Why I sympathize with soccer's dual nationals

Everything counts, yet nothing really matters except what the heart wants.

I used to dream in Spanish. I was born in the United States, but my parents moved our family to Argentina when I was 3 after my father received a job offer from a university in that country. I played soccer almost every day with my older brother, wearing out the Boca Juniors T-shirt I owned. We don’t have any other ties to the country, but my brother still cheers for Argentina’s national team. It’s a love from childhood.

When we returned to the United States after spending almost three years abroad, I didn’t speak any English. I distinctly remember other Spanish-speaking children laughing at me when I told them I was an American. They didn’t believe it, telling me real Americans could speak English. That feeling of otherness remained with me for a long time.

What eased some of that heartache was discovering the Mexican-American soccer community, where league games were shown every week on rabbit-ear TV sets and watching the national team was appointment television before the phrase ever existed. The passion and camaraderie was often tinged with melancholy over missing a country full of memories and loved ones still on the other side of the border. I remember taking comfort in all of that, just as I remember the first time I dreamed in English. I woke up startled, realizing my unconscious mind was making a choice.

Like many, I could thus sympathize with dual-national goalkeeper David Ochoa, whose thoughtful piece about his eventual choice of Mexico touched on some of the issues many dual nationals feel. I’ve covered the stories behind which team dual nationals ultimately choose many times, including the Flores twins, Sabrina and Monica, playing for the USA and Mexico against each other in international youth competitions. One of my favorite interviews is Martin Vasquez, a coach mentioned by Ochoa in his own article. Vasquez represented both the USA and Mexico in international competitions. Technically, he didn’t even have to choose between the two countries. He played with Mexico when they called him up early in his career and then answered the call for the USA after receiving citizenship. His advice to anyone deciding between two different countries has always been kind and consistent.

“You have to pick the doors that you think are the best for you and go through them and make the best of them,” Vasquez told me. “It’s an individual, personal decision.”

But anyone being not quite entirely from here, and not all from there knows that ultimately, the choice is their own. Whether there is a ledger of reasons why a country is chosen filled with a pro/con list of slights or enjoyable experiences, it doesn’t ultimately matter. Family pressure is powerful, but can also only do so much. It can be an excuse, even, for something a person was inclined to do anyway.

Players may have to choose, but soccer fans are left to their own devices, bound by no rules except those they make and keep for themselves. For myself, I choose both. I choose to cruise the tailgates for the best food and to cheer the best moves on the field, regardless of the jersey wearing them.

Speaking of jerseys, the bootleg, yet consistently popular half and half styles are one of my favorite sights of any big rivalry game. It’s a Frankenstein reflection of reality, a truth of modern times - a celebration of the unique blend of different cultures and an homage to how they influence each other. Now that Mexico has Ochoa, there may soon come a day when he will face on the field other Mexican-American players who have made the choice he didn’t. The talent stream of soccer doesn’t flow in only one direction. Different players have developed in the leagues on both sides of the border. Some will decide where to play, whether for club or country, based on a number of factors, including comfort, competition, and companionship. For all we know, a decision has already been made based on which locker room plays their preferred music.

I’m half expecting at some point a player to announce their choice on TikTok by saying, “I feel both American and Mexican, so I’m letting this coin toss decide!” Then they flip a penny and look down to where it lands, smiling widely. The scene fades to black without ever showing a close-up shot of the coin that landed.

Just like wearing half and half jerseys, fans are free to obsess about whether a coach said the wrong thing, or failed to say the right thing once a dual-national player chooses. Sometimes, it’s easier to assign blame rather than accept the outcome one didn’t want. Yet there is no coaching approach that works with every player and there is no approach that could possibly work with some of the players who have their hearts set on whatever they prefer.

On the field, the players themselves often set the best example for graciously accepting national team choices. Win or lose, they usually reach out after the final whistle, embracing a former teammate, and in a way, their own selves, had they chosen differently. It’s a brotherhood of understanding, not fully from here, not totally from there, walking the road less traveled of difficult decisions.

11 comments about "Why I sympathize with soccer's dual nationals".
  1. R2 Dad, August 27, 2021 at 4:54 p.m.

    Complicated topic made more understandable; thanks for the column. I do not recall, however, seeing a half-El Tri-half-Uncle Sam shirt, ever. Has anyone? I'd wear one, as there are plenty of Americans that have played for Mexico. I do not know how safe that might be outside of the US. Even at a CONCACAF qualifier, I don't know that I'd risk it unless the name on the back was El Gringo.

  2. William Shine, August 27, 2021 at 11:22 p.m.

    Nice article.  Hard to decide when you love two places, but loving two places is a such a blessing.

