Former NME scribe and author of ‘Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty’, Steven Wells in Friday’s Guardian on the racial divide in American soccer.
The segregation of US cities still shocks. And nowhere is this divide more obvious than in US soccer. No one is keeping statistics on just how effectively working class African-Americans have been excluded from America’s grass roots soccer explosion. But everyone is agreed that US soccer is – to use Greg Dyke’s phrase – hideously white.
In Raleigh, North Carolina African-American kids reacted with disbelief when a teacher told them about her brother-in-law – black US defender Eddie Pope. They were reportedly “stunned” when Pope sent them an autographed poster.
When H. Wells Wulsin moved from a small town in Ohio to teach in inner-city Washington, he enthusiastically set about starting a soccer program. “Even after weeks of posters, PA announcements and word-of-mouth advertising, I still had barely enough players to fill the field. It was the first soccer team at the school in over 25 years, and the lack of interest shattered my world paradigm. Our athletic director had warned me: ‘kids don’t play soccer in the ghetto. Just football, basketball, track.’”
But others have succeeded. Steve Bandura runs the Anderson Monarchs youth soccer team in inner-city Philadelphia. He shows the kids footage of PelÃ© and other black players (and, for some reason, David Speedie) “making the point that most of the world’s footballers look like them”. And every winter he gives his young players the option to switch to basketball until the new soccer season starts. And every year – without fail – the kids choose indoor soccer instead.
Every other team in the Monarchs’ league is predominantly white. And most years the Monarchs win everything in sight. There is only one other non-school African-American team in Philadelphia – a city that is 40% black. “The reason is,” says Steve, “that there just aren’t soccer programmes being run in African-American neighbourhoods. If there were then what we do here would be repeated many times.”
While attending an awards ceremony, Bandura, coach of the all African-American Anderson Monarchs youth soccer team, overheard a local official muttering: “If they think they’re going to do what they did to basketball, they’re crazy.”
In his book Taboo, Jon Entine points that 65% of NFL and 80% of NBA players are African-American. Norman Mailer spoofed the fear these statistics provoke in an article for the New York Review of Books: “We white men were now left with half of tennis (at least its male half), and might also point to ice hockey, skiing, soccer, golf (with the notable exception of the Tiger), as well as lacrosse, track, swimming, and the World Wrestling Federation-remnants of a once great and glorious white athletic centrality.” Mailer might have added to his list “extreme sports” and Nascar – both as dumb as toast and both white (or, to put it another way, both free of blacks). And both increasingly popular with white Americans.
Meanwhile, soccer has become – in the words of Tom Simpson, president of the A-League’s San Francisco Bay Seals – the “dream alternate sport for the white suburbs”. A safe place where the grandchildren of the “white flight” generation can play in monocultural safety. And who’d want to change that?
In the 19th century America’s white suburban cricketers strove mightily to avoid any contact with Negroes, Germans and (shudder) the Irish. As a result the sport all but died and baseball inherited the earth.
Amazingly, in the first decade of the 21st century, US soccer might be making the exact same mistake.