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Landon Donovan's heart was in the right place, but the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry is too intense

Look beyond the green shirt, ignore the Wells Fargo logo on the screen and the underlying message of Landon Donovan’s cheer-for-Mexico campaign is truly wonderful.

That soccer can be more than a game.

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This is quintessential Donovan. As a player, he had the kind of vision that was rare for an American and his uniqueness of perspective extended beyond the field. That’s the case again here, the thoughtful Donovan viewing his sport as a vehicle to create support for a population vilified by many on the far right of the political spectrum.

Only the campaign hasn’t been well received by U.S. Soccer fans, who wondered how a former national team symbol could become an advocate for an enemy.

Donovan’s mistake was in complicating something simple. What he failed to realize was that to the majority of fans, a game is just a game.

When Donovan produced advertisements calling for U.S. soccer fans to back Mexico in the World Cup, he was thinking of the proposed border wall. The fans who rejected his plea weren’t thinking in the same terms. They were picturing the time Ramon Ramirez kicked Alexi Lalas in the groin.

As much as politics can become intertwined with soccer and as much as a culture can be represented by players and teams in the sport, cheering against Mexico’s national team doesn’t equate to being anti-Mexican.

If anything, the opposite of that is almost certainly true in this country, as the new wave of American soccer fans have embraced a number of initiatives promoting various forms of diversity. Many U.S. fans who traveled to Mexico City for a World Cup qualifier last year carried anti-Donald Trump signs to show that not all Americans shared the ideas of their president.

And so long as cultural and political tensions don’t ignite violence on the field or in the stands, there’s nothing wrong with a rivalry. It’s a fun, if not downright essential, element of being a sports fan.

The people of Boston mourned with New Yorkers in the wake of Sept. 11, but the guess here is that not every Red Sox fan cheered for the Yankees in the World Series later that year.

So, really, these are two entirely different arguments, Donovan’s pertaining to human rights and dignity, the opposition’s to the basic tenets of fan culture. And it’s unfortunate the ensuing back and forth on multiple media platforms became as ugly as it did — I won’t bother to summarize it here — because all of this started from a good place.

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Upsets are rarely as enjoyable in soccer as they are in other sports. Generally speaking, the most shocking results require the most deplorable methods.

Iceland has become everyone’s favorite story and understandably so, this country with a population of 350,000 securing a 1-1 draw against Argentina in its opening game.

The outcome was inspiring, but the action itself was dreadful, with Iceland playing the majority of the game with 10 players behind the ball. Iceland didn’t play to win; it played not to lose.

Any impartial viewer had to share Lionel Messi’s frustration by the end of the game.

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Iceland wasn’t alone in resorting to extreme measures. Iran made no effort to win, only to be gifted a 1-0 victory over Morocco on an own goal. Australia went into a bunker against France, which escaped with a 2-1 win.

And it will get worse. The top teams are attacking right now because they have to secure the three points that are awarded for victories in the group stage. Once they reach the knockout rounds, they too will become more conservative.

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Neymar’s audacity is worthy of admiration. The Brazilian attacker still plays with a childlike joy and a complete disregard for the dos and don’ts of the modern game.

There isn’t a place on the field where he won’t try to take on a defender. He won’t simply dribble by a defender if he can flick the ball over his head or slide it between his legs. There isn’t a more entertaining player in this World Cup.

Of course, this is a matter of taste, and Neymar has his share of detractors who have directed at him many of the same criticisms they had of a particularly showy Cristiano Ronaldo early in his career.

And it’s because of this that Neymar might have more at stake than any other player in this tournament. If he can lead Brazil to the title, his showmanship will be regarded as attacking innovations. If he fails to do so, he could be remembered as a player who had more style than substance.

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