  3. Andrea Canales, August 28, 2021 at 9:04 a.m.

    Thank you! The divided jerseys have been around for a while - I do in fact see them in rivalry games. They're almost always in the Mexico fan sections exclusively, though.

  4. Greg Gould, August 28, 2021 at 9:55 a.m.

    Does this choice exist to this extent anywhere else in the world? While I can sympathize with the players it bothers me somewhat. I wish it were simpler and that FIFA would narrow it down a bit. Limit the choice to your country of birth/citizenship, something like that.....

  5. Kenneth Osgood replied, August 28, 2021 at 10:27 a.m.

    Greg Gould, yes this choice exists pretty much everywhere. From high profile cases like Diego Costa choosing the play for Spain rather than his native Brazil to all the players in Germany who must decide whether to play for the country they grew up in (Germany) or the country of their parents (Turkey). And why would FIFA want to place an artificial restriction on these choices?

  6. beautiful game replied, August 28, 2021 at 11:37 a.m.

    So far FIFA has well addressed the allegiance factor by providing a choice for players.

  7. Frans Vischer, August 28, 2021 at 11:57 a.m.

    I have a difficult time understanding this notion of dual nationals.

    I was born in Holland. Our family moved to America when I was not quite 12. Speaking no English, and seeing little of my favorite sport. I longed for my homeland. I played soccer with my brothers, and never accepted the American sports.

    I was crushed when the Johan Cruyff-led Oranje lost to West Germany in the 1974 WC final. (Many years later I got to meet Cruyff- quite a thrill!)

    We all learned English, and eventually lost our accents, and became citizens. All along I supported American soccer, what little there was at the start, to the mainstream sport it’s now become.

    Now in my 60’s, I’ve long considered myself American first. My Dutch heritage will always be with me- I have romanticized feelings for the old country, and fanatically support Holland in major competitions. Except when Holland play the US. This is now my country, and I want to see the Red White and Blue among the world’s top footballing nations. Had I the talent to represent my country, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick America.

    I was disappointed when Efrain Gonzales of my LA Galaxy chose to represent Mexico over the US. (And I’m dreading his Galaxy teammate Julian Araujo following suit.) Both were born in the US, groomed by Galaxy youth teams and given opportunities on the first team at a young age. This country has given them a lot, as it has me.

    Racial issues aside, (which admittedly are not minor,) in the last decade this country has given Mexican-American soccer players a wealth of opportunities, and I have a hard time reconciling with players born here, groomed, supported and playing professionally here, then choosing to represent another country due to heritage.

  8. David Ruder, August 28, 2021 at 3:44 p.m.

    I don't feel any remorse when a Spanish, Portuguese speaker born here or not decides to play for his cultural ancestral country, because  it was told to me a long time ago that all people who come here to work, are here only for a paycheck, and the only thing they owe this country or employer is a good day of work. But in case one finds some compatibility or mindset with America's cultural history and decides to plant deep roots here, it is welcomed, because of many of us who live here, born or not have found a National home and a true belonging to this democracy besides the economic blessings. 

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, August 29, 2021 at 2:49 a.m.

    Well said.

  10. Santiago 1314, August 31, 2021 at 5:26 p.m.

    Just don't let The Door Hit You on the WAY OUT.!!! ( That's my Feelings)

  11. Ric Fonseca, September 14, 2021 at 7:40 p.m.

    Thank you Senorita Canales for your kind words of wisdom.  Briefly, I sympathise and agree 100% with you; as some may know me, I am one of the original founders of the - now dormant - Latin American Soccer Coaches Association (LASCA) established just about on the eve of WC USA 1994, and some notable amigos, such as Ralph Perez, Steve Sampson, Luis Sagastume, Frank Parodi, Joe Supe, Rick & Jim San Martin, Juan Carlos Michia, and many others will attest, our main goal then - as it is still today - is to support the "duality concept" of futbol players.  I am also a dual citizen, but at my young age of 81, I vividly remember arriving to the US and playing some futbol on the dirt field of my junior high, with a few like-minded youg boys, a game the teachers disdained and called "kickball" eventually getting kicked off the field fearing we, "jugadores de futbol soccer" would ruin their dirt field!
    Indeed, whenever my two countries play, I cheer and root equally; my son and daughter, Mexi-Ricans, do the same, and we bemoan, and cheer, and cry at excellent play or downright lousy play.  Oh well, I digress, but all I will say to end this little "distribe" is that also as a now retired history professor (40+ years) soccer coach, writer, and historian, I will close by answering the above that the door will never hit us on the way out, 'cause it is left open for us to ad infinitum return, and to say that we're here only to "collect a paycheck," well pilgrim, if it hasn't/hadn't been for us, who would do the work? 

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