World Cup Higlights the Immigrant Story

It seems that every aspect of society is touched by immigration, and that includes sports. Just by taking a look at the rosters of most teams that are participating in the World Cup, we can see the reflection of immigration at a global level.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — This year’s International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) World Cup illustrates the global appeal of soccer, as well as the ways immigration is playing a critical role in sports. Team U.S.A, which recently lost its place in the tournament after losing to Ghana, was no exception. Of the 23 players, 15 have at least one immigrant parent, and one was actually born abroad.

We are used to discussing immigration in this country through a political lens, and here in San Jose, it has become a heated debate. The emotions tied to the immigration issue were on display at a recent City Council meeting where dozens of pro- and anti-immigration activists fiercely argued their positions on Arizona’s new law SB 1070. It seems that every aspect of society is touched by immigration, and that includes sports. Just by taking a look at the rosters of most teams that are participating in the World Cup, we can see the reflection of immigration at a global level.

At the first World Cup to be played on African soil, South Africa 2010, we see Arab, Turkish, Hispanic and Polish names on the German team, Brazilian names on the Mexican team, Slavic names on Scandinavian teams, Africans in European teams, and so on.

Here are just a few examples of the shifting national identities of players: Mark González, who plays for Chile, was born in South Africa. On the German team, Mario Gómez’s father is Spanish, Jerome Boateng’s parents are from Ghana, Sami Khedira’s father is Tunisian, and the rising German star Mesut Özil is of Turkish descent. Argentine-born Lucas Barrios defends the Paraguayan colors, the land of his mother. And on the Mexican team, head coach Javier Aguirre is one of thousands born in Mexico of Spanish parents who left Spain during the Franco dictatorship. Most teams have at least two or three immigrant players. Even the North Koreans have players who were born in Japan and South Korea.

These are the sons of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, representing the country that gave their parents a new opportunity in life. Some were professional soccer players who moved abroad to play professionally. Some migrated for the more common story – traveling to a new country in search of better economic opportunities, escaping war or a dictatorship, or just personal choice rather than necessity.

The U.S. team, however, is perhaps one of the strongest examples of this: Fifteen of its 23 players have at least one parent who is an immigrant — from Haiti, Nigeria, Brazil and Austria, and one from Scotland. Four players are Mexican American: Jonathan Bornstein, Carlos Bocanegra, Hercules Gómez, and Francisco “el Gringo” Torres.

Gómez and Torres have similar stories. They both faced discrimination after they migrated south of the border — the same discrimination that thousands of Mexican Americans face when they visit their parents’ home country. Both of them had the opportunity to represent Mexico, but chose to play for the land where they were born. For “Gringo” Torres, that was not an easy decision.

His Mexican father migrated to Texas in search of better economic opportunities. There he met and married Torres’s mother, even though neither of them spoke the other’s language. El Gringo was born in the small town of Longview, Texas, and as soon as he learned to walk, he started kicking a soccer ball, the influence of his Latino side of the family, especially one of his uncles.

During his teenage years, a scout from the Mexican team Pachuca (it is becoming more common for professional teams from south of the border to send scouts to the United States), “discovered” el Gringo, and brought him to play for Mexico’s oldest professional team. El Gringo left amidst tears of joy and sadness on the part of his mother and family.

Once he arrived in Mexico, he began to deal with insults commonly and viciously launched at “pochos,” a derogatory term for Chicanos in Mexico.

“They used to tell me, ‘Why are you here? You don’t know how to play futbol?,’” said El Gringo during an interview with ESPN.

But he fought hard until he was in the starting lineup each weekend for Pachuca. He became such a good player that his skillful left foot was in demand by both the Mexican and the American teams.

Two years ago at the age of 20, he faced a pivotal decision over the country he would represent on the largest sport stage in the world — the FIFA World Cup. The moment a player participates in an official FIFA match, he cannot change jerseys ever again. He chose to play for the United States.

Some Mexicans scorned him for being a traitor to his father’s land. But the fact that he played for the United States in the World Cup does not mean he betrayed his roots. He chose to play for the land that gave his father new opportunities, the land where he was born. He has always been proud of his Mexican background; he carries both lands in his heart, despite only wearing one official uniform.

Gómez, born in Los Angeles, Calif. and raised in Las Vegas, Nev., began his professional career in the Major League Soccer (MLS), the top professional soccer league in the United States. However, like Torres, he moved south of the border to join what is considered to be a more competitive league, which eventually can become a springboard to Europe, the dream of most soccer players.

Gómez soon won a scoring championship while playing for Puebla in Mexico’s top flight, and for the remainder of 2010, he will join Torres at Pachuca.

Both Torres and Gómez, along with the 13 other sons of immigrants, set an example that hard work and fighting adversity will lead you to achieve your dreams. They both saw action during the United States’ surprising run in South Africa. They both had their “American dream” come true, even at a time when laws are attempting to separate young people like them from their families, and to remove their citizenship rights if their parents are undocumented.

Gerardo Fernandez is a contributing writer for Alianza News.
Collage image by Fernando Perez. This story originally appeared at www.sjbeez.org, a hyperlocal ethnic media collaborative project of New America Media, based in San Jose, Calif.

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