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

By Mike Madden
Published July 8, 2009 10:01PM (EDT)

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

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

MORE FROM Mike Madden

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama War Room