While America mourns the tragic aftermath of the Orlando terror attack, I have been focused on covering the events over in Europe where hooliganism has marred the Euro 2016 soccer finals. Unlike sporting events in the United States, football (soccer) in Europe tends to be defined by politics with team identifications often being dictated by political ideology or party affiliation. The acts of violence around the tournament, which is one of the biggest in global sports is clearly from my vantage point more connected to political and economic realities than the sport itself. The debates over Brexit in the United Kingdom and the excessive nationalism of Vladimir Putin created a convenient context for English and Russian supporters to battle each other for three days in Marseille.
Simultaneously with the Euro 2016 tournament in France is the Copa America Centenario being held on US soil. The Copa America features 16 teams from across the Americas and is being played in a year when Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has exacerbated fault lines in our society. The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) is magnet for soccer fans across the country who tend to lean to the left politically but also attracts some pseudo-nationalist type fans who tend to lean to the right. Many of the progressives that dominate the base for soccer in the United States don’t support the USMNT and in fact reject the tribal natural of international football preferring to focus on the club game where teams sometimes boast as many as twenty nationalities on one side.
Last week, Sunil Gulati the President of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) which governs the game in this country made his opposition to Trump abundantly clear. Gulati, who is the most powerful soccer personality in North America and is quickly emerging as a global power broker was playing to his core constituency – progressive-oriented soccer fans especially millennials in the US coupled with leading officials in the game abroad most of whom hail from leftist political backgrounds or have an anti-colonial ideology. But what is ironic about Gulati’s stand is that given events in Europe, the USMNT might become a place where pro-Trump forces galvanize in the near future. Particularly in the Copa America knockout stages the next two weeks where the USMNT will face sides from Latin America providing a potential focal point for those who might want to mimic the hooliganism of Europe for the same sort of political and ethnic reasons as we see on the other side of the pond.
Faux nationalism and fear mongering are core components of the Trump messaging effort. Given the behavior of some right-wing forces in Europe and the use of international soccer tournaments as a convenient organizing forum, the increased mainstream sports media coverage the Copa America is getting presents a threat. This threat is intensified if the United States faces Mexico in the final of the competition on June 26 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Mexican fans displayed the Trump piñata in the picture at the most recent matchup between the US and Mexico. With Trump having heightened tensions between Mexican-Americans and his supporters the fear that copycat hooliganism is possible will surface must be considered.
Moving beyond the Copa America, Trump’s rhetoric is quite possibly going to encourage extremists to violently attack interests associated with minority groups particularly Mexican-Americans. Trump’s rhetoric has its costs and given what we’ve seen in Europe, that sort of violence could spread here and potentially be worse since the availability of deadly firearms in the US dwarfs that of any other western nation.