Thursday, November 19, 2020

Trump & Football's Final Score

SOCCER'S CURIOUS COURSE UNDER THE 45TH POTUS

Like a red-carded footballer, President Donald Trump has been given his marching orders.

Although as we speak he is still refusing to leave the field, by January 2021 Trump will have exhausted any appeal to VAR and accepted the referee's decision, however cruel it seemed, was final after all.

The 45th President of the United States could never be described as a soccer fan of course and America, for so long a glaring gap in the football-loving jigsaw of the world, still has not got the bug as big as it should have done.

But the world's most lucrative sport has far-reaching tentacles so it did not escape the reach of the world's most powerful man over the past four years.

A young Trump
A young Trump kitted out for soccer

Soccer and Trump overlapped when it suited them, a marriage of convenience with any such union's elations and irritations.

Trump was far from a soccer-hater or soccerphobe. With a German grandfather, Scottish mother, and Slovenian wife, he was always likely to have crossed paths with the game or at least not looked upon it as something alien or un-American.

Indeed, he played football at secondary school from 1959-1964, as a team photo of the future president at the New York Military Academy proves.

He confirmed this early familiarity with football in a bizarre and unscheduled encounter 28 years ago with British TV presenters Saint & Greavsie (see below), who were in the Big Apple for a World Cup preview and were recognised by chance by one of his employees, who then invited them up Trump Tower to meet the big man.

Fast forward to 2020 and his 14-year-old son Barron is an Arsenal fan (not sure how that happened given their travails this past decade), ensuring a foothold for football in the Presidential household.

While President, Trump dipped in and out of soccer matters and his reign was punctuated by some big events in American soccer history as the sport maintained its upward growth across the pond.

While America missed out on Russia 2018, football scored a double whammy of promotion during Trump's tenure when the USA won the 2019 Women's World Cup as well as the hosting rights to the men's 2026 World Cup.

The Women's World Cup win in Paris confirmed the preeminence of football as a female sport. The US women so dominate the field they have accrued the same aura of invincibility Brazil used to enjoy in the men's game.

Out of the eight Women's World Cups held so far, they have bagged four of them, reached five finals and three semi-finals.

The 2018 final attracted an average of 15 million TV viewers in the United States, more than the 2018 men's World Cup final, which drew 11 million stateside.

There surely would have been more US tellies tuned to France had FIFA not scheduled the finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and CONMEBOL Copa America for the same day and had the kick-off time not been 8am Sunday in California.

But if the president felt some of the glory of the victorious team might have rubbed off on him he was sorely mistaken.

Megan Rapinoe, the US women's skipper, was quick to position herself as hostile to the incumbent of the White House, audaciously defying the president in public.

Women's World Cup

Rapinoe's slating of Trump on live TV, appeals for equal pay with male footballers, and high-profile media appearances saw her become a household name and an outstanding sports personality.
Her famous outburst - "I'm not going to the f-ing White House" - was a forthright line in the sand, to which the President himself felt compelled to reply, via his preferred medium of Twitter of course:

"Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag," Trump typed indignantly.

Even if it was not about the sport per se, the US President was talking about football, which never used to happen.

If the round-ball game is the American sport of the future and is already dominant among women and Hispanics, then the LGBT Rapinoe's challenge to the President's MAGA ideology, disseminated widely, was truly symbolic of the nation's cultural schisms and shifting demographics.

Meanwhile the US men's national team players continued flying under the radar. During the Trump presidency, they calamitously failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, their first absence on the biggest stage since Mexico '86.

The Jurgen Klinsmann era ended in the same month Trump was elected, and returning head coach Bruce Arena could not stop the slide as the US were eliminated by Trinidad & Tobago and ended up a dismal fifth in their final qualifying group.

In truth the squad was weaker than in previous tournaments and the rise of Christian Pulisic as a genuinely top talent was mirrored by the eclipse of talisman Clint Dempsey and a palpable lack of quality in all areas.

Tears at missing out on Russia were tempered however with news in 2018 that the US would co-host the 2026 tournament with Mexico and Canada, an event which will hopefully cement soccer as a universally accepted part of the American professional sports landscape, going far beyond where USA '94 went. A long run for the hosts then would work wonders with the wider public, hitherto mildly curious, blasé, or hostile.

Trump spied the PR potential of a US victory in the 2026 vote so weighed in before the FIFA Congress in Zurich, making implied threats against countries who were thinking of backing Morocco:

"It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against a US bid," he tweeted. "Why should we be supporting these countries if they don't support us (including at the United Nations)?"

So football came in useful again as a conduit to air his views. Before long, FIFA President Gianni Infantino was in Washington for a photo op with Trump, who seemed delighted to share the global limelight.

It was not about a love of the game. The idea of the US hosting the world's biggest party was merely lapped up by the showman obsessed with his ratings.

Ten American cities will have matches in 2026, one more than in 1994, but sadly this time there will be none in the major city that is Chicago, which withdrew after refusing to agree to FIFA's notorious tax-free demands.

The US men won the 2017 Gold Cup final but lost the 2019 one to old rivals Mexico, a clash ever more poignant because of the President's fiery rhetoric about the US border.

The fact football is a global sport is normally a huge ace in its favour, but we should consider it a godsend that the US president did not exploit its geopolitical potential over such a tense issue.

Before a CONCACAF Cup clash in 2015, Mexican TV took some of Trump's words and threw them back at him delightfully in a video, although the pro-Trump Fox network then used them to big up America instead, playing along with the divisive narrative.

In the 2016 Copa America, the anti-Latino propaganda coming from the Republican candidate did not go unnoticed further south of the border.

Argentine TV responded by jocularly replaying images of Leo Messi and others arriving for the summer's Copa America in the States to a soundtrack of Trump's warnings about undesirable Hispanics crossing the US border.

As regards Major League Soccer, the mean attendance was broadly similar at the end of his presidency to when he took office - 21,305 v 21,695, but with an uneven spread. Atlanta United were the best-supported team in 2019 with an average of 52,510 fans yet at the other end Chicago Fire could only draw 12,324.

The league grew during the Trump presidency by six teams - Atlanta, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Miami and Nashville, with four more on tap - Austin, Charlotte, Sacramento and at long last, St Louis, the American city with the richest footballing heritage.

And so MLS' future looks bright, the US women are world champs and the nation will host the next but one men's World Cup. As Trump leaves town, football overall is growing healthily in America.

Trump showed no deep interest beyond high school but since the world loved soccer it came to him. His son Barron loves football, plays in DC United's youth system, invited Wayne Rooney to the White House and was pictured in a full Arsenal kit!

The future looks bright and spherical.

And so to mark his exit from the Oval Office, here are some highlights of the 45th President's encounters with the Beautiful Game:

When it comes to Donald Trump and football however, it is hard to top a most surreal meeting between the then New York property tycoon and former players Jimmy Greaves and Ian St John in 1992:


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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