Columbus Discovers Soccer

Pregame hype

Dempsey vs Chicharito

With a 2-0 win tonight the USMNT has all but qualified for Brazil 2014. CONCACAF is always dominated by the big two USA and Mexico teams, leaving the rest of us sorry North/Central American and Caribbean countries to fight over the scrap spot and a playoff against New Zealand. So the prospect of Mexico stumbling out at this point – and they may – is rather shocking for any place that conveniently finds itself covered by the Monroe Doctrine.

That’s not really what interested me about the game though. I was watching (and listening) to see how the Columbus, Ohio fans reacted to their new cheerleaders. Not a Dallas Cowgirls sort of cheerleading, but the Capos that were sent on the USMNT dime from Seattle to Columbus to help get the fans going. So you get the privilege of hosting a national team game, but are then told basically that another city’s fans are better than yours. Whether you agree with the fan evaluation or not is beside the point, it was done in such a way that came off a bit insulting to Columbus fans. I don’t think it got to the point where those fans would then stop supporting their team, but I’m guessing that the American Outlaw (US supporter group) membership in the Ohio region just dropped significantly. As one tweet I saw during the game said, “this is our house. being sung at Mexico or the Seattle Capos?”

Aside from the slight to the Columbus fans, one thing really bothered me about the Seattle Capo’s plans, a moment of silence for 9/11 in the middle of the game. Yes, I know it’s September 11 and there was a horrible event on this day 12 years ago, but it is difficult to stop a crowd from making noise for 71 sustained seconds during a match (from 9:00 to 10:11, the American Outlaws wanted a moment of silence). That Mexico was putting on a lot of pressure at that point and had a free kick during that span ended up ruining the effect by ineffectively taking the crowd out of the match. Silent crowds can be incredibly intimidating – usually against the home team, but the moment of silence is best left for pre-game ceremonies, not for the middle of the match where the action can ruin what would otherwise be a solemn remembrance. What would have happened if either side scored during that time? An effective use of the silent crowd was last December when German fans around the Bundesliga were silent for 12 minutes (!) to protest changing fan policies and ticket prices, but that’s German fans for you, they get all kinds of respect for their fan community. Something Columbus fans can only dream of at this point.

 

USA gets Hexed

LA Times

Tim Howard (USA) reacts to Honduras’ second goal

Three months after Canada’s horrific exit from the World Cup Qualification in Honduras, it was Team USA’s turn to visit San Pedro Sula and enjoy the hospitality of Honduras. Despite a opening goal by Clint Dempsey, the Hondurans came back to win 2-1 in the opening of the final round of World Cup Qualification.

What does home field mean? Well, set the kickoff time for mid afternoon when those USA players used to either Europe (or a winter off from MLS) will have to play through the heat and humidity of San Pedro Sula; fill the Stadio Olympico with thousands of hostile fans that can boost the Hondurans and wear down even the toughest Americans and you get a chance for FIFA’s 59th ranked team to knock off the 28th ranked team in the first round of CONCACAF’s hex round of 2014 WCQ.

While the USA has been a fixture at the last few World Cups, their position seems a bit more tenuous this time as several of the other CONCACAF nations seem to have made up some ground on the Americans. Despite Jurgen Klinsmann securing a rather rare victory for the Americans in Mexico City last year, his tenure as coach has been a little underwhelming. The team lost to Jamaica for the first time in the previous round of qualification and were very nearly knocked out in a tight finish between USA, Jamaica and Guatemala in their Pool. Add to that, they have struggled in their last two matches against Canada (both 0-0 draws), and you have a Team USA that does not seem up to repeating the progress of the past few World Cup editions of the team.

