Arena, USMNT players vocal about mending political divide with Mexico

Eric Adelson
Columnist

MEXICO CITY – It’s not just a game.

The match between the U.S. and Mexico on Sunday has World Cup implications, of course, but it also comes against a much-discussed political backdrop. President Donald Trump wants to build a wall on America’s southern border, and people on both sides have strong feelings.

For that reason, CONCACAF’s signature match has more meaning than it has in the past. Those who want to tune geopolitics out will have their chance to do so, but it’s foolish to think the players and staffs and fans don’t have emotions about the current environment. They do.

American head coach Bruce Arena was asked about that on Saturday in his pre-match press conference, and his answer was longer than any other response he gave. He drew on his time living in Los Angeles, home of the Galaxy and home to many Mexican Americans.

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“We have the greatest respect for Mexico,” Arena said. “Its people, its football team, people of Mexican heritage. They are wonderful people. They contribute greatly to our society in many ways. I’m ashamed that there’s perhaps some discord on the political side. Most Americans appreciate Mexicans who have come to the country to make a life for themselves and a better future for their families.”

It was not an incendiary statement, but it was a statement. Arena is aware he and the team carry the flag on Sunday in a place where there is resentment for the current American president. That resentment could very well be expressed tomorrow in the stands, even if it’s just in the form of angry chants.

U.S. men’s national team head coach Bruce Arena expressed his respect and appreciation for Mexico, its citizens and Mexican Americans. (EFE)

For Americans like Darlington Nagbe, who is here for the first time, the goal is to represent the entirety of his nation. But Nagbe is among those with his own views formed by his own American story.

When asked about what has been said about Mexico and the possible border wall, Nagbe said, “I don’t think it’s right.”

“Moving to the country when I was younger, and the opportunity I’ve been given to be here, to represent the country, it’s been a huge blessing not just for me but my whole family. The wall is the wall but I wouldn’t build it.”

Nagbe was born in Liberia during a brutal civil war. His family fled when he was an infant, and they went to a refugee camp before living in Europe and finally the United States. Nagbe called his arrival into the U.S. on a visa at age 11 “one of the best things that ever happened to us.” Nagbe was asked several months ago about President Trump’s so called “travel ban,” which would temporarily block the entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations. Then too he reflected on the chance he had gotten, and he mentioned his wish for others to have the same chance.

Other American players have voiced displeasure with the president over the past months. “We have an obligation to come together and get behind our new president and to have faith and trust that he will do what’s best for the entire country,” Michael Bradley said in November. He then wrote on social media in January he was “sad and embarrassed” by the travel ban idea and slammed the “xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric” from Trump’s campaign.

When the United States and Mexico played in Columbus in the days after the U.S. election, players linked arms before the match in what some felt was a “Unity Wall.” It’s not yet known whether a similar display will take place Sunday, but for their part the Americans are doing something to reach across the divide.

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