The USA-Mexico soccer rivalry mirrors immigration debates raging in the U.S.

Surprise, surprise. Another soccer game between the United States and Mexico is on the horizon. On October 10, the two teams will contest a one-game playoff for the right to represent CONCACAF in the always super competitive Confederations Cup, the tournament, hosted by the next World Cup host nation (Russia), that pits regional champions against one another. But do we really need another U.S.-Mexico game? With so many Gold Cups, what is the need for this brand new “CONCACAF Cup”?

The short answer is money. The long answer is: it’s complicated.

We have more Gold Cups than we need, and a first edition of the CONCACAF Cup, because both the U.S. and Mexican federations enjoy this odd thing called “money.” When games happen in the U.S., they charge dollars for tickets. When Mexico plays in the U.S., before adoring Mexican and Mexican-American fans, stadiums get packed and tickets get purchased. Hence the frequency of Gold Cups and Mexico friendlies in the U.S.

More fascinating than the simple economic motive, though, is the cultural impact. In many ways, the U.S.-Mexico rivalry mirrors tensions over the influx of Hispanic immigrants (Mexicans included) in the U.S. and the mini-backlash. A Fox News anchor might say that our stadiums have become “flash points” in a “culture war.” But history suggests that the tensions in the rivalry are not just normal, they also parallel what is happening in society at large.

RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 26:  A USA fan, dressed as the statue of liberty, enjoys the atmosphere prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between USA and Ghana at Royal Bafokeng Stadium on June 26, 2010 in Rustenburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)Ian Walton/Getty Images

Bring your huddled masses ... until we get uncomfortable, it seems.

The United States has always enjoyed a bipolar relationship with immigrants. On the Statute of Liberty, a plaque states “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” yet “Irish Need Not Apply” signs dotted store windows in New York City during the 1900s. The Constitution guarantees the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” yet founding father Benjamin Franklin detested German immigrants and their “pernicious influence” on America. A Republican president granted amnesty in the 1980s, then in the 1990s a Democratic one passed a new law with harsh punishments for immigrants.

Just as the U.S. has both embraced and pushed away Hispanic immigrants, the U.S. men’s national team enjoys a hot and cold relationship with Mexico. In a sense, the U.S. needs Mexico to be the region’s other respectable soccer power. Mexico’s perpetual presence at the World Cup, along with its typical Round-of-16 showing (exit), assuages fears that CONCACAF is in the Oceania rung of confederations when we speak of soccer prowess. When Graham Zusi scored against Panama in the 2013 World Cup qualifiers, he didn’t just win a game that gave Mexico a chance to qualify for the 2014 World Cup; he salvaged the CONCACAF brand.

Still, with need can come resentment. After the 2011 Gold Cup final, U.S. fans complained about the conduct of Mexican fans at the Rose Bowl. Tim Howard ranted on Twitter about how the post-game ceremony was done in Spanish, calling it a “fucking disgrace.” Howard’s comments bring to mind Ben Franklin’s prejudices from yesteryear and a Trump campaign slogan. However, perhaps there should be some empathy for American fans’ tender sensibilities. American fans are spoiled by the safety of their stadiums. It’s an environment that allows you and your sorority sisters to attend a beisbol game and take selfies to your hearts’ content without being harassed, shoved, or heckled. Just meme’d.

Yet, if you speak to fans who have attended soccer games in Mexico, Argentina, or even Italy, the conduct of the Mexican fans doesn’t sound so felonious. And here’s the odd part: how many U.S. sports writers have written glowingly about a trip to Mexico City’s legendary Estadio Azteca, precisely due to the feeling of risk and danger? Is the so-called “Insanity of the Estadio Azteca” exactly what makes it so enjoyable?

Of course, there’s both bias confirmation and prejudice at work in U.S.-Mexico relations. If you assume, like Donald Trump, that Mexicans are criminals and go to the Rose Bowl with that mindset, you will see a handful of pricks who may be Mexican and reaffirm your prejudiced conclusions. You may find yourself focusing on the perpetrator instead of the stadium security personnel for failing to intervene quickly and appropriately, or the stadium for packing in fans like sardines in a can, or CONCACAF for choosing the venue. You might find yourself resolving to watch the game from home next time, or begging for the next contest to be played in Columbus on the assumption that “Americanness” will protect us, when in reality a newer and better designed stadium only ensures security, not necessarily the presence of any particular nationality or race.

PASADENA, CA - JUNE 25:  United States mens soccer team stands during the National Anthem before the start of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup Championship soccer match against Mexico at the Rose Bowl on June 25, 2011 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The U.S. men's national team takes on Mexico in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasedena, California — one of Mexico's many home fields in the United States.

Sadly, other elements of the immigration debate raging in U.S. politics are rather easy to spot in the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry. CONCACAF and U.S. Soccer want the Rose Bowl packed with enthusiastic Hispanic fans. They dream of perpetual U.S.-Mexico Gold Cup finals and CONCACAF Cups and see dollar signs. Yet U.S. fans worry that the game “may not be safe.” When a Mexican-looking fan is a dick at a game, Mexicans writ large are to blame and we must relocate to Columbus, Ohio, ASAP. When an immigrant commits a crime, all immigrants look like criminals and we need a huge wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet the inverse can never be true: if an American fan is a dick, we blame that one fan as an anomaly. We don’t cry for a stadium location to be changed closer to the border so rowdy anglos won’t attend. When an American commits a crime, that one dude or dudette is guilty. Nobody for a second assumes all Americans = criminals.

Just like in the economy, the flow of capital has eliminated the border and forced Mexicans and Americans into close contact both on and off the field. Yet the flawed structure of capitalism and corporations tricks people into hating the other human side of the equation, not the decision-makers. We detest the Mexican in Matamoros for “stealing” our manufacturing job, not the CEO who made that happen. Instead of seeing a handful of rowdy sports fans, we project “Mexican” and Mexicanness” onto assholes at the crowded Rose Bowl. But here’s the truth: most fans of the U.S. and Mexico are open-minded, passionate, and kind people, just as most immigrants don’t come to the U.S. with nefarious criminal intent.

Thus, this weekend’s CONCACAF Cup will be an event both in terms of sports and sociology. As the U.S. and Mexico grow closer to one another as neighbors and soccer rivals, expect some flare-ups and disarray. After all, don’t we complain most frequently about the ones we know and love? Aren’t we the best ones to see and judge their defects? Most importantly, aren’t we also able to see past the little things and get a sense of the big picture?


U.S. Soccer needs Mexico, even if the rivalry games would be more special if they happened less often. And as much as anyone wants to pretend otherwise, the U.S. needs Mexicans just as badly. That’s the reality. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we can get back to the things that matter, like Mexico figuring out a way to avoid another round of Dos a Cero tweets.