Honduras does not have the star power that USA has available, but as Canada discovered (and both countries already knew) the environment and fans of Central American countries provides a much tougher opponent than they are used to. Perhaps this is the weakness of Klinsmann as the USA coach; he’s not as fully versed in the environment that is CONCACAF. Yes, Klinsmann has coached a team all the way to the World Cup final, he has even hoisted the trophy himself as a player, but he has not dealt with the hot and cold environment of North American soccer. Hot in that the passion in Latin America rivals anything in Europe, and cold in that USA can barely manage home field advantage in the USA (the last Gold Cup final in Kansas City was a pro-Mexico crowd). As long as there is relative apathy in Canada and the US, it will always be difficult for those teams to develop the same level of home crowd intimidation that the Latin American countries can provide. That will leave open the possibility of dropped points at home (Canada wouldn’t have needed to worry about getting any result in Honduras had they won at home), that means the those difficult road games take on even more importance.

The USA still has four more road games in the hex, five if you count their home game against Mexico. While they only have to finish 3rd to qualify and even 4th gives them a qualifier vs Oceania, look at your map and you will find that the road to Rio runs right through Central America.

Welcome Party

This will seem like old news, but I am using my blog to work through a conference paper about Canada’s World Cup Qualifier in Panama last September.

So Panama “welcomed” Canada to their country by staging a all night party outside the Team Canada hotel featuring blaring music, chanting, drums, flags, fireworks, sirens, basically anything to keep the Canadians from getting a decent night’s sleep. This was actually encouraged by the Panamanian FA, and worked to good effect as the Canadians didn’t really show up for the game.

What my paper is about is trying to look at the importance of that performance outside the hotel, not just to the distraction of the Canadians, but as a way of asserting a Panamanian nationalism. There are a few parallels between Canada and Panama in the world of soccer: in both countries, they have a strong national tie to a different sport – hockey for Canada and baseball for Panama. This is in part due to the histories and cultures of the nations – Canada had a long winter and a long history with hockey, summer was for football, or possibly baseball. As for Panama, their cultural sport legacy comes from the Panama Canal. As a virtual protectorate of the US through much of the 20th century, they ended up a baseball nation. Look at the world and you will find that the general division of sport powers follows a pattern where British colonies adopted cricket or rugby (and to a lesser degree soccer), British financial colonies – more influenced by their business in the early 20th c. ended up playing soccer, and American protectorates ended up playing baseball.

However, Panama has been on its own (as much as any Latin American country can truly be on their own with their “good neighbors” to the north) since the US turned over control of the Panama Canal in 1999. Soccer seems to be growing in the nation, I would argue as a response to a distancing of the Panamanians from their US history. Over their history ideas of nationalism have come as a reaction against the US presence in their country. The first martyrs for the country were killed in riots against the Americans back in the 1960s and this moment in Panamanian history serves as an important point for the party outside the Canadian hotel almost 50 years later.

Diana Taylor discusses Latin American performance as a form of repertoire in her book The Archive and the Repertoire. Various performances are examined as a way of transmitting cultural memory and making political claims. In this context I am arguing that the party outside the hotel, by a group that was already attuned to nationalist sentiment by wanting to cheer on the Panamanian team were echoing an act of Panamanian nationalism that is directed toward gringos. Now I know that Canadians are not always included in definitions of gringos, but we don’t exist entirely outside those definitions either. In this case, the Canadian team served just as well to play the part of the gringo for the Panamanians.

There is another important echo in the repertoire of this party: Operation Just Cause. While most of the Panamanians keeping the Canadians awake weren’t even born when the riots against the Americans took place, many of them may remember or would have heard from their parents about the last American intervention in Panama in 1989. Operation Just Cause was launched to remove Manuel Noriega from power, as he was a US ally gone bad. The invasion culminated in a siege of the residence that Noriega was hiding in. The American troops deployed a set of loudspeakers that blared music all night long as a form of psychological warfare designed to hasten his surrender.

