The Complicated Lives of African-American World Cup Fans
I sat in a Mexican restaurant in Brooklyn last week and enjoyed some ice cold margaritas with friends who were excited to watch the United States take on Ghana. World Cup favorites have been quite the conversation in my house, where my Haitian boyfriend is staunchly supporting team USA, not because he is a raging patriot but because of shared national ties to the the team’s striker, Haitian American Jozy Altidore (pictured). This is just the tip of the iceberg in understanding World Cup allegiances in America’s Black communities, where even 4th-generation Black immigrants still vote for the team of their forefathers instead of rooting for the country they call their home.
Fast forward to my cantina gathering in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, and you have
groups of fans, Black, White, and brown, all excited about the game. When U.S.A.’s Clint Dempsey scored the first goal within minutes of the start, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause from most. For the next 80 minutes, growing chants of “come on Ghana” filled the room, and when finally André Ayew (pictured at right) scored the Black Stars first goal, strangely the crowd went wild again.
Almost every Black person in the bar was up on their feet rooting for the Black Stars with the same fervor as they had cheered team USA an hour before.
So how can it be that these fans are cheering for both teams? An interesting tale of history, identity, and travel explains it — a bit.
Anyone who doesn’t know the story of African Americans in the United States should promptly sit themselves in front of Dr. Henry Louis Gates‘ “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” for a weekend binge session in being Black American 101.
Watch the first episode of “Many Rivers to Cross” here:
The history that is perhaps a bit less publicized is that of association football or “modern soccer” in America. The game was brought to America by Scottish, Irish, and German immigrants in the late 1800s. By 1913, the United States Football Association (USFA) was granted provisional membership in to FIFA, the world’s governing body and future host of the World Cup.
In-fighting between the national leagues making up the USFA and the Great Depression marked a huge decline in the sport at the professional level, with the teams no longer having the money nor the interest to recruit top talent from Europe to lead its teams. Consequently, the game was effectively dormant for decades.
By the 1960s, when America’s White flight to the suburbs had truly taken root, soccer became the realm of suburban families looking for a “safe” sport for their children to play. By the 1980s, the big wigs of USA football were looking to launch America in to a new area of “association football” glory.
However, African Americans insulated from the sport due to slavery and segregation and then again by overwhelmingly being relegated to urban areas late in to the 20th century, never truly had the chance to develop a love for the sport.
For most African Americans, soccer conjures up images of “soccer moms, go-gurts, and minivans” — something our urban surroundings don’t include. While our counterparts in other countries see soccer as a sport requiring minimal investment, we find that appreciation in basketball courts sprinkled throughout parks in urban centers.
Unless you grow up in a neighborhood dominated by West Indian or African immigrants, you likely have no “homegrown” interest in soccer.
Now we tackle the sticky subject of national identity: Remember the outrage against First Lady Michelle Obama when she remarked that her husband’s election was the first time she felt patriotic?
Unfortunately, she pretty much summed up the sentiment of millions of African Americans at home and abroad.
I remember the first time I traveled abroad after the election. I wore my passport like a badge of honor — for the first time in my life. Prior to the election of President Barack Obama, African Americans at every socio-economic level had an identity challenge with being labeled simply “American.”
While some chose to assimilate and remove the “African” piece of their identity, most can tell you about the double consciousness most African Americans live with on a day-to-day basis: That struggle to define yourself with a country that for generations defined you and people who look like you as less than human makes it difficult to cheer on the “oppressor.”
I am often puzzled at how my friends from Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana are such huge Manchester or Arsenal fans.
For the life of me, I don’t understand how you could be so ardently supportive of the sports team of the country who colonized you.
For the African-American community who still struggles with having any concrete national pride, running around with an American flag, screaming goal just doesn’t feel right.
Finally, as we look at Brazil and this year’s game, you enter another notch in the belt of torment wrangling African-American World Cup fans; the African-American traveler (this group lives for authenticity) must watch football to keep their international street cred.
International travel among African Americans has been on the rise since 2008, and we spend more than $48 million USD on travel annually. Thousands of African Americans traveled to South Africa for the continent’s first World Cup, spawning a new wave of fans.
However, there is a dirty little secret among some African-American jet setters: We tend to shed our “American” stamp as soon as we can put the blue book back in its holder, proudly taking advantage of our ability to blend in or be mistaken for any number of nationalities wherever we are in the world.
Today, I scrolled through Instagram checking out photos from friends that are currently in Brazil. One stated plainly, “My sneak pic of the Americans OUT HERE for World Cup…honestly whenever I travel internationally I stay away from Americans as much as possible LMAO.”
This might seem extreme, but even I rebelled against being called a “gringo” when living in Mexico City. To me, gringo had a decidedly White meaning which I wanted NO part of (you have to claim perks when you can). Digital sites like Travel Noire and the Nomadness Travel Tribe celebrate the new Black cool as globetrotters who take our effortless “my Black is beautiful awesomeness” everywhere we go.
However, that sentiment doesn’t necessarily include an overwhelming sense of American patriotism.
For the World Cup, many people have an adopted favorite team based on where they’ve traveled. Most people will say, “I’m rooting for USA, except if they play Ghana/Nigeria/Cameroon etc.” Some even throw Brazil or Colombia in to the mix due to the overwhelming Blackness of their football squads.
Perhaps soccer/football is the new Pan-African conversation, uniting us under love, peace, and “footie.”
The American team continues to grow and is beginning to reflect the diversity of the country it represents. I’m even seeing more and more urban areas get in to fielding soccer leagues and taking the game seriously. There’s even a chance that as young Black Americans study abroad more frequently, they’ll develop a love and passion for the game that can go toe-to-toe with Lebron James’ (pictured at left) fandom.
For now, we’ll probably uncomfortably wish in secret that Ghana wins again to knock the United States out of round two but never admit that to our co-workers.
Face2face Africa invites you to join us for our annual Pan-African Weekend July 25-27 in NYC, honoring Dr. Mo Ibrahim, Alek Wek, Femi Kuti, Masai Ujiri, Bethlehem Alemu, and Dr. Oheneba Bochie-Adjei. Click here for more details and register to attend.