May 31, 2002

In World Cup, Why U.S. Immigrants Don’t Cheer for the USA

By Gustavo Arellano

You wouldn’t know it from watching network television, but millions of U.S. residents will go into virtual suspended animation during this month’s World Cup. Dramatic stories and images from the tournament will cover the front pages of Chinese, Vietnamese and Irish community newspapers for the next 30 days. Spanish-language broadcasts will fill the air of Latino neighborhoods with the fever of “futbol.”

Few of these immigrants will be cheering for the United States — a fact that many non-immigrant Americans see as tantamount to treason.

In 1998, for example, in a Gold Cup game in Pasadena, Calif., the U.S. team lost 1-0 to Mexico before nearly 100,000 screaming fans – nearly all whom cheered for the Trico-lores, the nickname for the Mexican team.

After the game, bitter American fullback Alexi Lalas said, “Tomorrow morning they are going to get up and work in the United States and live in the United States and have all the benefits of living in the United States.”

Two years later, in a speech calling for drastic limits on immigration, Pat Buchanan referred to the same game as proof that anti-American sentiment was “taking root in the barrios.”

Buchanan and Lalas should relax. Soccer, for many immigrants like 25-year-old Salvadoran Javier Sagastizado of Santa Ana, Calif., is enjoyed not only as a game but also as a kind of proxy for socio-political anxieties. That is, by rooting for their home countries — or rooting against the U.S. — immigrants have an outlet to express both frustration with their new home and pride in their old country.

Sagastizado may be a busboy, but his attitude is one found among immigrants from Wall Street to Iowa construction sites. He vows to view as many matches as possible — despite the fact that most games, played around the world in South Korea and Japan, will be broadcast between midnight and 5 a.m.

“I don’t even know how I’m going to be able to stay awake at work,” Sagastizado says with a laugh.

Though not from Mexico, Sagastizado is well aware of the Mexican team’s strengths, and of Mexico’s troubled history with the United States. From the 1848 Mexican-American War to today’s border battles over water, Mexico is often on the losing side of U.S.-Mexican conflicts. The Tricolores can offer a much-needed national victory over the Northern giant. The Mexican team has not disappointed, leading the overall series 28-9-9.

Mexico and the United States are in different groups this year, and each would have to advance to the playoffs to face each other. But for Sagastizado, other countries could do the job.

“If not Mexico,” he says typically, “then at least Costa Rica or another South American country. It’d be nice for a Latin American country to beat the U.S. It would be like payback.”

Two other countries with histories of problems with the United States — Iran and South Korea — have also sent large immigrant communities to America, communities that are watching the Cup closely.

Iran’s 2-1 upset victory over the American squad during the 1998 World Cup was considered by many in the Iranian expatriate community – with memories of the U.S.-backed Shah’s brutal regime still fresh in their minds — as one of their country’s grandest moments. It sparked jubilant celebrations both here and in Tehran.

Iran did not qualify for this year’s World Cup, but South Koreans are counting the days until their country’s June 10 match-up against the United States. This past winter, South Koreans watched as speed skater Kim Dong-Sung’s lost his gold medal in the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics on a dubious technicality. Comedian Jay Leno’s insensitive joke about the incident afterwards, when he said that Dong-Sung “went home and kicked (his) dog, and then ate him,” riled many.

For South Korean immigrants, a victory against the United States in their home country, with a possible playoff berth on the line, would be sweet indeed.

These desires to see the United States lose do not signify immigrant hatred toward America. Far from it. Immigrants say they are appreciative of the opportunities that exist here. Soccer remains one of the few tangible connections that exist to their homelands, and the expertise of their country’s players are a source of pride.

“Just because I want the United States to lose doesn’t mean I want the country itself to suffer,” Sagastizado says. I just want the soccer team to be beat.”

At its essence, rooting against the American soccer team symbolizes resistance to being absorbed into a country whose populace and government do not always do the right thing — especially against the immigrants and their home countries. And when the booing is over, soccer-loving immigrants — relieved of any anti-American sentiments and proud that the motherland has won — return to bettering this nation.

“Lot of Americans don’t even like soccer and probably won’t pay attention to the Cup,” Sagastizado says. “But for me, it’ll be life.”

Arellano ( is a graduate student in Latin American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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