Well, 22 years later and Panamanian stereos seem to have contributed to a Canadian surrender on the soccer pitch. The reaction in Canada was interesting with many commentators and fans saying that the party wasn’t fair or good sportsmanship, and a few others that seemed to say “Why didn’t we think of that?” Coming after riots in Toronto around the G20 and a riot in Vancouver around the Stanley Cup, I think there was little appetite for that sort of disturbance in Canada. Another interesting point is the way that Canadian sports analysts described the Panama party as an expected part of playing in CONCACAF. This is in no way reserved to the Latin American nations, during Euro Qualifiers in 2011, the Portuguese team was greeted at the Sarajevo airport by Bosnian fans who particularly enjoyed mocking Cristiano Ronaldo. They also followed the team bus and even used laser pointers on the Portuguese players during the warmups. Gamesmanship is by no means a preserve of Latin America, if Canada is going to play with the big boys we’ve got to be ready to play against (and like) the big boys.

So a quick shout out to the CanMNT, who play on Saturday against Denmark, and Tuesday vs. USA. Go Canada!

Oh, and if I’m on to anything in this paper we’ll see how Panama greets the US this summer during the final stage of World Cup Qualifiers.

The Agony of Defeat

I’m speechless. Well that shouldn’t matter, it’s a blog so I’m typing, but what can I say?

8-1.

8-1.

8-1.

It doesn’t seem real. Maybe if I go to sleep I’ll wake up and the game won’t have happened yet. Canada will be about to play Honduras and we’ll still be in the running for the World Cup.

No. I feel it like a punch to my stomach. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for the players. I am proud of them, I thought they had some great moments over the qualification and were even improving over the six matches I saw them play. They had played so strong on defence, that was my least concern, I was worried that they would have trouble scoring today without so many forwards. Today came from out of the blue.

What I am happiest about is the way soccer has received so much more attention over the last few years, and in part this was due to the way the men’s and women’s national teams had played. I worry that this will be a reason to turn away from a sport that we just don’t compete at. My own hope was never the World Cup – that would have been too much of a leap for the program, but a chance in the hex would have kept the interest going for another year. Now it’s back to square one, and a three year wait before qualification begins.

Positives from this campaign:

– Teamwork: Considering the team I saw against St. Lucia back when this all began, the team isn’t even comparable. Back then there were missed passes, no coordination and too many long balls.

– Solid, solid defense (okay today notwithstanding): In all the games I saw over the last two years they only allowed one goal at home – to St. Lucia. Including the friendly against the US (okay considering their recent form maybe that isn’t such a wild accomplishment).

– Aggression: Canada was thrown off by Honduras’ chippy play, flopping and general annoying behavior. Against Panama, Canada gave it as good as it got. (without the flopping) If we want to play with the big boys we’ve got to act like the big boys.

-Fan support: Each game grew the crowd. From 10,000 fans for the game against St. Lucia (far too many of whom were cheering for St. Lucia) to 18,700 fans when we played Cuba (with only a few scattered Cuban fans). It got loud. It became a home field advantage.

What we still need:

-Goals: can never have enough of those.

– A few more years to develop players: This was why the attention was so important – to keep the next generation of players interested.

– Still more fan support: I dream of the day when they have to move the games to BC Place (yeah, I’ll miss them), we need our own Aztca Stadium (Mexico’s national stadium), but BMO will work until then.

-Discipline: Two bad red cards over the campaign was too many. Yes Occean’s was ridiculous, but we’ll never get a break with CONCACAF refs so we have walk that line even more carefully.

What hurts isn’t that we’re out, that was inevitable. What hurts is both the way that we went out and that I think we could/should have made the hex. Being a Canadian soccer fan means cheering for another country in the big tournaments, but it was nice for a while to be able to cheer for my country.

 

Participant Observation?

I’ve found the potential downfall to my academic research, it will likely be the largest obstacle I face in my field research and I’m not sure how I can approach this difficulty: watching a match.

