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An Early Social Test for America: USMNT vs. Mexico in Columbus

by Grant Burkhardt


Before our general election Tuesday, this week was already a strange one for U.S. Soccer. One of its most important games each World Cup cycle — the home fixture between the men’s national team and Mexico in the final stage of qualifiers — had failed to move tickets. Columbus didn’t turn out, so the federation was being forced to open more tickets for the American Outlaws, the noisy, colorful, singing supporters group.

And then Tuesday happened. Now, we’re now around 24 hours away from the Mexican national team and their fans joining Americans at MAPFRE for a few hours of tailgating and two hours of soccer. Normally, this is great news for Columbus, whether the game sells out or not. This city has been a lovely mid-sized locale for USMNT games since 2000. It’s the home of dos a cero. The stadium’s atmosphere is always something to behold and of which to be proud.

But, the anti-immigrant (and at times specifically anti-Mexican) vitriol that dominated much of our political season was vindicated by the results of the election (albeit not specifically in Franklin County but in every bordering county). Because of that, Friday’s match takes a different role for the sport, the federation, and the country. It’s the first sporting event where our reality — one in which nativism and the rhetoric surrounding it has been freed from the bunkers – starts to form.

How will we treat our visitors? How will we treat each other?

What I’m saying, I guess, is that when Mexican fans show up at MAPFRE on Friday to drink beer next to American fans, I hope they’re made to feel welcome because they are welcome. (I also hope U.S. Soccer puts officials in place to respond to any potential hate speech and abuse, which, in case we’ve forgotten, aren’t just frowned-upon practices worthy of internet scorn but are actually illegal). A show of unity from the crowd — a tifo welcome message, perhaps, would help ease tensions around the ground and in the country. A clean showing from Columbus on a national stage could make our boil slow to a simmer.

The experiment I hope we are running here, in this country, is one about inclusion. It’s an experiment that my ancestors have benefitted from since the very beginning and one our country has expanded to more and more people as we ourselves have grown. It’s the thought that anyone, anywhere, no matter what, could come here, use the systems our founders put in place, and make a life for themselves. That experiment – such a beautiful one – is what we have built over time, although not in a linear way. We’ve cocked it up in the past, too. But if even a few of the vilest creatures make some hell for Mexican fans on Friday night, forever tainting this small sporting tradition and saying something larger about what Tuesday’s results unearthed, it will be the beginning of solid proof that the experiment has again been put on hold.

I’m from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, so that means Columbus is not my hometown; it is my adopted one. This city has welcomed me and treated me well. I appreciate and love living in a place that is so full of culture and diversity – it helps me become a better, more understanding person. I want Friday night to validate, not make false, my feeling, my educated hunch, about the goodness of this city. I hope on Friday night those thousands who show up for a bit of soccer get a much-needed respite from the rhetoric of the campaign season. I hope Friday is the first step to some semblance of social normalcy. I hope Friday is the first step to showing all our neighbors that we love them. If we get that, and even also a boring cero a cero, it’ll be a point in the right direction.

Photo via USMNT’s Twitter

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