U.S. men’s soccer embracing ‘Be the Change’ mantra ahead of controversial World Cup

U.S. players Haji Wright and Christian Pulisic talk during an international friendly.
U.S. players Haji Wright, left, and Christian Pulisic talk during an international friendly against Morocco in June. The U.S. men’s national team is hoping to use its participation in the World Cup to raise awareness about many of the social issues that exist in Qatar.
(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

The last thing U.S. players see before taking the field at Al-Gharafa Stadium, the Americans’ World Cup training base in Doha, is the slogan “Be the Change” in bold letters on the wall of the tunnel leading from the locker room.

The team adopted the motto two years ago, following George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it has taken on new importance in Qatar, where the government has been roundly criticized for its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ community in the run-up to this month’s World Cup.

“We’ve been talking to the team for the last 18 months about some social issues in Qatar. When we are on the world stage and you’re in a venue like Qatar, it’s important to bring awareness to these issues,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “That’s what ‘Be the Change’ is about. It’s not just stateside that we want to bring attention to social issues.


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“We recognize that Qatar has made strides and there has been a ton of progress. But there’s still some work to do. ‘Be the Change’ basically represents everyone’s individual opportunity to make change and have the change start with them.”

Yet FIFA, which voted to bring the World Cup to Qatar 12 years ago, doesn’t seem to embrace change. Ten days ago Gianni Infantino, the group’s president, and Fatma Samoura, the secretary general, sent a letter to the U.S. and the 31 other teams in the tournament that included a slogan of their own. “Let football take center stage,” they wrote, urging that the World Cup not “be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.”

The U.S. Soccer Federation, which modified its crest, by replacing the red stripes below the letters USA with rainbow-colored ones, is trying to straddle the line between its objectives and those of FIFA. Its actions, the federation said, are not being done in defiance, but in a spirit of openness and desire to have an effect.

U.S. goalie Sean Johnson in midair leaning to the right.
U.S. goalie Sean Johnson goes for a ball during a training session in March.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

“Our rainbow badge has an important and consistent role in the identity of U.S. Soccer,” spokesman Neil Buethe said. “As part of our approach for any match or event, we include rainbow branding to support and embrace the LGBTQ community, as well as to promote a spirit of inclusiveness and welcoming to all fans across the globe. As a result, locations that we will manage and operate at the FIFA World Cup, such as the team hotel, media areas and parties, will feature both traditional and rainbow U.S. Soccer branding.”

In Qatar, much of its signage is out of public view, although the players can see it.

“We’ve got a message, ‘Be the Change,’ and that’s something that we’re really proud of and we’ll continue to work toward meaning impactful,” goalkeeper Sean Johnson said.


Added defender Shaq Moore: “We were aware of what’s going on and we obviously want to be here and play well. But also be the change.”

Johnson and Moore, who play in MLS, were among the first players to arrive in Qatar last week. As European leagues finished up the first half of their seasons over the weekend, the U.S. team grew to 22 by the start of training Monday afternoon with four others — forwards Tim Weah and Haji Wright, midfielder Weston McKennie and defender Sergiño Dest — arriving throughout the day.

McKennie, who plays in Italy for Juventus, missed his club’s last four games because of a quadriceps injury and his status for the Americans’ World Cup opener with Wales on Monday was once in doubt. But he returned to training in Italy last week and “we expect him to be at full strength,” Berhalter said.

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