donald trump is america's first soccer president

words: peter macia

We should have known something was up when they discovered ungovernable cats in Trump Tower. Three weeks before the Tower’s namesake officially declared his candidacy for President of the United States, unsealed court documents from U.S.A. vs Charles Blazer foreshadowed the absurdity of life under Donald Trump’s authority. A long-time global soccer operative, Charles “Chuck” Blazer had defrauded the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, commonly known as CONCACAF, of millions and corrupted global institutions meant to, in FIFA’s own words: “Develop the game, touch the world, build a better future.” And all of it happened quite literally under Donald Trump’s nose as it sniffed the rarefied air in the Tower’s top three floors. Blazer’s testimony, in exchange for a plea deal with the Department of Justice, told of his two-decade criminal campaign operating out of two separate apartments on the 49th floor and the entire 17th floor of Trump Tower, including the $6,000-a-month unit just for his gang of rabid feline accomplices.

While many Trump properties are mere franchises of his brand name, Trump Tower is different. Along with being Donald and Melania Trump’s place of residence, it is the headquarters of the Trump Organization, which also manages the property, and Donald himself is said to be involved in selecting and vetting many of his neighbors, many of whom are convicted criminals or highly suspicious characters. Presumption of innocence while residing in Trump Tower can be extended to many of those residents, but not Chuck Blazer, because, well, he admitted in a court of law that he committed crimes while living and acting in service of CONCACAF in Trump Tower. In fact, it was partly due to Blazer’s insistence that CONCACAF rent the entire 17th floor for its headquarters and pay a portion of his personal rent on the 49th floor that U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was able to pursue an investigation of FIFA’s global corruption in the first place.

But Blazer’s own criminal activities weren’t the only shady business being conducted in his Trump Tower den of iniquity. According to Mary Papenfuss, co-author of “American Huckster: How Chuck Blazer Got Rich From—and Sold Out—the Most Powerful Cabal in World Sports,” Donald Trump paid Blazer a handsome fee to use his apartment as the set for Trump University's first infomercial in 2005. Donald Trump and Trump University, of course, just settled for $25 million in the fraud case brought against them by the States of New York and California on behalf of 5,000 former customers.

When the details of Blazer’s testimony were first revealed, we laughed, because Blazer looked like a Chris Farley skit and lived like Montgomery Burns. And that laughter continued well beyond Trump’s announcement on June 16, 2015, when he began his run to the White House in a rambling Monty Python-esque riff that called all Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers and took umbrage with ISIS building a hotel in Syria while Trump was not allowed to. We continued to laugh when the Trump University case came to light, because that infomercial could very well have been produced by Tim & Eric. A much smaller group of us laughed when Trump’s bid to purchase Medellin-based soccer club and reigning South American champion, Atletico Nacional, failed, because his partner in said bid was an equally cartoonish Colombian named Alessandro Proto, who once claimed to be the inspiration for “Fifty Shades of Grey." We laughed, because American soccer finally had a presidential candidate we could call our own, and of course it was Donald Trump. We laughed, because there was just no way any logical person could take Donald Trump seriously. We laughed, because he was a clown, and kept laughing until, in the most timely turn events, the clown became a terror.

We are not alone. In the last few years, similarly laughable political figures in England, France, and Germany have ridden populist, racist, xenophobic waves to prominence in the same way Trump did this past year. They declared that their countries had lost their identities and could only be saved by reclaiming them from immigrants, in the same way Trump has. They, like Trump, promised rebirth through return to previous glories, most of which only seemed to exist in alternate histories. They insisted that prosperity and fulfillment would be ours if we followed them into vague economies that upon scrutiny would actually reward plutocrats and bury the rest of us in debt. These prominent figures are people like Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in England, and Frauke Petry in Germany, but they are not the only ones, not by a long shot. These people are rising to power all over the globe, and they are all liars and clowns terrorizing the planet. All of them. They cannot and will not provide what they promise, and they know it. But they also don’t seem too bothered by truth or integrity, and they now have an ally preparing to lead the most powerful nation in the world. And he rents $6,000-a-month apartments to cats. We are screwed.

However, if after the last few weeks you still believe that there is a world worth saving, the first signs of a pulse can be found on soccer pitches across the United States, France, England, Germany, and almost every other nation on earth. And I don’t mean that in the typical utopian tropes exploited by FIFA and people like Chuck Blazer, that soccer is the only truly global game that we can all celebrate together. I mean that soccer is and has been actively fighting against right wing nationalists, racists, sexists, and bigots every day. Leagues, clubs and players have made great strides against humanity’s negative impulses and stand bravely against vocal and violent minorities who take progress, both financial and social, as an offense. In Germany’s Bundesliga, immigration and LGBTQ rights have been common topics of discussion and causes for organized support for years. In France’s Ligue 1, racism and xenophobia have been at the forefront for decades as most of its clubs and France’s national team have become examples par excellence of immigration and integration. And England’s Premier League has made great strides in the last 20 years in driving out the kind of “England for Englanders” hooligans who kept the game from growing beyond its borders for many decades.

These three leagues are the most successful and wealthy in the world, and their clubs have unanimously embraced an open market that integrates players from all over the world, welcomes the uniques expertise of foreign managers, and often encourages peaceful pluralism within squads and supporters groups. At Chelsea FC, who currently sit atop the Premier League, the first squad contains players from nine different countries across three continents. Chelsea are managed by an Italian, owned by a Russian, and an American lawyer is their board’s chairman. Most of Chelsea’s fans deify their English captain, John Terry, who has willingly competed for his job in recent years against teammates from Brazil, France, Holland, Ghana, the United States, Serbia, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, to name a few. At the top of Ligue 1, OGC Nice sits pretty thanks to its Swiss manager, Chinese ownership, and a first team that deeply reflects the many decades of immigration of Africans to France. And in Germany, unexpectedly ahead of international juggernaut Bayern Munchen in the Bundesliga, there is RB Leipzig, founded just seven years ago after Red Bull purchased a struggling local club.

