Xenophobia in Mexican soccer

A new soccer rule says 'naturalized' citizens aren't really Mexicans. Does this definition go beyond sports?

Sports and love of country are old amigos here. But a new rule in Mexico's pro soccer league - tightening the definition of who is a "Mexican" - takes nationalism to new heights. And, say some observers, may help fuel xenophobia beyond the soccer pitch.

The rule, passed last month by owners at the annual meeting of the Mexican Soccer Federation (FMF), changes existing limits on the number of foreign players permitted on each squad in the 20-team league. Previously, every team was allowed to have five non-Mexican players on its roster and to play up to three of them at at time. Now, teams will be allowed to have six, four of whom can play at once.

But while expanding the number of "foreign" players, it also alters who is a Mexican. Starting next month, when the new season begins, naturalized Mexicans will be considered foreigners under the rule.

This rule is the latest example of a growing hard-line attitude here about Mexico's identity. Even as millions of Mexicans are trying to be accepted as citizens in the United States, foreigners - even ones who have become full citizens - are increasingly getting the cold shoulder.

"There are few precedents in Mexico for discrimination against naturalized citizens, simply because there are so few naturalized citizens here," says Adolfo Zapata, a trial lawyer in Mexico City. "Now that immigration is increasing, the [soccer rule] could open the doorway to many such special, discriminatory rules. It's troubling."

Indeed, the number of naturalizations is on the rise here. Between 2001 and 2003, 11,844 people were naturalized, nearly double the total for the previous six years. The majority of those new Mexicans come from Guatemala, China, Cuba, Colombia, and Argentina. Prior to President Vicente Fox and his predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico naturalized fewer than 200 people per year.

According to FMF secretary general Decio de Mario, the soccer rule was passed "to try to have a fairer, more equal soccer, so that no team has an advantage in competition." Instead, it seems to allow owners to cut costs, since Mexican (and naturalized Mexican) players tend to earn less than foreigners.

While other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, have been known to incorporate a few foreign players into their leagues, Mexico, more than any other in the region, relies heavily on extranjeros to stock its pro soccer teams, and as such is at the forefront of the sport's debate about how much they should be used.

Naturalized Mexicans frequently complain of ill treatment when dealing with the labyrinth of government bureaucracy. Pablo Szmulewicz, who was born in Argentina but has lived in Mexico for two decades and is naturalized, ran into this when voting last year. "The person at the booth heard my accent, looked at my voting card and told me it must be counterfeit and that I couldn't vote," he says.

In those same elections, a tiny new political group, the Party for a Nationalist Society (PSN), called for closing Mexico's borders and the expulsion of many foreigners, directing much of its rhetoric against the nation's fast-growing Asian immigrant population. In Mexico City elections, PSN candidates received nearly 10,000 votes, a tiny fraction of the total, but still significant for a first-time effort.

As far as expressions of national identity go, soccer touches some of Mexico's deepest nerves. The nation's greatest player, Hugo Sanchez, now a coach in the Mexican league, has consistently criticized the hiring of foreigners. He furiously attacked the coach of the national team that played in the 2002 World Cup for selecting, for the first-time ever, a naturalized Mexican, Argentine-born Gabriel Caballero.

The issue came up again this month, when the current national team coach, Ricardo la Volpe, himself Argentine, named a Brazilian-born naturalized Mexican, Antonio "Sinha" Naelson, to the under-23 team that will play in the Athens Olympics.

Three out of five Mexicans surveyed - in poll conducted by Mexico City daily newspaper Reforma after Sinha's selection - said that naturalized citizens should not be allowed to play on the Mexican national team, because "they rob playing opportunities from Mexican born players."

The sentiment extends to Mexico's players as well, many of whom complain that foreign players restrict their playing time.

"It's embarrassing that so many foreigners are permitted," says Rafael Marquez, a defenseman and member of the Mexican national team, who, ironically, plays professionally for the Barcelona club in the Spanish league. Mr. Marquez, like many, says that teams should be limited to two or three foreigners.

"I hope they realize this hurts Mexican soccer," says Marquez, who adds that he would never apply for Spanish citizenship.

Some Mexican fans put it more succinctly. "The next time we're lamenting another loss by the national team, let's not forget to mention the huge number of foreigners playing in Mexico as a factor," says Fernando Schwartz, who supports the Guadalajara Chivas team, which allows only Mexican-born players on its roster, unique in the league. He argues that foreign players take playing time away from Mexicans, thus diminishing their skills.

Foreign-born players in Mexico say that the case is just the opposite: high-quality foreign players improve the overall level of soccer here.

"I hear stupid ideas that they should lower the number of foreigners, that we're responsible for Mexico's failures, but if they got rid of foreign players, Mexico's soccer would be worse off," says Jose Cardozo, a Paraguayan-born forward for the Toluca team.

Indeed, some of the Mexican pro league's best players are not Mexican: in the season that concluded last month, eight of the top 10 goal scorers, and 14 of the top 20, were foreigners. Fully 80 percent of the goals scored in the league were by foreigners, according to Mexican soccer league statistics.

Critics of the rule say it's part of an emerging trend. Last month, a Mexican federal judge ruled that a naturalized Mexican from Spain with alleged ties to the Basque separatist group could be deported in apparent contradiction to Mexico's Constitution.

The case is being appealed. But some lawyers say that the new soccer rule could help bolster this kind of precedent.

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