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Africa: The Future of American Soccer

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So, we lost to Ghana. Again.

Yet, hidden in plain sight within the U.S. defeat last Saturday is the key to the sport's future success in the United States. And it has nothing to do with sending more of our boys to Liverpool, or Turin, or Leverkusen.

It's an orthodox belief that if America wants to consistently compete with the world's top teams, then it must ship her players abroad to compete against competition that's superior to what can be found stateside. This is the line of reasoning that has sent, among other American players now earning their paychecks in Europe, defender Oguchi Onyewu to Milan, forward Clint Dempsey to Fulham, and goalkeeper Tim Howard to Everton. But what if, instead of exporting players across the Atlantic, the United States Soccer Federation embarked on a mission to recruit players to move in the opposite direction (and not merely a David Beckham every now and again)? That is, might the powers that be of American soccer actively bring foreign stars to Major League Soccer to boost the homegrown league's quality of play?

Though African teams -- Ghana notwithstanding -- fared poorly in this year's Cup, the excitement and quality of play they brought to the field foretells a bright future for African soccer. Siphiwe Tshabalala of South Africa scored a goal as beautiful as any against Mexico on the tournament's first day, and though their respective Cameroonian and Ivoirian sides failed to reach the second round, Samuel Eto'o and Didier Drogba reminded us why they're considered two of the best strikers in the world. Of course, Eto'o and Drogba are already well established in Italy's esteemed Serie A and in England's cutthroat Premier League, respectively, but Tshabalala recently finished his last professional season with Soweto's Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa's Premier Soccer League. As his stock rises in the eyes of club owners and coaches (Tshabalala asked Kaizer to be released from his contract, presumably so he could seek greener pastures abroad), for which team -- and in which league -- will the twenty-five year old next take the field? Must he invariably set his sights on the European firmament? Why not Kansas City or New York? Toronto or Washington, D.C.?

Because despite FIFA's efforts at seeding tolerance and understanding on the field and in the bleachers, racism still runs rampant in European soccer. In 2009, Ghanaian player Solomon Opoku absorbed verbal and physical abuse from "friendly" supporters of his Serbian team who were appalled that a black man would take the field under their club's banner. (And in a pathetic display, fans of Opoku's team have been known to cheer on their team under the banner of the stars and bars of the Confederate Battle Flag.) On a trip to play Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia, Pape Diouf, at the time president of the French powerhouse club Olympique Marseille, encountered "the classic stuff, the bananas thrown at black players warming up, the monkey chants, obscene gestures. Not only does Zenit not hide the fact that no black player could play for this club, the fans say so themselves." While playing for Standard Liege of Belgium, the American Onyewu alleges that opponent Jelle van Damme of Anderlecht called him a "dirty monkey." Onyewu reported three such incidents to the referee during that game, and threatened to walk off the field until his teammates convinced him otherwise.

While it would be patently stupid to suggest that racism is dead and buried in the United States, it can still be said that for the most part, it has been banished from the stadium and arena. American sports teams began (albeit slowly and gingerly) embracing black athletes when Branch Rickey sent Jackie Robinson onto the Ebbets Field grass in 1947. And while the sixty plus years since haven't been smooth, or easy -- ask any of the African Americans who helped desegregate the Southeastern Conference, school by school, sport by sport, for example -- the crude and disgusting vitriol that fans proudly inject into European sports is simply not accepted as a valid part of the American sporting landscape. Couldn't Africa's rising stars be convinced to help build an American league in which fans maintain civility and tolerance for minority players?

Now, MLS is decidedly a third -- or even fourth-rate professional soccer league. Spain's David Villa, recently acquired by Barcelona for 40 million euro, is never going to drop stardom on the world's most illustrious team for a spot in the Columbus Crew's starting eleven. But what about Ghana's twenty-four year old Asamoah Gyan, who scored the game-winner against the Yanks in extra-time? Currently, Gyan plays in France's Ligue 1, which during the 2008 season dealt with fourteen separate racist incidents bad enough to have been registered by the police. While playing for Lyon in 2008, another Ghanaian star, John Mensah, was so disturbed by one fan's incessant monkey cries that he "wanted to go back to Ghana, to flee. To put a stop to all that."

A rising tide lifts all boats. An African presence in Major League Soccer would boost the quality of play in the league, necessarily improving the skill of its American players. And while the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, may be a far cry from Munich's Allianz Arena or Milan's San Siro, it's a safe bet that a fan who's smuggled some bananas through the turnstiles has done so to complement the stadium's greasy food offerings, not to demonstrate his hatred and ignorance.

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