America’s trilogy of terror: Marriage, immigration and the FIFA World Cup

     Friends of the author, Archibald and Nicole Ollennu, from Ghana and Michigan, respectively, are shown at the Natal Praia Hotel in Natal, Brazil, on June 16, on their way to the U.S.-Ghana game. (Image courtesy of Archibald and Nicole Ollennu)

    Friends of the author, Archibald and Nicole Ollennu, from Ghana and Michigan, respectively, are shown at the Natal Praia Hotel in Natal, Brazil, on June 16, on their way to the U.S.-Ghana game. (Image courtesy of Archibald and Nicole Ollennu)

    A certain right-wing pundit says that no American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer, and that U.S. interest in this “foreign” sport is a sign of our nationwide “moral decay,” on par with lax immigration policy and the horrors of the metric system.

    It’s confusing, because I’m watching the World Cup, and now I don’t know if that’s because my maternal great-grandfather was born in Colchester, England, and immigrated to Canada on a cattle boat in the late 1800s, or if it’s because my husband is South African. Either way, my 1983 birth in western Pennsylvania clearly means nothing.

    But where Ann Coulter detects a deleterious slide into un-American-ness, I enjoy an unprecedented chance to taunt my Ghanaian friends as the U.S. emerges from FIFA’s “group of death,” including Ghana, Portugal, and Germany.

    Complicated, unamerican loyalties

    The scoring is a bit complicated, but my husband has a World Cup app with all the brackets and standings. If I show signs of failing to understand how Ghana’s loss to Portugal and the U.S.’s loss to Germany mean that the U.S. advances while our West African friends do not, my husband can immediately explain the whole thing as many times as necessary.

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    In our circle of friends, 2014 World Cup loyalties are as complicated as FIFA scoring. With so many international families, it’s easier to understand when a player is off-sides than it is to figure out who you ought to root for.

    In our house this year, one conflict was eliminated before the World Cup began: Bafana Bafana (“the boys,” South Africa’s national team) was eliminated early on from the FIFA roster. So after the games opened in Brazil, my husband had a slightly different quandary: Cheer for another African team out of a sort of continental solidarity, or cheer for his wife’s team? We have so many Ghanaian friends that we’re both partial to Ghana (I ate a lot of Jollof rice in college, though I hate fufu), but even though my own little cousin is half-Ghanaian, I wasn’t exactly sad when Ghana was eliminated in favor of the U.S.

    Frankly, the whole thing is a mess: Coulter’s worst nightmare. In 2010, I watched a Bafana Bafana game in a Fairmount pizza shop with a bunch of Italians. One of my oldest friends married a dude from Honduras — who should their children root for? My aunt and uncle adopted a baby from China. My cousin had a kid with a guy who’s half-Indian, and then her brothers roamed around South America for a couple of years and brought a few of their favorite Colombians to Philly. This weekend, hubby and I ran into a college pal from Brazil who married a girl from Michigan, and we couldn’t stir a step until the men had dissected a white-knuckle game against Chile. Meanwhile, I can’t talk to my good friend (whose mother was Russian, arriving at Ellis Island in 1922) about it all, because she’s visiting her daughter in Sweden. And the U.S. FIFA coach wasn’t even born here. He’s German.

    And some people have worse issues.

    “The marital problems begin,” our Ghanaian friend, Archibald, said on Facebook, as he and his American wife, Nicole, decked themselves out to attend the U.S.-Ghana game in Natal on June 16, where the U.S. shocked the whole world by winning.

    My husband claimed that this 2-1 defeat of Ghana was “a fluke,” but when the US held their own against Portugal for a 2-2 tie after Portugal also beat Ghana 2-1, (hey, wake up, this is interesting!), doubt crept into his eyes. Then, after Germany pounded Portugal with a 4-0 loss, and the US managed to hang on into the next round with a loss of 2-1 against the Germans (quit nodding off, I mean it this time!), my husband told Archibald that maybe it was time for them both to get behind the US team.

    I wonder what’s worse — an American girl rooting for Africans, or green-card-carrying Africans rooting for America?

    American interests

    While my husband insists that it’s best to watch every FIFA game, to learn each country’s playing style, so I can map out my expectations should they play the U.S., I have to admit that my interest in FIFA is intensely personal. When it comes to sports in general, I would rather sit all day at the DMV with nothing but a copy of “The Canterbury Tales” in the original Middle English than watch a single Eagles game.

    But I like watching soccer when it’s the U.S., Ghana, Brazil, Bafana Bafana, or any other team my friends and family are rooting for. (Also, have you seen the Mohawks on the pitch this year? The hedges of Buckingham Palace have nothing on the FIFA players’ heads.) However, Coulter shouldn’t worry that Americans are being contaminated by other cultures and nations. As long as soccer fans have the racist blather of ESPN broadcasters from the US and UK, we should be fine.

    For example, during the U.S.-Ghana game, the ESPN commentators repeatedly referred to the Ghanaians as “the Africans.” (I doubt that, while the U.S. is playing Belgium, Caucasian commenters will repeatedly refer to our opponents as “the Europeans” instead of “the Belgians.”)

    So rest easy, American exceptionalists, especially those with a little room in your hearts for Europe. Anyone watching an ESPN broadcast of a FIFA game is at a very low risk of learning that Africa comprises many countries, let alone the fact that (as Archibald explained to me) Ghana itself has over 50 languages and more than 100 distinct cultures.

    “They see the whole continent as one people, even though we [are] really different,” Archibald, who’s fluent in Ga and English and grew up in La (a region of Greater Accra), messaged me about why that “African” label made him mad.

    During another Ghana game, a commentator referred to the players as “a typical African team.”

    “What the hell does that even mean?” my husband demanded of the TV.

    I guess it means we can lump Afrikaner, Xhosa, Ga, Bedouin, and Maasai people together — even if we would never mix up Mantua and Manayunk. All I know for sure is that Americans — real Americans, whose great-grandparents were born in America, the non-non-xenophobic Americans — aren’t endangered by the international influence of the FIFA World Cup. If we would just quit shacking up with foreigners and getting wrapped up in their teams.

    Because friendship and marriage in America is hard enough without deciding which futbol team to root for.

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