Tuesday, December 22, 2015


(Note: I had intended to include this in a comment on two other blogs to hit this topic...but it kept going on far longer, so just consider this a long form continuation of the conversation)

The feet and ball slapped against the read earth, and the shouts and scuffs of ten boys playing five-aside after school carried back to us on the warm summer air. Sitting opposite me in a small grove of trees was an athletically built 18-year-old whose eyes flicked to the game, and whose feet tapped out a rhythm of steps, feints, attacks and delays though the ball was not near us.

I was working at a school in Ghana and interviewing students from the school drama program to develop my masters thesis. I wondered whether participating in school plays could affect how students see their nationality, and as Ghana focuses more on students creating plays rather than studying and reciting them, they made a fascinating case study.

It was just good fortune that this put me on the continent during the 2010 World Cup. Allowing me to teach all morning, interview in the afternoon, then transcribe and code interviews while watching the evening matches and munching on sweet plantains and fresh fish. 

I was near the end of my time in the country, but couldn't resist the chance to interview this young man. He was a favorite of his fellow actors and the program's director. Fast and funny in improvisation, he had a big smile that the girls particularly loved. His only problem was that he often skipped rehearsal to play football with his classmates in the dusty courtyard of the high school. I couldn't blame him. Though any coordination I ever had long since left me, the game was far more interesting than my rote recitation of questions.

I dragged his attention (and mine) back to the interview and asked the big question, the one that would be the crux of my thesis: "What does it mean to be Ghanaian"?

"Wow!" he gasped. Clearly considering this question for the first time.

"I warned you there'd be broad questions."

He started speaking quickly, "I'm a Ghanaian, and I love to be Ghanaian, and I'll always be a Ghanaian, because I'm proud to be Ghanaian...And Ghana is also one of the countries every African wants to come to because we are very good at embracing all African countries, even from Europe, every--everywhere else in the world." 

He launched into all the ways that Ghana was growing, changing. How he and his classmates made plays to show audiences that they ought to include, rather than shun, those with AIDS. He recounted all the ways he had used the school shop/craft classroom to make props, and costumes to show both traditional and modern Ghana. How he used his acting to overcome family distrust of technology or kissing girls, while trying to act in Nigerian films and also improving his soccer skills.

Finally, as we circled for a landing, he said, "I want the whole thing, and so many things. So I don't know what I want to become right now." We chatted a little more, I thanked him, and together we drifted off to watch the five-a-side players snake their way through the trees as they kept the frenetic pace alive.

I've been going back to that interview while reading the various takes on "American" soccer for "American" players. I won't lie: I've wondered about the changeable nature of "national team sides" in an age of globalization. I rather like the idea of trying to put together the best team possible under certain limitations ("limitations" that are anathema to billionaire-brokered European leagues). I have a pipe dream in which the World Cup final is played between Vanuatu and the Faroe Islands, because things like coaching, training and youth development can coalesce anywhere, but money can't.

But every time I think about limiting a national team, I think about this 18-year-old kid with dreams of "the whole thing" and I remember that it's maybe a little much to ask young men (and women), facing a major part of their professional career to come, to search their hearts and determine which pre-existing set of boundaries they will swear (soccer) allegiance to. 

And beyond the act of picking sides, there's the fact that identities, including nationality, are changeable. You aren't the same person at 17 as you are at 34, and demanding that you never change your national identity seems as dated as demanding that you never change your loyalty to the first band you loved. 

As Ghana, and Germany, and the US "embrace" other people from other countries, we will grow, we will change. The plays children don't just mirror the culture they have, they model the culture they want to see in their country. The team we field at the World Cup doesn't just mirror the "nationality" we're used to, it models the "nationality" we will become. And besides, limiting us to just "American" Americans, would be going against nearly a century of tradition, all the way back to when our 1930 World Cup Bronze medalists fielded five naturalized British citizens, none of whom had been in the country for more than a decade.
Who here is actually American?
It seems like a rising tide of nationalism has prompted politicians, athletes and other public personas to question what it means for people to be "American" enough. It's not a bad question, but it's a question that has no answer. Rather, we are constantly answering it in all the ways we live, and act, and play.

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