Obama misses a shot at soccer diplomacy

The president, traveling in Europe, will miss a game in Washington between the U.S. and coup-rattled Honduras

Topics: Barack Obama, War Room,

WASHINGTON — President Obama had a full day of meetings with G-8 leaders scheduled today in L’Aquila, Italy. But if he’d stayed home, he might have had a good chance to attempt a little bit of soccer diplomacy.

The United States plays Honduras tonight at Washington’s RFK Stadium, an easy 4-mile motorcade away from the White House, in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament to decide the North and Central American soccer champion. Honduras, of course, has been on the minds of U.S. diplomats and national security aides since the military there forced President Manuel Zelaya out of office — and into temporary exile in the D.C. area — a couple of weeks ago. U.S. officials have condemned the coup, even though Zelaya has been cozying up to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and was apparently in the process of trying to subvert the Honduran constitution to extend his term in power. Republicans, meanwhile, have been flocking to the side of the military coup — ironically, in the name of restoring democracy — on the theory that any pal of Chavez’s can’t possibly be democratic.

With all that as the backdrop, the soccer game could take on more importance than an early matchup in a regional competition might otherwise have had. Honduras, after all, fought a war with El Salvador that began with riots during World Cup qualifying games between the two nations almost exactly 40 years ago. So if any country might be open to diplomacy on the fútbol field, it might be Honduras. It’s been tried before, with limited success; the U.S. Soccer Federation recently requested a match with Iran, though since Iranian authorities recently banned players who wore green wristbands in support of protests there, that may not happen. FIFA officials awarded Turkey and Armenia their “Fair Play” prize last year, since the two countries — which don’t have diplomatic relations — got their leaders to agree to attend a World Cup qualifying match in Yerevan, Armenia, in September. Former Liberian star player George Weah ran for president there in 2005, losing in the second round, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi — who Obama met with today — was already well known to voters there as the media mogul who owns soccer power AC Milan. CONCACAF officials told Salon they weren’t sure whether Zelaya — who was in Washington this week to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — would attend tonight’s matchup. Regardless, if Obama had been in town, dropping by the stadium might have been a good way to show Hondurans that he’s thinking of them.

So far, though, Obama has shown only limited interest in using soccer to promote U.S. interests abroad, even though it’s by far the world’s most popular sport — and even though his sports-obsessed administration recently launched an official White House Office of Olympic, Paralympic and Youth Sport. Aides denied reports a couple weeks ago that Obama had already committed to attending the World Cup in South Africa next year, even though FIFA Commissioner Sepp Blatter, the top international soccer official, told ESPN to expect the president there. (The U.S. hasn’t yet qualified to make the tournament next year, anyway.)

When the U.S. unexpectedly made it to the finals two weeks ago of FIFA’s Confederations Cup, a sort of mini-World Cup also played in South Africa, Obama never contacted coach Bob Bradley to cheer the team on. The U.S. beat European champion Spain, 2-0 in the semifinals, and the international media focus on the Americans was pretty heavy ahead of the final against Brazil. (The U.S. lost, in heartbreaking fashion, 3-2.) A short phone call to Bradley could have helped Obama shoehorn his way into some of the global coverage, in a way that made the U.S. seem to have a common passion with the rest of the world. And Obama hasn’t been shy about calling other coaches, but apparently Bradley didn’t make the cut. Obama also hasn’t yet dropped by RFK to see the local team, D.C. United, even though they’re in first place in their conference in Major League Soccer. (He hasn’t been to see the Washington Nationals play baseball yet, either, but since they’re on pace for 113 losses, that’s not so surprising; he will make to baseball’s All-Star Game next week in St. Louis.) “Of course he and his family are welcome at any game,” United spokesman Doug Hicks said. “We’d love to introduce the First Family to D.C. United, and we’d welcome his support.”

What makes Obama’s decision not to use the sport to reach out to the world a little surprising is that the administration is, generally, pretty soccer-friendly — certainly more so than George W. Bush’s was, though Bush rooted for the U.S. team in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Obama is already on the record supporting the power of soccer diplomacy. He sent a letter to FIFA officials in April urging them to hold the 2018 or 2022 World Cup in the U.S., and a month later, he told Univision that it would be a “diplomatic coup” to host the tournament. The president grew up playing the game in Indonesia; his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was a goalie on the North Carolina State University college team, and other press aides were sneaking peeks at the Confederations Cup matches during the workday as the U.S. made its surprising run. The Major League Soccer champions Columbus Crew will visit the White House on Monday for a congratulatory photo op with Obama.

And even though Obama wasn’t there to welcome them, and won’t be there tonight to cheer them on against Honduras, U.S. national team forward Brian Ching and defenders Steve Cherundolo, Jimmy Conrad and Heath Pearce all toured the White House yesterday. The players met with some aides and wandered the complex in the afternoon. “It was fantastic,” a U.S. Soccer official told Salon. Maybe soccer diplomacy has a shot sometime, after all.

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.


    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."


    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>