There have been only two times that I have seen the press act out of character. The first was in the mid-’90s and six of us were touring one of Mother Teresa’s facilities in Africa. After a tour arranged by Catholic Relief Services, several members of a group of six reached into their pockets and gave a donation. The rest of the group followed suit.
The other time was this week when the U.S. soccer team won the round, bringing the United States further than it has been since 2002 in the World Cup. A loud cheer broke spontaneously in the basement of the White House press room, and the White House press office made an announcement over the loud speaker. Never even for the Olympics have I seen or heard the press office or the White House press corps so excited. This was the spirit of America in the normally very reserved press corps.
Soccer was something that was played in junior-high school when I grew up, and no one thought of it as a sport that you would watch on television, let alone get excited about. Why, all of the sudden, has this taken the United States by storm, and why are we all so excited about it?
There is only one reason: We are a nation of immigrants and the immigration patterns of the last 50 years have made soccer a national sport. Immigration has changed. When I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the ’50s and ’60s, there were two kinds of non-American cuisine restaurants: Chinese and Italian. There were tons of Hungarians and many other Slavic immigrants, but no cuisine to match. Differences were to be minimized, not celebrated.
We have always been a nation of immigrants, but where our migration patterns have come from influence what we eat and how we play. It also influences how we love, as immigrants tend to be married and have a lower divorce rate. Immigration has been a contentious issue at various times with the first immigration laws passed in the late 1880s. In the 1920s the first quota acts were passed to restrict Europeans and Jews from entering the United States in large numbers. There was often quite a bit of blame for social and health problems blamed on Italians and Jews who lived in tenements in large cities. The immigrants were considered less intelligent and less able than the “Americans.” Instead of the local 7-Eleven stores, immigrants owned “creameries,” which were turn-of-the-century equivalents.
Several researchers have noted that the percentage of immigrants in the population has gone from a high of 14.8 percent in 1890 to a low of 4.7 percent in 1970. It now stands at about 12 percent to 13 percent of the total U.S. population. What has changed is the population makeup of the legal immigrants. (Illegal immigrants are mostly from Mexico and Central America and make up about 4 percent of the population.) The top six countries currently donating to our legal immigrant population are Mexico, China, Philippines, India, Cuba and Colombia. Arab-Americans at the 2000 census were less than 2 percent of the population, but they love soccer, too.
Mexico hosted the World Cup in 1970 and has built several soccer stadiums. Soccer is the No. 1 spectator sport in China and illegal betting on the game is rampant. In India it is so popular that it is replacing the British game of cricket. South America idolizes its soccer players, and Colombia is no exception.
The folks who don’t like our current immigration patterns can complain and carp all they want, but the deed is done. We are as influenced by the current migration patterns of our immigrants as we were at the turn of the century by Jews, Italians and Irish. Soccer has captured the imagination of our country, and we can thank our most recent citizens for the pleasure.