Abby Wambach finished her exceptional career last month, almost certainly the most impressive ever for an American footballer. In an interview on the Bill Simmons Podcast the day before the game, she also offered a withering assessment of Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure managing the Men’s team, suggesting that “the way that he has . . . brought in a bunch of these foreign guys is just not something that I believe in wholeheartedly. . . . This experiment that US Soccer has given Jürgen, just isn’t one that, personally, I’m into.”
Wambach has surely earned the right to have her views on US soccer taken seriously; and she is hardly alone in questioning the recruitment of uncommitted internationals with dual eligibilities. There is a widespread disapproval in world soccer of using “hired guns from other countries” (as Simmons described it). Diego Costa’s selection of his adopted nation of Spain over his birth nation (and junior international team) Brazil is perhaps the most notable recent example of a practice that reaches back to the beginning of international football (see, for instance, Frank Lopapa’s brief history of the Oriundo at In Bed with Maradona).
But in a presidential election cycle where Donald Trump is leading the Republican primaries by 20 points with an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, reactionary agenda (and, it’s worth adding, when fascism in Europe is also significantly on the rise), we should think carefully about a call for “real” Americans in US soccer.
Wambach, I’m sure, would not align her disapproval of “foreign guys” with Trump’s politics, and her comments in the interview are clearly focused on Klinsmann and the German-Americans he has brought in. There is no indication that her concerns extend to Mexican-Americans with dual citizenship, like Omar Gonzalez, nor to her Canadian-born teammate Sydney Leroux (Wambach mentored Leroux and was a bridesmaid at her wedding). There’s little question, though, that the general distrust of dual nationality players is linked to notions of nationalism that resonate with Trump’s reactionary discourse.
In 2014, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attempted to use the Men’s World Cup team in support of immigration reform, tweeting an info graphic which suggested that 11 members of the Men’s team were immigrants. But as the fact-checking site Politifact noted, all of those players (including all of the players mentioned above) are in fact natural born US citizens. Thankfully, having Mexican parents (or Icelandic, or a German mother) does not preclude American citizenship. Pelosi’s gaff underlines how her definition of immigrants, just like the ideal of real American players raised by Wambach’s comments, unintentionally adopts Trump’s vision of Americanness, despite her pro-immigration intentions. All Americans are real Americans, not just the ones who look or sound like Trump (or Pelosi).
The real irony is that the 2015 Women’s World Cup, with its expanded field of 24 teams, was such a success precisely because of the kind of “foreign players” Wambach lamented in the Men’s team–but in reverse. 2015 could fairly be described as the tournament Title IX created. A striking percentage of the players in the tournament developed their skills, at least in part, at US universities. Though some of these were simply foreign students taking advantage of US scholarship opportunities, many grew up in the US with dual citizenship. Central and South American teams are particularly indebted to dual American citizenship–10 of Mexico’s 23 squad members are US born. But they are not alone: England’s goalkeeper, Karen Bardsley, was born and raised in Santa Monica, playing for Cal State Fullerton.
That America has played a seminal role in the development of the international women’s game is a cause for celebration, our exporting of “American” talent a reason for national pride. Those who find Trump’s reactionary and racist vision of America disturbing should be wary of embracing a similar vision of “real” American-ness in judging the qualifications of soccer players. Like most American sports, our soccer programs are emblematic of the cosmopolitanism that has been an important rejoinder to Trump’s nativism from the outset of our national experiment. Criticize Klinsmann or individual players, but don’t be seduced by the illusion that “real” Americans are the solution to anything.