them seem to grow up watching football—American football!—on TV, retarding the development of a higher-caliber professional U.S. league. But soccer has for some time now ranked as the most popular sport for little kids in the country to play.

Talk to Mexicans about U.S. soccer, and the China analogy seems apt. The Americans, you hear from anxious fans, are relentless and disciplined; there are so many of them playing; and they are so organized in how they go about developing their national strategy. Their progress is inexorable!

And like China, the United States has had to develop as an export-driven market for its top products, given the modest size of its domestic market. About half the American players who take to the field Wednesday play for clubs in European leagues (these national teams, like the U.S. basketball dream team, are essentially all-star squads whose players come together to play other countries from their respective club teams). The U.S. domestic professional league, Major League Soccer (MLS), has proven adept at developing young talent, but top American prospects can earn a lot more money in Europe.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but it is the relative weakness of its domestic league that has helped the United States close the gap with Mexico. The U.S. neighbor to the south has one of the richest professional leagues outside Europe, so far fewer of its players feel the need to play overseas. Except for a handful of top prospects, Mexicans can earn as much playing at home, where the food is better.

The typical payroll for a Mexican club team might be three or four times greater than that of an MLS team, typically no more than $3 million. Meanwhile, the richest European clubs in Spain and England boast payrolls almost 100 times greater. Indeed, you can buy an entire MLS franchise for less than what Real Madrid had to fork over to sign Cristiano Ronaldo.

But for Mexico, stuck in a familiar purgatory between low-cost competition (as in the real China, U.S. soccer) and high-value European leagues, long-term trends are ominous. Fewer of its national team players are exposed to the same fast-paced level of play that their American opponents are forced to compete in.

What irritates Mexicans, even more than the fact that Americans are overtaking them at their own sport, is that this could happen without most Americans caring.

All of this leaves Mexicans on the U.S. side of the border, and second-generation Mexican-Americans (presumably including some fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan), feeling conflicted when Mexico and the United States take to the field. And that's OK, notwithstanding the ranting of anti-immigrant folks who have allergic breakouts at the sight of fans rooting on Mexico when it plays the United States in Los Angeles or Chicago, an occurrence often cited to support the proposition that Mexican immigrants aren't assimilating like previous waves of arrivals did.

(That, by the way, is nonsense. Had mass sports been around back in 1850 and an Irish team come over to play soccer against the Americans in New York or Boston, I'm sure there would have been plenty of green flags in the stands. Loyalty to one's new country is a good thing, but disloyalty to one's childhood sports teams is pretty despicable.)