The International Champions Cup (ICC) returned to northern California this past weekend. This year’s edition brought two historic clubs in AC Milan and Barcelona back to the Bay Area. The sun was shining on a warm Saturday afternoon in Santa Clara for a reported 51,391 fans in attendance. The Bay Area is home to a vibrant soccer community and the ICC has always tapped into this market with great effect.
On Friday night, the media were present for press conferences from the managers of both clubs before watching each club train for the first 15 minutes. The stadium was quiet with a few supporters sitting in the stands before they got to meet their heroes in person afterward. I was able to take a couple of videos from their training.
On game day, the stadium parking lots were filled as early as 3:00 pm. I was able to speak with a few supporters from both sides, and while there was overwhelming support for Barcelona, I was most curious to speak with fans of AC Milan.
Milan is a big club worldwide and has a rich legacy of soccer at the highest level, yet they remain a club that is not as prominently supported as other clubs have become. I brought this up to Halil Beqaj, an AC Milan fan who grew up supporting them and he said, “In the last ten years, soccer has been growing in the US and AC Milan hasn’t been a top team as much as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea etc. Most people from my generation are supporting these clubs and a lot of clubs from England because those are the teams at the top.” Halil now plays soccer at UC Berkeley as a center back but is originally from southern California.
The fact that Milan regularly participates in the ICC suggests the brand is widely observed in this country. This is the second time I can remember AC Milan playing at Levi’s stadium and they’ve regularly visited the US in the past. The last time they were in Santa Clara, they played Liverpool, another club with massive support. However, before the match, one only needed to visit the fan areas for both clubs to see which club’s fanbase was more represented than the other. For every AC Milan jersey, there had to have been at least 20-30 Barca jerseys around them.
I was curious to find out why so many fans were motivated to support Barcelona over a club like AC Milan and it became apparent that the style of play had a lot to do with their affinity toward the Spanish giants. That’s according to Alex Hernandez, a supporter I spoke with at half time. I asked if he had ever considered supporting another club besides Barcelona and he said, “I support other clubs outside of Spain like Arsenal, for example, but the club I support the most is Barcelona because of their style of play,” Alex explained that players like Xavi and Iniesta were a big reason he began supporting the Catalan club.
Meanwhile, the match was scoreless for 90 minutes, until Andre Silva of AC Milan put one past Jasper Cillessen to beat Barca in the 93rd minute.
It was a disappointing end for Alex and perhaps a pleasant surprise for Halil. It was surprising though that neither of them made any comments about the absence of star names because of the World Cup. It’s clear they were there to support their club regardless of who was on the field, which made me wonder with so many Barca fans in attendance whether or not it really mattered who they played. That’s a bit unfair to AC Milan, but that is essentially the business model for the ICC.
While Barcelona were missing some of the biggest names in world football, the fans came out regardless. This is a model that has proven to be a resounding success. I only wonder whether or not cultivating support of clubs from other countries will grow soccer in the US or have a reverse effect. It’s true Americans are becoming more knowledgeable about soccer and the difference between the quality of European soccer to MLS. However, with a “competition” like the International Champions Cup, we have an annual reminder of this gap in quality. Throw in the MLS All-Star Game, and Americans can’t really justify supporting American clubs over European clubs.
Maybe this isn’t actually the case and I’m making too many assumptions based on a single game’s crowd of mostly Spanish-speaking soccer fans. But if it is, how long will it last?