Soccer fans in the US fail the 'Tebbit Test': David Usborne finds national loyalties confused among the hyphenated Americans at Florida's Citrus Bowl

'AY-YAY-yay-yay-yay-yay.' Another chance missed by Mexico. Elianza cannot stand it. But by the second half, her team is well in command, and it is for the Irish supporter beside her to express his anguish. 'We're in trouble. We're in trouble,' he repeats over and over as if he were in an aircraft that had just lost both engines and a wing. 'Now we're in serious trouble.'

It's Mexico v Ireland in the first round group matches of the World Cup. In Row J, Section 107 of the Citrus Bowl in Florida, we have a fairly even mix of supporters. Although green is the favoured colour for fans of both sides, there is no confusing the team loyalties. Making assumptions about actual nationality is more dangerous.

Elianza - who cries when Mexico first scores - is American and lives in nearby Boca Raton. The Irish fan is Chuck from Pensacola, Florida. He is an American, too. They are here because of family lineage. Chuck, a doctor, admits to being a bit sketchy about his stock, but is certain there is some emerald blood there somewhere.

For Elianza, the link is more obvious. Born and raised in Peru, she came to the United States 20 years ago and immediately took up citizenship. For proof that her heart remains Latin, look at her plans for the coming week. From here she will drive to Chicago to support Bolivia against Spain, then it's over to Detroit and a Brazil game.

Now for the ''Tebbit Test', as devised by the former British Conservative Party chairman. Four years ago, Norman Tebbit suggested - first in an interview with an American newspaper - that immigrants who held on to their old national loyalties were a threat to British society. One way to find them out, he said, was to watch which team they supported during a Test match. 'Where you have a clash of history, a clash of religion, a clash of race, then it's all too easy for there to be an actual clash of violence,' he said.

It would be scary indeed to apply such a model here on Row J. Elianza would fail outright. Only when asked whom she would support in the event of Mexico meeting the US in the final does she partially redeem herself. 'Oh that would be so hard. I would have to be torn, you know.' She pauses before committing herself. 'I think probably the USA.'

Further along the row sits Roberto, a Mexican-American from Miami. Asked the same question, he complains: 'That's impossible. No, no, really that's impossible. But well, yes, of course, we'd have to go for the USA.'

Every hyphenated American I talked to admitted to divided loyalties. Blacks are inclined towards Brazil or Argentina, or the underdogs from Africa. That, anyway, was the consensus outside R J's Grocery and Meat Store a few blocks from the Citrus Bowl, where a group of young black men were gathered after the game.

Watching as Irish and Mexican fans streamed past on their way to the bars of Orlando's so-called 'Historic District' to celebrate or mourn, they grudgingly admitted to having watched the match on someone's television set. 'I like the Nigerian team,' says Correy Dixon, 20, who works in a dry cleaners. 'I think we'll watch them again.'

So far, there is no sign that the World Cup in America is likely to trigger the kind of unrest envisioned by Mr Tebbit. And until now, not even that much-feared European export, soccer hooliganism, has shown itself. But it may be that, behind this country's still manifest ambivalence about the game of soccer, there does lurk a fear about what it may do to a society made up entirely of recent immigrants, and which is already feeling the strain of racial and social fissures.

President Clinton's National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, seemed to hint at this fear during a breakfast with European and Latin- American correspondents in Washington last Wednesday. Asked about the tournament, he said, lightheartedly: 'I think the success of the World Cup is a threat to the American way of life.'

Mr Lake, who returned quickly to more serious themes - Korea and Haiti - did not elaborate. But here in the stadium, there are myriad explanations from Americans who enjoy soccer, as to why, in spite of efforts to set up a national league from next year, it may always be a poor cousin to the country's big four sports: baseball, American football, ice hockey and basketball.

Davis Blum, a former professional soccer player who has travelled up from Fort Lauderdale, volunteers the 'nationalism' explanation. 'It is because this is about nationality that Americans are uncomfortable,' he says. 'America has to have its own world of sport. It very rarely ventures into the wide world of sporting events, hardly ever.'

With the exception of displays of American jingoism at the Olympic Games every four years, especially in Los Angeles in 1984, Mr Blum's observation seems apposite. They call the annual baseball competition that leads to the crowning of the best team from the US and Canada the 'World Series'. And although American football has gradually become a world export, the zenith of competition for American followers is the Superbowl, an entirely domestic event.

George Vecsey, a sports writer with the New York Times, thinks anxiety about the tribalism of soccer is at the heart of the US ambivalence towards soccer. 'This nationality stuff makes us nervous,' he concluded in a recent column. 'It smacks of armies and barbed wire and terse orders in foreign languages. Many people in the United States - and Canada, too - believe that our ancestors came here to get away from all that tribal stuff. We root for teams called Bulls and Blue Jays, maybe state teams like the Arkansas Razorbacks or the Michigan Wolverines.'

Now Americans are being asked to support a national team. Ironically, it is made up mostly of so-called 'passport Americans', players who can claim US citizenship but who otherwise live and play soccer in countries across Europe and South America. In a sense it is not really a national team at all. (By that reckoning, nor is the Irish side.) Even their coach is from the former Yugoslavia and has the difficult name of Bora Milutinovic. But by winning 2-1 against Colombia in Pasadena on Wednesday and almost assuring itself a second-round place, the side may have given a historic boost to its own chances of winning national affection and support for US soccer generally.

LOS ANGELES - Violence hit the World Cup for the first time in the US when soccer fans celebrating the Mexican win threw rocks and bottles at police in California, Reuter reports. 'The situation was very severe,' Huntington Park police Sergeant Tom Wesiles said. 'It was out of control. Our officers were taking rocks and bottles for one and a half hours.'

(Photograph omitted)

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