Among the many images of brown children interned by the Trump administration along the U.S.-Mexico border was one focusing on an encampment of white tents set up by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection near Tornillo, Tex., a town about a 40-minute drive southeast of El Paso and its Mexican neighbor, Ciudad Juárez.
The photo, shot from afar over a chain-link fence because reporters were not allowed access to the hastily assembled camp, captured the children detainees, separated from their parents, playing soccer. Their pitch was gray dirt. It was a particularly ugly setting for what is so often called the beautiful game.
We don’t know from where all the kids migrated. Reports indicated some arrived from Central American countries such as Guatemala and Honduras. We did learn most were being drawn to enter the United States as a safe haven from having to survive drug trade-fueled violence, such as that which grips parts of Mexico.
It was those from Mexico, who represent the U.S.’s bitter rival in soccer, whom Landon Donovan, the U.S.’s greatest soccer player, was seen championing in a TV ad that debuted with the start of the World Cup.
“¡Vamos Mexico!” Donovan cheered in the ad brought to us by Wells Fargo.
Donovan was then drenched in a torrent of online criticism from U.S. fans and teammates. A lot was jingoistic, the worst was xenophobic, and some made sense, such as that questioning his sincerity and wisdom for taking a paycheck from a bank with all manner of ethical and criminal problems in recent years.
But I’m with Donovan’s sentiment.
And I’m with Mexico, which is scheduled to play its second World Cup match Saturday after upsetting defending champion Germany last Sunday in both sides’ opener.
As Donovan explained on Grant Wahl’s Planet Futbol World Cup Daily Podcast this week: “In retrospect, I think I should’ve explained my personal story vis-a-vis the Mexican people and culture and how Mexican soccer has influenced my life and my career. I think that would have been a much smarter way to handle this as opposed to just coming out with an ad saying I’m supporting Mexico in the World Cup, because a lot of people understandably took that the wrong way.
“There’s, unfortunately, a lot of hatred in this country, and you just have to say there’s a lot of racism. That’s come out over the weekend in all the comments I’ve seen. So it’s unfortunate, but I do feel connected to the Mexican people in many ways, and I do want them to do well.”
After all Mexico has done for this country — economically and culturally — and how we’ve allowed it to be treated since the presidential election of 2016, it deserves more Donovans among us.
Its people certainly don’t deserve to be villainized as President Trump did to them during his campaign, when he first expressed his desire to erect a southern border wall to keep undocumented Mexican and Central American immigrants out of the United States. In a Cabinet meeting Thursday, he even angrily reiterated his slander of those Latinos desiring to enter the U.S. as “drug traffickers, they’re human traffickers, they’re coyotes. I mean, we’re getting some real beauties.”
And in between, the president even slapped Mexico with tariffs in anger over trade practices.
Ironically, we also were reminded this week of Mexico’s cultural imprint on this country, when an architect of Trump’s policy toward Mexico, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, and executor, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, were shamed in public after being spotted dining at, of all places, Mexican restaurants in D.C.
Mexico didn’t get a fair shake last week, either, when it was named a joint host of the World Cup in 2026 along with the United States and Canada.
Soccer arrived in Mexico much the same way it did in the United States, as cargo with European immigrants. It came at about the same time, too, in the middle of the 19th century. It was Cornish miners recruited to silver and gold mines in Real del Monte, a mountain town in the central state of Hidalgo, who brought the game from Europe. The first games were played on the patio of a silver mine called Mina Delores. The Cornish established Mexico’s first team, Pachuca. (The U.S. borrowed from that, too. In South Florida, there is a Pachuca Football Club for youth that is an affiliate of the Pachuca team in Mexico.)
But the U.S., where soccer interest ranked last among 34 countries and participation was fourth to last in a 2014 Nielsen Sports poll, was pegged to host 60 of the 80 matches in what will be an expanded World Cup in 2026. Mexico only got a heel of the loaf along with Canada, despite soccer being Mexico’s national pastime and Mexico seemingly being more emblematic at this time of the World Cup’s ideals.
As World Cup officials messaged all over Brazil’s stadiums during the 2014 tournament: “We strive not only for victory in the game, but for the victory of peace; for mutual respect, regardless of gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, religion or class. These are the values and aspirations of FIFA, the wider world of sport and people everywhere. We pledge to do our utmost to achieve global peace and a life of dignity for all.”
Sadly, it didn’t reflect that creed in awarding this year’s tournament to Russia, as billionaire businessman Richard Branson reminded on his blog last week, pointing to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. A similar critique could be leveled upon a new White House that this week quit the U.N. Human Rights Council, in May sparked international condemnation by relocating the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and this week drew rebuke from its allies, Pope Francis and the United Nations for exercising a policy to separate Latino migrant children from their parents and detain them in camps.
Against this backdrop, it is Mexico — or El Tri, as the team is known for its green, white and red colors that mimic the Mexican flag — that deserves an embrace.
And the soccer world stage is to Mexico what the baseball or basketball world stage is to the United States. This month, Mexico advanced to the 16th World Cup in its history. Only four countries have made more appearances. Of eight countries with at least 15 World Cup appearances, Mexico is the only one still seeking its first gold trophy.
If some second-world country looking for a down payment on the first can’t win this tournament, I hope Mexico does. It could use it.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.
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