Leipzig’s supporters, in order to create an actual culture for the club that is not beholden to its corporate sponsorship, formed official groups that have since actively campaigned and demonstrated against right wing ultras such as Legida, a soccer offshoot of Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. RB Leipzig’s supporters sing for a team of previously unheralded players from across Germany’s lesser teams and lower leagues and various international diamonds in the rough, such as Terrence Boyd, whose father hailed from Trump’s home borough of Queens, New York.

Up and down these leagues are clubs composed of similar ingredients, not because they’ve chosen to be liberal progressive organizations for the sake of it, but because it is smart money. Soccer is one of the most straightforward and successful case studies of domestic businesses driven to broader financial health and stability by their participation in an open market that embraces immigration and multiculturalism. This success has inarguably provided many clubs and leagues with revenue that did not exist when they were provincial organizations with nothing but local lads on the pitch. This revenue and growth has led to a better product on the pitch, bigger and more luxurious stadiums, more merchandise to sell, more food and drink to be made and served, and more media to be produced, all of which created jobs for clubs’ local citizens to fill.

The manner of soccer’s growth has also led to problems, however. Rising ticket prices have alienated the middle and working classes who once were the heart and soul of these clubs’ cultures. Owners divested from these cultures have meanwhile exploited them to create global brands that generate billions. And the associations that govern the leagues in which these owners operate have not yet figured out how to distribute their wealth back to the grassroots and youth soccer that provide the game with sustainable health and strength and the middle and working classes with tangible connection at the local level.

And of course there is an Orwellian hypothetical in which these trends only lead to massive new tribes opiated by the world’s superclubs and that those tribes could develop into prejudiced war parties of their own whose violence against each other is triggered by match results on the other side of the planet. A red-shirted Guangzhou scouser punches his blue-shirted Toffee brother in the face as they watch the Merseyside derby in McCawley’s pub on Huacheng Avenue, for example. As unlikely as it seems that those two brothers’ club loyalties will spark World War III, crazier things have happened.

When I went to Ukraine in 2015 to write about the displacement of Shakhtar Donetsk, it was clear that both the Brussels-backed government and Kremlin-backed separatists had used soccer as an instrument of propaganda and a source for recruitment. With frightening ease, the powers that be had turned the passionate supporters of Dynamo, Shakhtar, Karpaty, and Dnipro into the camouflaged and weaponized militiamen of Poroshenko and Putin. As Simon Kuper illustrated in “Soccer Against the Enemy: How the World's Most Popular Sport Starts and Fuels Revolutions and Keeps Dictators in Power,” the situation in Ukraine was just the latest in a long chronology of soccer’s intersection with politics and conflict and Putin just the latest authoritarian to recognize and harness the power of sport to galvanize support for his tyranny. And all just in time for the World Cup to visit Russia in 2018.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump and to soccer in the United States. In the last year, we’ve seen the U.S. women’s national team denigrated by men and denied the pay they deserve. We’ve watched as Mexico’s men’s national team and its professional league draw television audiences and stadium attendances within U.S. borders that dwarf that of the USMNT and Major League Soccer. We’ve seen supporters groups in that same MLS not only support LGBTQ fans among them but amplify those voices to dominate whole sections of their stadiums. And we’ve taken note as millions of kids (and adults) across the country wear shirts with the names of devout Muslims, Mesut Özil and Paul Pogba, on the back.  

The United States may finally have elected a president with a legitimate interest in soccer, if only financial, but Donald Trump does not represent what we have to offer the world as a soccer nation. I have lived in the city where Trump made his fortune for almost ten years now, and I meet people like him and Chuck Blazer all the time. They will always be a part of this city. But so will people like former New York district attorney Loretta Lynch, who attempt to bring them to justice. And so will organizations like FC Harlem and South Bronx United, who are among those clubs giving real opportunity to young men of color, some of whose parents came to the United States seeking better lives for their children. So will NYCFC and New York Red Bulls, who are owned by the same foreign investors whose aim is to globalize and grow our local clubs like they have elsewhere, providing jobs and revenue for New Yorkers. And most importantly, so will the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who love, watch and play soccer together, no matter what they look like or what language they speak.

New York City is my home now, but I grew up playing soccer in Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, and Kansas, all places that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and I hope that the game there is still as open-minded and inclusive as it is here. Soccer can be an instrument for change, dialogue, and resistance against the kind of hatred that Trump and many of his supporters have voiced in the last year. Soccer can provide a community for those people who are fearful of a future under leaders like Trump, Le Pen, Farage, Petry, and Putin, here and around the world, and that community can be massive and beneficial to all of us, even those who seem to despise everything soccer stands for right now.

We are often told there is no place for politics in sports, and that is true in the sense that patches of grass, pitches, stadiums and sports bars shouldn’t become places of ideological warfare. But they can become places where we are forced to confront our prejudices and admit that we have been wrong about any number of things or people. They can become places where we allow ourselves to see and hear people in ways that we might not elsewhere. Moreover, they can be places where we simply agree to acknowledge the reality and truth of a ball going into the back of a net being a goal. Untruths, false narratives, and non-linear warfare don’t work in soccer. Even if the occasional bad call, shirt pull, or bad tackle might alter the result of a match, the game itself tends toward truth, physics, and fair play.

I may not understand how anyone could take people like Trump seriously, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that we take these people seriously now, and if soccer can provide a place where we can peacefully confront them with their prejudices and show them how wrong they are, then it may truly become a way to touch the world and build a better future.