Stick to Soccer: A Brief Look at Civic Engagement by MLS Players

Stick to Soccer: A Brief Look at Civic Engagement by MLS Players

A few hours after his interview with Grant Wahl, Michael Bradley clarified his comments on Trump’s immigration ban via his Instagram page. The clarification came in the wake of the USMNT Midfielder’s critical yet relatively apolitical statements and shed light on Michael Bradley, “the American citizen”, rather than Michael Bradley, “the captain of the national team”. His Instagram comments left no doubt as to his views. 

“The part I left out is how sad and embarrassed I am. When Trump was elected, I only hoped that … President Trump would be different than the campaigner Trump. That the xenophobic, misogynistic and narcissistic rhetoric would be replaced with a more humble and measured approach to leading our country. I was wrong. And the Muslim ban is just the latest example of someone who couldn’t be more out of touch with our country and the right way to move forward.”

Bradley’s comments were followed by the usual “Stay in your lane” and “Stick to Soccer” comments that have become all too familiar with sports journalists in the digital age. Obviously, one’s attachment to a specific industry does not disqualify them from engaging with another. Otherwise, how did we end up with a “billionaire” hotel mogul as Commander in Chief. People seemed to love the fun facts about Andrea Pirlo’s passion for wine making or the fact that Clint Dempsey once put out the greatest rap song known to man. Yet, for some reason, whenever a player enters the realm of current events and politics, they’re shunned for showing that same passion.

In an attempt to continue the conversation and commend the outspoken nature of Bradley’s comments in the often too quiet crossroads of soccer and politics, I have compiled a short list of 4 MLS Players, and one Miami FC player, who successfully managed to comment on current affairs with no detriment to their footballing ability. Some of these players made their comments before joining the league, but the general narrative still stands.

#1: Didier Drogba – Montreal Impact

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The first, and most obvious, inclusion on the list is Montreal’s super-sub and somewhat famous Champion’s League winning striker, Didier Drogba. Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Drogba became an integral part of returning peace to his home nation after securing qualification for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Upon qualifying, Drogba used the spotlight to broadcast a message to his fellow countrymen desperately pleading for combatants to lay down their arms in the wake of a five-year religious civil war between the rebel-held Muslim north and government-held Christian south. The two sides obliged and cease fire was quickly drafted and agreed upon.

Drogba continued his work to restore peace in the Ivory Coast in negotiating the venue for an African Cup of Nations qualifier. Drogba, a devout Christian, successfully argued for the qualifier to take place in the rebel stronghold, and predominately Muslim, city of Bouake in a bid to help confirm peace between the two factions.

The United Nations recognized Drogba’s role in peacebuilding and appointed him a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador so he could continue to use his status to raise awareness on African issues. In addition to this, he was also named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by time in 2010. Drogba’s civic engagement has also been the focus of several documentaries that can be found scattered throughout YouTube. I strongly recommend looking one up during some free time.

#2: Robbie Keane – LA Galaxy

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Possibly the greatest designated player signing in MLS history, Robbie Keane never shied away from getting his point across on the field.

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Off the field, however, he wasn’t exactly as active as Drogba on the political front. The Ireland international rarely commented on Irish affairs during his 6 year and 83 goal stint with the LA Galaxy, but broke that norm during the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum in his home country. Keane penned an open letter to the Sunday World in the run up to the vote encouraging his fellow Irishmen to vote “Yes” in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. He went on to liken the vote to his sporting career and argued that all people deserve fairness and an even playing field.

“Marriage equality is an easy answer for me and will show the world that Ireland is a compassionate country that recognises and accepts diversity, and most importantly treats its’  citizens equally.”

Keane’s words were seen as heroic given soccer’s history of homophobia. The men’s side of the sport currently has only two professional players who are openly gay. In fact, the issue is so problematic that there is even a Wikipedia page titled “Homosexuality in Association Football”, which provides a saddening short list of gay players. One of which was Keane’s very own LA teammate, Robbie Rogers. Rogers and Keane played together from 2013 until just this past season, an experience which surely made it even easier for Keane to express his views.