Last night I watch the Canada vs Cuba game at BMO Field in Toronto. Canada won 3-0, but as I walked out of the stadium I realized that actually being at a game will be a very difficult complication for me if I study fan behaviour – I was totally lost in the match. I’m sure Marcus is slightly embarrassed to have to sit with his dad who yells and screams at the Canadians for 90 minutes, boos the linesmen and ref at appropriate moments and heckles the opposition as they lie on the ground or make the long march to the tunnel following their red card. Once upon a time I was a reserved quiet fan who only made a lot of noise when we scored, but over the last two years of the qualifying campaign I’ve turned rabid. I have become my own research. I’m interested in fan behaviour, but I have become one. Granted I don’t sit in the South End with the Red Patch Boys, but my heart is there.

I’ve noticed the crowd has changed with me over the last two years too. Back when we were playing minnows like St. Lucia, the crowd was smaller, the visitors had vocal support and the team played more tentatively. This year was very different, the team soaked up our encouragement and payed it back at the end, they celebrated playing at home and knew they could count on us to drown out all the visitor supporters. I want next year to have meaningful games, we’ve come so far as fans in Toronto, I don’t want to have to wait and start all over again.

But this brings up the games yesterday. Canada won 3-0 yes, but that was hardly a surprise when all the Cuban subs defected to the US, leaving them with just 11 players on a team that hadn’t scored a goal in the qualifying round and hadn’t even managed a tie. So we won, that should have helped right? Problem is that when Cuba is such a pushover, all the teams have feasted off of them and it hardly made a difference to the pool. More troubling was the 0-0 tie between Panama and Honduras. The conspiracy theorist in me can’t help but think that the tie was planned. Panama plays Cuba next and needs only to draw to qualify, Honduras hosts Canada on Tuesday and the result will determine the group. By drawing Panama, Honduras just needs to win, where if they had lost to Panama they would have needed to beat Canada by at least two goals. Panama just gifted Honduras a lifeline. Oh and Canada will have to get a tie without not only Dwayne DeRosario, but also Olivier Occean (who was given a weak red card by the ref last night).

As you can see I’ve already spent far too long thinking about all the permutations and combinations in qualification. I should actually be devoting my thoughts to midterm papers and readings.

Space…the Final Frontier

A bit of a break from blogging, but I’ve had a bit of a brainwave over the last few days. After talking to my supervisor last week he suggested the idea of looking more at the performance aspect of football fans. (notice how I just slipped into the use of football – I’m going to have to spend some time in my thesis being very careful about my word choices) Then in talking to another student, I mused about writing a conference paper based on the behaviour of Panamanian fans outside the Canadian Team’s hotel when Canada visited for a recent World Cup qualifier.

Of course I’m now super excited and already doing research on all this and finding and not finding what I need. I’m interested in the idea of how fans create space for themselves. It’s one thing to have the chants and flares and signs of the supporter’s clubs inside the stadium, but they also contest space outside the stadium. Sure the home supporters want to own the space outside, but the visitor’s supporters marching in can be a provocative trespass of that space. Not only do the two groups have to negotiate each other, but also authorities who want to maintain some semblance of order about the event.

I took my son Marcus to the Canada – US friendly back in June and we arrived just at the same time the American supporters arrived (not the average supporters – the organized ones). As they held their little march to the stadium they chanted, waved their flags, threw smoke bombs, and generally made a big nuisance of themselves. They moved as one all the way to the gates and went in together. I think back to that now and how they performed their invasion of “Canadian” space. The effect of the large, cohesive group and the noise was a bit of a provocation to all the Canadian fans that they weren’t to be messed with – even if they were actually pretty nice guys (I chatted with a couple of them), and if their fans were that strong, the team must be strong too. What is even more fascinating about all of this in a North American context is the way that the chants, march, songs, signs, flares, etc. is all a borrowed performance from other soccer cultures – especially English. Now I’m left with the question of how the performances around the world are different and why (other than the obvious reason of soccer being a more marginal sport) North American fans do so much borrowing of supporter cultural performance?

So my first semblance of an idea. Obviously still needs some work, but my supervisor warned me I’ll probably switch ideas until some time in December. On the upside that’ll keep me blogging.