Let me start off by admitting that I am a new fan to soccer and I think, as a new fan, if the last five months are any indication, they’ve seriously gotten me interested in the sport. I am almost your typical American who has been deeply entrenched in one or more of our major sports (for me, the NFL) for the past 20 years and soccer never really crossed my radar much until the World Cup comes along every four years.
Fast forward to October of last year, when I was newly married and traveled to Istanbul for our honeymoon. The funniest thing about travelling abroad is that whereas here in the US I could be mistaken for a basketball star, anywhere else in the world, I could be mistaken as a soccer star (maybe it’s the dreads) which happened more than enough times while I was there. While out and about in the Grand Bazaar, a typical conversation struck up as to whether or not I played soccer. “No, but I look like one.” “Nope, I should play,” etc. I wish I could but my knee and age says otherwise. and next thing I know, I am inquiring about soccer shirts.
As a habit, when I travel, I like to buy shirts of wherever I am. It’s very difficult to find some shirts in the United States. To make a long story short, with my limited knowledge and hopes that I wouldn’t be steered wrong, I asked the sales clerk to direct me to who he thought were some one of the best players right now. I wound up with a Lionel Messi Argentina jersey, which he swore up and down was the best player in the world. Very rarely do I put my trust in strangers but hey, it could worse. I could have a bum player from a remote corner of the planet. Of course he was right as I learned that Messi was one of the most recognized faces in sport and it became more evident the few times I wore the kit back home in the States.
Next thing I knew I was slowly becoming hooked. Once I got home I started watching a few matches hoping to learn and gain an interest in the sport. I even grabbed FIFA 11 game and then got the ear of two of my co-workers who are both from Europe (one is a Manchester fan and the other an Arsenal fan) and just drilled them with questions.
Before I knew it, I was hooked. I would rush to get home to watch matches on TV and if there wasn’t anything on, I was playing FIFA more that I was playing Madden. I would go to work the next day and drill my friends again. And in the meantime, I was also on the Web reading all I could on the games being played. I think I got caught up on Manchester United because of the news surrounding Wayne Rooney and also with my co-worker being a supporter, it just fascinated me how much he really knew about the ins and outs of the team.
Also around this time, I started paying more attention to the local team, DC United, and the last time I checked in on them was when Freddy Adu played here. In the short time I have been educating myself about soccer, I have gotten the idea of what a state Major League Soccer is in compared to the rest of the world. The one thing I have learned is that the biggest reason why it’s hard for football to penetrate the USA is that there are four other major sports here, and it’s really hard to woo NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL fans away. Honestly for me, with the impending NFL lockout at the time, it wasn’t becoming hard as I was becoming frustrated at the bickering going on between the two sides and how they really didn’t care about the fans, but of course that’s another story.
With so much going on between all of the FIFA scandals and so on, when was I going to my first game? After all of the hype and excitement of the UEFA Champions League, I made a huge push to get tickets to the Manchester United against Barcelona game. And as hard as I tried, my friends at work who wanted to go waited until the last minute and could not get tickets.
However the Gold Cup had just started and the semifinals were in DC. I made up my mind to go and felt it would have been even better if the USMNT was in it. My wish came true when the USMNT beat Guadalupe 1–0 in one of the ugliest wins I have seen in my short time as a fan. Ticket in hand, I set out to RFK Stadium and I could not believe the atmosphere. In short, I don’t see fans getting this excited at American football games and it made it an enjoyable experience. USMNT won the first game against Jamaica. And in the second game, the atmosphere got even rowdier between Panama and El Salvador. After that game, I could only imagine what could be ahead in July.
I also took an opportunity last week to go see Everton push around DC United. And even though the stadium wasn’t jam-packed similar to Man Utd’s match in Chicago earlier that day, there were a ton of supporters there. People I talked to came from all over the country and Europe and followed Everton on their tour. It’s just such a shame that RFK Stadium is such a sorry state of a stadium to showcase this kind of match.
That following Monday, I could tell that there was a buildup amongst fans to the Barcelona against Manchester United match. Most of the fans that work in my area were breaking out their respective kits. We all took time out during lunch to talk about the Copa America and watch the MLS All Stars v Man Utd game that was played that Wednesday.
Of course I was disappointed that Lionel Messi wouldn’t play against Manchester United even for a few minutes but it was understandable since he didn’t have any time off. By then I understood that Saturday night’s match for many was a once in a lifetime match regardless if it was a friendly. And if you were a fan and didn’t have a ticket, well there wasn’t much hope for another game like this. To equate this game for Americans, the best analogy I could come up with was watching a pre-season game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers who just played the Super Bowl back in February.
Amazingly Friday evening when I went to the Manchester United and Barcelona practice session, there were STILL people trying to get tickets to the game. The practice session had a stadium filled to half capacity. One of the small surprises was that even though he didn’t play, Xavi did make an appearance. For myself, with the seat that I had, I was able to see some of the players such as Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra up close without the need for a TV. In short, this session whet the appetite of everyone wishing that the next 24 hours would hurry along so the game could begin.
I spent Saturday morning shopping for a better camera because, although I had a good seat, my little point and shoot wasn’t going to cut it. That done and out of the way, I grabbed lunch in DC with a few friends and was just excited to see how many fans were already out and about with their perspective kits on excited about the upcoming match.
Fast forward to 5pm and I was on the Metro packed to the gills with fans on their way to the game. I haven’t seen the Metro this packed in a long while (maybe this happens for Redskins fans but since I am not a fan I couldn’t tell you). Thankfully I didn’t live far from the stadium, so I managed to get home and got changed and went back to the stadium by 6pm. By this time, there were fans as far as the eyes could see. Tailgaters were out in full force. A band was playing and yup, I even saw a Mariachi band playing too. This would be the closest this city would get in terms of a Super Bowl type atmosphere.
With my merchandise and drink in hand, I found my seat (surrounded by a ton of Barcelona fans no less). I was thankful that the weather was nice, and then settled in for the game with a sold-out stadium.
By the time the game was over, I made a ton of new friends and came home happy for this experience that I have really enjoyed all summer. Now I am looking forward to watching a full season to see where this takes me, not to mention I can take some time to support the local team. But one thing is for sure, I can only imagine what will happen next summer and in 2014.
If there was ever a time to get into world soccer, I picked the right time and appreciation for it.