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September 13, 2014

The Europeanisation of US football

Guest contribution by Keith Rathbone, PhD candidate in French social and cultural history at Northwestern University. A previous contribution of Keith on players’ mobility was published by this blog in April.

Jürgen Klinsmann and Julian Green: American citizens communicating in German?

When Julian Green, the young Bayern Munich prospect, agreed to play internationally for the United States, knowledgeable American football fans cheered. Many others, however, raised concerns about his right to play for the United States. Although he was born in Tampa, and thus had American citizenship, he passed his whole childhood in Berlin with his German mother. The situation only got worse when Green spoke on television to ESPN to explain his decision. His imperfect English and stilted manner of speaking further alienated him in the minds of a vocal few that believed it would be a travesty for him to don the red, white, and blue jersey. Disquiet about his presence rose to such a level that Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, felt compelled to issue a statement regarding the background of the Team USA players. ‘I don’t agree with (the criticism),’ Gulati said, ‘nothing about that makes those players any less American. It would be pretty hard to convince me that they have less right to play for our country. It’s a globalized world.’

Gulati’s remarks were well founded in the history of the US Men’s National Team: Green is hardly the first European to play for the United States. A closer examination of when ‘Europeans’ played for the US illustrates the successive waves of immigration to American shores and reveals the important role of the coach in shaping the character of the team.

Immigrants from Europe have played a key role on American soccer teams from the beginnings of international competitions. In the 1930 World Cup, the US team called up a five of Scots, including Andrew Auld, Jim Brown, Jimmy Gallagher, Bart McGhee, and Alexander Wood.  Jimmy Gallagher did not even have American citizenship. One player also came from England, George Moorhouse, who later captained the 1934 US Team in Italy. At the 1950 World Cup, when the American team beat the English 1-0, the team included players from England, Germany, Belgium, Scotland, Poland, and the former Free State of Fiume. The team captain, Ed McIlvenny, hailed from Scotland and was not a US citizen at the time of the match with England, although he had declared his intention to become one.

Unfortunately for American football fans, the channel of European talent to American shores dried up after the end of Second World War. The start of the economic boom in Europe shrunk the number of young, immigrant football players. The multitude of Europeans had given way to rough, home grown journeymen such as Paul Caligiuri, John Kerr, and Bruce Murrey. The US Men’s National Team reached did not reach the World Cup again until 1994.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States haphazardly invited Europeans, usually sons of American servicemen. On a few occasions, these naturalisations ended in disaster. David Regis, a French player who had not participated in qualification became part of the team right before the 1998 World Cup. His presence arguably hurt Team USA as they started him in the place of the popular Jeff Agoos. Locker room chemistry suffered and the US finished in last place.

The latest World Cup, however, brought a more intelligent naturalisation and increased visibility of European-born players. German Jürgen Klinsmann, the first non-American U.S. Men’s National Team coach in recent years, quickly restored the European pipeline. He sought out players with connections, however tenuous, to the United States and encouraged them to play for their adoptive homeland. For Klinsmann these European players, principally German, brought a measure of class and experience. In the 2014 World Cup, the American side brought along John Brooks, Tim Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green, all German-American bi-nationals.

For decades, Europe principally benefited from the movement of football talent across the globe as talented players from the colonies immigrated back to the Metropole to find sporting glory. The growing number of European-born players on the American team heralds a new trend of football globalisation. Talent now drains from the centre of the football universe (Europe) into its peripheries (North America, Africa, and the Middle East). Team USA in particular looks poised to ‘steal’ even more skilled players such as Gedion Zelalem (Hertha Berlin) but it’s hardly the only country to benefit from this transmigration. Many African teams have been benefiting from it for more than a decade. It is hard to know what the long terms effects of this reverse migration might be but it is certain that right now the academies of Europe’s top clubs and the national technical centers are training the very players who are most likely to threaten and undermine European hegemony in the game.

Keith Rathbone

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