#3: Thierry Henry – New York Red Bulls

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The prolific Frenchman and current Belgium assistant manager ranks among the all-time great finishers in the game. His finesse carried him to 51 goals in 122 appearances for the New York Red Bulls and an equally impressive 42 assists. His cool-head and general composure cemented him as a leader for RBNY on and off the pitch. Simply put, when Henry spoke, people listened.

This was exactly the case in 2005 when Henry was leading the line at Arsenal. Noting recent racist incidents in the sport across Europe, Henry teamed up with Nike to launch the Stand Up Speak Up campaign. The campaign sought to generate dialogue between players and fans and especially encouraged fans to voice their opposition to racism. A stylish black and white intertwined wristband was even produced so fans and players alike could show solidarity with the cause.  Sales of the band reached 5 million and players such as Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, and Cristiano Ronaldo joined the campaign.

Henry also found himself meeting with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy after the French teams embarrassing display at the 2010 World Cup. The team was marred by infighting and training ground spats that translated to a measly point in a group they were favored to win. The meeting and subsequent government investigation into the squad just goes to show how national teams are an extension of nationalism and should seek to reflect the strengths of their nation.

#4: Cuauhtémoc Blanco – Chicago Fire

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Chicago’s fiery (pun intended) attacking midfielder packed a punch with his highlight reel of long-distance goals during 95 appearances with the club. Upon retiring, he found himself with a long-distance shot of becoming municipal president of Cuernavaca, a city of over 300,000 in the southern half of Mexico. In what is the most outright display of civic engagement on the list, Blanco and his Social Democratic Party succeeded in the election and he began his relatively unexpected foray into politics.

In an interview with the Harvard Political Review, Blanco stated that role was offered to him and he seized the opportunity stating, “these things happen for a reason”. He assumed office on the first of the year in 2016 and has faced strong challenges since. His lack of political experience has been questioned and even led to impeachment efforts by opponents.  

Blanco has stood by his goal, however, to fulfill the “promises I made to the people. I live by my word and like I told the citizens of Cuernavaca, “I am just like one of you, you’re going to see me on the streets, not like those other politicians that stay home and hide and remain unreachable.” I am a citizen just like them, and the best I can do is to help them.” He recently endured a hunger strike in protests of the opposition moves to oust him, clearly showing his commitment to remaining in involved with politics.

#5: Wilson Palacios – Miami FC

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According to former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios is “the most lovely boy you could ever wish to meet.” Stuart James of The Guardian came to the same conclusion during a 2014 interview with the soon to be Miami FC midfielder. He remarked that “it is difficult to imagine this humble man saying a bad word about anyone.” Unfortunately, he has been the victim of the exact opposite of what he embodies. In May 2009 Palacios was informed during a 1am phone call that his brother Edwin was found dead 19 months after being kidnapped. The event led Palacios to consider quitting the sport and greatly impacted his character as a whole. Fortunately, instead of giving way to cynicism and hate, Palacios used his brother as an inspiration to begin dialogues on the issues plaguing the country. He continued his career in hopes that his status with the national team, where he’s made 97 appearances, could be used to enact change.

Palacios keeps a justifiably optimistic view of his home country:

“There are beautiful things in Honduras but also all over the country it’s chaos. As a Honduran, I don’t like that people talk about Honduras in a negative way but I realise that this is the reality. I’m not happy when I’m told it is the most criminal country in the world, for me that is not good.  But as a football player, you always try to change things.”

This commitment to country and community is why Palacios is adored in the small Central-American country of 8 million. Fans of the sport there, of which there are many, have taken to calling the midfielder the “Magician” and moniker that is shared by the likes of Lionel Messi, David Silva, and Philippe Coutinho. Hopefully this popularity and his commitment to bring about change will help drive Honduras towards a better future.

BONUS: Rafa Marquez – New York Red Bulls

Sometimes it’s just nice to get your point across in 140 characters or less. Rafa tweeted “There’s no wall capable of stopping us if we believe in ourselves.” He followed up the message with a video of him scoring a stunning free kick during his Barcelona days. A simple, funny, and effective way of showing his opinions.

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