Beautiful Game, Ugly Undercurrents

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Racial hostility on the pitch–all too real, or just my imagination?

At halftime, I asked the head referee to keep an eye on No. 23 from the other team. I assume most refs aren’t crazy about whiny coaches trying to influence their calls, so I tried to explain that 23 had done several flagrantly dirty things to our players in the first half (most of which the refs had missed), and I just didn’t want our boys’ anger and frustration to escalate into a fight.

But that is exactly what happened. In the middle of the second half, No. 23 went hard into a tackle with one of our players, who gave back a little aggression of his own. (If you’re not familiar with soccer terminology, a “tackle” refers to a challenge in which a defender tries to take the ball away from the opponent with his foot, possibly with some body contact involved.) At that point, No. 23 raised the stakes with a hard two-handed shove that almost knocked our player to the ground. So our guy, a usually mild-mannered 14-year-old boy who happens to be from the Middle East, shoved back in kind. Other players swarmed toward the two boys as the refs quickly intervened, separating them and showing both of them yellow cards (which puts players on notice that next time they’ll get thrown out).

For the next 20 minutes or so, I had other things to think about as the team I coach, the Albany Soccer Club under-16 boys, fought their opponent to the wire in a close game. But afterward, as I thought about the game and the actions of No. 23, it dawned on me that his aggression might not have been general, but rather, targeted toward our foreign-born players.

Almost half of our players were born in other countries, including Afghanistan, Senegal, Yemen, and Myanmar (Burma). Many of them are refugees who fled political strife and repression at home; the Albany chapter of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants welcomed them to the city and helped assimilate them into American life. The refugee influx has fed Albany’s soccer programs for some years now with very talented players who grew up with the sport, and then, quite likely, played it constantly during the long months in refugee camps while they awaited transferral. In 2013, when Albany High School advanced to the Class AA sectional soccer final for the first time ever, they were led by two brothers who, as babies, had been carried out of Rwanda on their father’s back during the genocide.

Before the modern era that began in the late ’60s with the formation of the North American Soccer League, the history of American soccer had its roots mainly in clubs formed by immigrants from countries like Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Scotland. In the ’70s and ’80s, youth and adult participation took off: In 1967 there were 100,000 people playing soccer in America, compared with more than 4 million by 1984. But for some reason, perhaps its late start, American soccer came of age as a relatively affluent, suburban sport, unlike most countries of the world where there is heavy participation among the poor and working class. The Capital Region reflected this demographic, with club and high-school soccer participation and success concentrated in suburbs like Guilderland, Bethlehem, and Clifton Park. And the rise of “premier” clubs, whose players and parents travel farther afield to play in high-level tournaments and expose the players to college coaches, underscores the competitive disadvantage faced by poorer and immigrant families, most of whom can afford neither the money or the time it would take to join these clubs and travel to the tournaments.

In recent years, the influx of foreign players in Albany added to what already was a racially and ethnically diverse soccer population, and the mix helped, over time, make the city’s programs more competitive with the once-dominant suburbs. But this shift toward a level playing field has not come without growing pains.

As my sons began playing with the Albany club more than a decade ago, I began to notice a common occurrence at games: An African or African-American player would be whistled for a questionable foul, and parents would turn to each other as if to say, “What was that for?” The answer, we eventually agreed–and occasionally spoke out loud–was that the player had been charged with “tackling while black.” I didn’t want to believe it at first, but as the evidence mounted, it was hard to ignore. And it could happen with any nonwhite player; Albany parents became almost resigned to the fact that the darker the skin, the more likely certain referees would reach for their whistles.

I also have overheard suburban parents react angrily to fouls (real or perceived) committed by black or foreign players, sometimes screaming at the ref as though a routine challenge for the ball actually carried criminal intent. Again, I like to give the opposing parents the benefit of the doubt–every perception of the game they are watching is colored by the fact that their son is on the field (and that goes for me too)–but sometimes their outbursts are hard to ignore.

And when you have foreign players on your team, the current political climate is hard to ignore.

During a recent indoor game against a premier club with mostly suburban players, one player in particular seemed bent on giving our players an extra shove or elbow when they met in a challenge. And as the game progressed, he seemed particularly hostile toward the foreign players. Finally, after a particularly savage tackle, our player–a refugee–lost his cool and threw a punch. Of course, that is what the ref saw, and he was shown a red card.

I accepted the red card–it was appropriate to the offense. I had a little more trouble with the grilling I received afterward from an official of the facility, asking who exactly this player was, looking him up in the system to make sure he was eligible to play, and threatening to suspend him for more than the required one game.

What bothered me the most, however, was the way the opposing player’s father reacted to the fight (which his own son had started, in my biased but hopefully measured opinion). He screamed from the sideline that my player should be arrested, that he was going to call the police.

Really? You’ve never seen teenage boys get into a fight in the middle of a heated athletic competition?

Then again, maybe that’s not the question that particular parent needs to be asked. Maybe he should be asked if he’s ever had any reason to fear the police. To worry that they might knock on his door and arrest him and take him away from his son. Or to worry that police or government soldiers might come in the middle of the night and burn his family’s house down.

I’d like to think that if he put himself in a refugee’s shoes, he might rethink his reaction.

Then again, maybe he, and his son, and the family of player No. 23 from the beginning of this essay, just don’t think these foreign players belong here. I hope that’s not the case.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

 

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