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MIKE WOITALLA: The immigrant and soccer
February 21st, 2000 12AM
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During the 1996 Olympics, 83,810 fans watched the United States play Argentina in Birmingham, Ala. So impressed was U.S. Soccer with the rare pro-U.S. support that officials immediately inquired about using the venue for World Cup qualifying.

Finally, a place to play Mexico that won't feel like Guadalajara.

That dream lasted 24 hours, because when Italy played Mexico at Legion Field the next day, some 30,000 Mexican-Americans arrived by carloads from Georgia.

The 1994 World Cup, 1996 Olympics and qualifying for France '98 revealed that the U.S. men could draw large home support. But usually, big crowds come from the visiting team's immigrant populations.

So far in 2000, Iran and Haiti were cheered on in the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl as they would be in Tehran and Port-au-Prince. Some may forget, but American national team players are always reminded that this is a land of immigrants.

Most immigrants find themselves in the peculiar position of pining for a homeland that had no satisfactory place for them. At soccer games, they can celebrate their heritage without honoring the conditions, whether economic or political, that caused their flight.

One can't complain about the immigrant turnouts, because without them, the U.S. men would face embarrassingly small crowds. The hope lies in U.S. fans emerging out of the ethnic populations.

Today's immigrants bring their love of the game to the United States and find that soccer has a solid foothold in the mainstream. Their children are much more likely to remain involved in soccer than the immigrant children of the past, who tended to shun it in their quest to Americanize.

By playing good soccer, the national team can build a fan base from groups who are now rooting for the opposition.

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