National and international politics impact soccer far more than most Americans appreciate. Whether it’s the Soccer War (seriously, a real war) fought between Honduras and El Salvador after rioting during a 1969 World Cup qualifying match, or “more than a club” FC Barcelona serving as a proxy for Catalan nationalism and resistance against Franco-supported Real Madrid, soccer and politics are often linked. American awareness may be about to change, however, as the U.S. team is gearing up to go to Honduras for a critical World Cup qualifier in the midst of a massive political crisis that pits the anti-American elected president against the de facto government that ousted him in a summer coup.
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya came to office as a conservative rancher and businessman turned politician. But over the course of his term in office Zelaya veered sharply left, embraced Hugo Chavez-style populism, and pushed constitutional changes to allow him to serve an additional term as president. Zelaya is a pretty unsavory character who has defied repeated legal orders to stop his proposed referendum on constitutional changes—a move straight out of the Chavez playbook right down to having the ballots printed in Venezuela—but nothing justifies his seizure by the military and exile. That’s a coup.
The United States and the entire international community condemned the coup and called for the restoration of Zelaya until his term ends in January 2010. Mediation efforts by the Costa Rican president (is the whole Hexagonal involved or what?) failed to produce a negotiated settlement over the summer and the de facto government refused to allow Zelaya back into the country.
This stalemate persisted until just this week when Zelaya snuck into the country and is now holed up in the Brazilian (the soccer links are everywhere) embassy in the capital Tegucigalpa. Word that Zelaya had returned sparked massive demonstrations outside the embassy complex and a tense standoff is barely holding between Zelaya supporters and the Honduran military. All international airports are shut down, power is cut off, the U.S. State Department has warned against Americans traveling to the country, and reports of tear gas and burning blockades across the capital are adding to the fear that a confrontation may erupt at any minute.
Even though the Obama administration has loudly protested the coup and the de facto government says the U.S. was not involved in the plot, opposition to interim leader Roberto Micheletti is not unanimous in America. Sparking memories of the not too distant U.S. backed effort to oust Chavez in 2002, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) has been a vocal supporter of the coup leaders, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s former senior adviser Lanny Davis is the coup leaders’ official spokesperson in Washington. The U.S. has a terrible history of intervention in political disputes in Central America and it won’t take much for Zelaya’s supporters to believe that the U.S. was behind his ouster.
The U.S. men’s national team will be thrown into this chaos in two and half weeks. The Honduran national team is close to it’s second-ever trip to the World Cup Finals and first since 1982 and a win against the U.S. in it’s last home game would almost assuredly see them qualify. Central American teams are always eager to beat the United States, but the combination of a ticket to South Africa and anti-American politics may push the level of antipathy to unprecedented levels. Regardless of whether Zelaya is returned to power or the standoff continues, the American team is likely to face an incredibly hostile environment when it takes the field in San Pedro Sula. Let’s hope there isn’t a war this time.