Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Hat Tricks and Shenanigans

The most popular person in DC this week has got to be Ben Olsen, the DC United midfielder who scored his first career hat trick in Sunday's match against the league-leading New York Red Bulls. The goals were no accident, all three of them were perfect opportunities created by assists from Fred, Josh Gros, Jaime Moreno, and Christian Gomez, who all found gaping holes in New York's tired lineup. And of course we can't overlook Emilio getting back on the scoreboard; I'd missed seeing his name in lights!

"Olsen left the field to an ovation usually reserved for the glamour players of the game," reports Steven Goff. As the Object of my Affection and I strutted our black and red proudly around Adams Morgan Sunday, fans stopped us to talk about the game. "Best game of Olsen's career!" "It's a whole new season!" And there you have it, the great benefit of following a sports team. In addition to the hours spent obsessing over the game instead of mulling over grad school options, I get to have a whole built in community of peoples I wouldn't otherwise associate with.

I'm a pretty recent convert to soccer fandom, and I'm not the only American-come-lately. Attendance at MLS games is slowly rising, and you can even catch them on Thursday nights on ESPN (2- el dos!) And lord knows I'm doing my part to get peoples to come out to the games. But as soccer becomes increasingly popular in the U.S., its fans and recent converts to fandom are going to have to figure out how to deal with the fact that most U.S. sports fans abhor the idea of mixing sports and politics, while most of the world has been mixing soccer and politics for quite some time now, which makes for some very strange bedfellows.

As it happens, it may be time to address that right about.... now.

"Fans who were kicked out of an exhibition soccer game between the Chinese national team and Real Salt Lake [RSL] say it was because they stirred up a political controversy by waving the flag of Tibet... The fans had been waving the flag of Tibet, the Himalayan region that has been battling China over independence for decades, during the game Thursday night. Some of the Chinese players stepped off the field early in the second half and refused to play again until the flags were put away. The fans put away the Tibetan flags, as well as flags of Taiwan and a sign referring to China's Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, but brought them out again later in the game. [A fan] said he and several other fans were then kicked out of the stadium. "

WOW. Wow.

Real Salt Lake's Communications Director Trey Fitzgerald defended the decision to quash free speech, "We are given the right to make that request [that fans leave the stadium] because it is a private event held at Rice-Eccles Stadium."

As to the legality of that, let's go with Professor Howard M. Wasserman.

To be fair, this wasn't a protest staged by a bunch of idealists looking to hold China accountable for its human rights violations- or at least, that was the secondary concern of the RSL fans. "Coker [one of the fans kicked out of the stadium] acknowledged he was partly trying to distract and annoy the Chinese team, but he also wanted to raise awareness about Tibet's fight with China." And you know, RSL is the worst team in MLS, and China couldn't even beat them; I'm not sure how much heckling was really warranted. That said, playing out international politics on the soccer pitch is nothing new, and the fact that the Chinese stopped playing was no more honorable than a big, sissy Pescadito-style dive.

Soccer has always been a sport to play out international politics on a new playing field with different rules- quite literally. I lived in Dakar during the World Cup in 2002. In the opening game of the series, Les Lions de laTerenga trounced the world champions, Les Bleus de France. Not only was it a great soccer victory, it was moreover a great victory of national pride and a sense of an African nation coming into its own and showing up its former colonial oppressors. Maybe you think I'm being dire, but as people poured out into the streets and a national holiday was declared, people would see my white skin and make proclamations to the effect of, "You'll never keep us down again!"

It goes the other way, too, with national or regional pride being a thinly veiled excuse to heckle the opposition, as in the China-RSL case. The Celtic-Rangers rivalry is a prime example- nobody actually gives a flying fuck who's Catholic or Protestant, they care who's a Celtic and who's a Ranger. Because of team affiliation with it, religion becomes fodder for jeering.

So, to get this straight, RSL is totally cool with setting aside the cultural value that Americans hold most dear in the name of diplomacy- in an exhibition game? It seems like in this case, we're holding commerce and happy trade relations with China as a greater cultural value. Look, the tensions between China and the U.S. will continue to be ignored so long as our trade relationship remains friendly. At the same time, you can't deny that there are cultural divides and economic differences here burbling below the surface that will boil over unless we do something to relieve the tension. U.S. sports fans are not used to having their politics played out on the field, but as soccer becomes increasingly legit here in the States, we're not going to be able to drop our freedoms at the first "boo." And I fully expect that as we anticipate the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. will take its fair share of abusive heckling over the war in Iraq and our own human rights violations. Soccer officials need to realize this and account for it- not necessarily condone it, but at least realize that it's better for these tensions to play our on the soccer field than on the battlefield.


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