KINGSTOWN, St. Vincent and the Grenadines — On Friday, in a U.S. World Cup qualifier here, Jozy Altidore will experience one of the greatest honors in international soccer by wearing the armband as the captain of his national team. Altidore will lead the U.S. team onto the field, and when the national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, plays, you might notice something.
Altidore will most likely be the only U.S. player not putting his right hand over his heart, keeping his hands behind his back. Nor will he be singing the lyrics of the anthem.
In the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police treatment of black Americans by sitting down during the anthem at an NFL game, Altidore wants people to know that he also has a reason for not putting his hand on heart or singing the words.
“A lot of people have asked me that over the years,” Altidore said in an interview with SI.com on Thursday. “I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in my household, and … to this day we’re still big believers of the way we were brought up in that form of Christianity. So that’s the reason for that. I hope people can respect that and understand it. But by no means does it mean I don’t respect the country or am not proud to be part of this national team and proud to represent the United States.”
Among other parts of his faith, Altidore does not observe holidays or birthdays. But even though Altidore says the reasons for his anthem customs are not the same as Kaepernick’s, there is an understanding for his NFL counterpart.
“I think with Kaepernick it’s kind of interesting to see how people instead of looking at there’s a reason why he did it, they look at other things around it that don’t play a part,” Altidore said. “I think he’s trying to send a specific message, and people are trying to make it seem as if he doesn’t respect the country and he’s disrespecting veterans and stuff like that.”
“I don’t think that’s where he’s going with it,” Altidore continued. “I think he’s talking about something [police treatment of black Americans] that is a hot topic right now in our country and something that has been going on for quite some time, and something that needs to be figured out. So in a way I understand where he’s coming from.”
Altidore acknowledges that he has received negative feedback in the past from some U.S. fans for his anthem approach, but it’s something that he has never wavered from. And he thinks the most important part of Kaepernick’s protest is the reason for it, which Altidore says is a problem that’s real and enduring for black Americans like himself.
“Look, unfortunately, in today’s world and life in the United States, as a black man these things happen—still—to this day,” Altidore said. “I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m not grateful for everything the country has provided for me and my family. I am. But at the same time, I think this type of behavior from certain individuals against black Americans needs to stop. And I think it’s a collective thing that we have to do as a country to really sit down and look at, amongst other issues. And hopefully we can improve upon it.”
Outside the U.S. and Canada, playing the national anthem before club soccer games is exceedingly rare. But it is a regular custom before international soccer matches around the world. Different countries have different responses to whether players sing the national anthem or not.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who won a World Cup as a player for Germany, said: “In Germany … if you wouldn’t sing the anthem you would be on the front cover the Bild Zeitung [newspaper], which has 10 million copies every day and is probably read by 20 to 25 million people every day in an 80 million population. Because for them it shows your commitment. So we had that 20 years ago when we were playing. The public urged the athletes to sing the anthem, and slowly they grow into that feeling and say, ‘Yeah, it’s all right.’ Now everybody sings it.”
What would Klinsmann do as the U.S. coach if one of his American players refused to stand for the national anthem?
“It’s everyone’s own decision,” he said. “I understand everyone kind of jumping into that discussion [post-Kaepernick] and everyone has his own opinion. Everyone has his own feelings when he listens to the national anthem. I would not force any player to do whatever. But I kind of ask them to enjoy this moment, to sing the anthem, to be thoughtful about who you represent. That was always my approach.”
Klinsmann, who started living in the U.S. in 1998 and has an American wife and dual-national children, said he sings the U.S. anthem even though he does not have a U.S. passport. (He said he only lacks the interview to become a U.S. citizen but isn’t sure when he’ll do that.)
“For me, I’ve said it many times, especially to the German media: I think the American anthem is the most beautiful in the world, really,” Klinsmann said. “There’s so much in that anthem. I love to sing it. I really feel good about it.”
Last year, in fact, Klinsmann handed out the lyrics to the U.S. anthem to his American players. He said part of the reason was to help familiarize some of the hyphenated American players on the team who didn’t grow up in the United States.
“I think everybody builds a different connection to it,” Klinsmann said. “But I think it also needs a little bit of help. If you take John Brooks or Timmy Chandler or Fabian [Johnson], if they grow up or are born in Europe, they don’t have that connection to the American anthem like American-based or –born players here in the U.S. It’s normal. So we handed it out. We sometimes had the anthem in the mealroom hanging up, in big text with a really cool design.”
“The players love it,” Klinsmann continued. “I’m not telling the players you have to sing now. Feel it your own way. I sing it because it’s a gorgeous anthem.”
It’s a fascinating topic, and both Klinsmann and Altidore showed on Thursday that they can have different perspectives while remaining thoughtful in how they speak about it. It’s a promising sign for a U.S. team in the most international of sports.