Soccer versus futbol

Andrés Martinez, a former editor of The Times' Editorial Page, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Renowned metrosexual megastar David Beckham is earning some street cred. When the $250-million man first arrived in Los Angeles last month, he seemed too famous and too fragile to deign to take the pitch at Carson’s Home Depot Center.

But that was then; this is now. On Wednesday, he suffered a knee injury when he didn’t flinch from a rough collision. The week before, in the “super clasico” matchup between Los Angeles’ two teams -- Beckham’s Galaxy and Chivas USA -- the Englishman stoically played all 90 minutes despite having played an international match against Germany the day before -- in London! What’s more, “Becks” even got involved in a melee; well, sort of. Shortly before halftime, he stared down Chivas midfielder Jesse Marsch after being fouled violently, though he allowed his teammates to do the actual shoving.

The fact that soccer has become a must-have ticket in town -- Beckham’s unveiling in July had the feel of a Hollywood premiere -- must be disconcerting to California nativists, who distrust all things foreign and who had been feeling pretty good about themselves of late in the aftermath of the stalled immigration reform. Now that über-foreign sport, the only true form of global popular culture not driven by the U.S., is taking a big step toward becoming mainstream, indeed glamorous. What’s next, California going metric?

But the arrival of Beckham to the Galaxy, along with the team’s budding rivalry with Chivas, actually serves to make the sport less foreign to L.A. fans by accentuating the Galaxy’s Anglo appeal. Beckham’s ostensible mission is to raise the profile of American soccer, but a corollary aim of those who brought him here may well be to “de-ethnicize” the sport in this town. The Galaxy have positioned themselves as the non-Latino team in town, whose game days are reassuringly “mainstream.”

This wasn’t always the case. The Galaxy’s early days, when the crowd was less dominated by soccer moms and kids, were a heavily Latino affair. The Galaxy imported some of Mexico’s most fabled veterans to pack the stands -- players such as Jorge Campos, Carlos Hermosillo and Luis Hernandez, who were far bigger draws for Mexican immigrants (if not for Tom Cruise) than Beckham will ever be.


But the Galaxy’s Latino flavor began to change when Mexico’s storied Chivas de Guadalajara club founded its own Chivas USA franchise in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This was the equivalent of the Dodgers opening a franchise in Mexico. Chivas marketed itself as the Mexican squad in town, with the opening-season slogan “Adios Soccer, El Futbol Esta Aqui” (Goodbye Soccer, Futbol Is Here). Mexican team owner Jorge Vergara memorably told The Times: “It’s the Latinos versus the gringos, and we’re going to win.”

Chivas’ home games have a far more foreign feel to them than the Galaxy’s games. Spanish is the preferred language, and plenty of fans wear jerseys that blend the red-and-white stripes of Chivas with the solid green of Mexico’s national team. (In Mexico, the Chivas franchise is considered almost a proxy for the national team because of its refusal to field foreign players.) The raucous fan section is called “Legion 1908,” just like its counterpart in Guadalajara; the name commemorates the year the Mexican team won its first amateur title.

It may be no accident that the Galaxy’s roster of 26 players has fewer than five Latino players, compared with about a dozen who play for Chivas.

The teams, of course, dispute that they are engaged in ethnic typecasting. Thursday’s edition of La Opinion even featured a front-page interview with Beckham in which he professed his love of Mexican food, especially -- way to go out on a limb! -- chicken burritos. Chivas officials, for their part, have been less jingoistic in their marketing since their first season. But the ethnic overlay to Los Angeles’ soccer rivalry remains indisputable, if not as vitriolic, as the Catalan-Castilian divide between FC Barcelona and Espanyol in Barcelona or the Protestant-Catholic divide between Rangers and Celtics in Glasgow.

Put it this way: You can be sure that when the national teams of Mexico and the U.S. face off, far more Chivas fans than Galaxy fans are rooting for Mexico.

So each of America’s competing soccer cultures -- suburban Anglos and urban Latinos -- has a team in Los Angeles, giving Major League Soccer some much-needed edge.

Big-time soccer has had its share of false starts in this country -- Pele’s stint with the Cosmos in the 1970s, the 1994 World Cup -- but there is something fitting about the world’s entertainment capital establishing itself on the map of the world’s top sport.