Monday, June 15, 2009
Take one part political rally, another part Mardi Gras, another part pageant drama, and a good twist of sports fever, stir together and serve in an arena seating at least 55,000 people. That's the rumble that rolled into Chicago last week. The United States Men's National team faced off against the Honduran Men's National team in a World Cup qualifier at Soldier Field. For over two hours the venue became the same powerhouse of soccer energy that plays out regularly in stadiums throughout the rest of the world, yet usually only shows its full force here during these infrequent U. S. major soccer events. Nevertheless this opportunity to experience the electric passion that soccer generates gave American patrons a significant introduction to the reason soccer holds a commanding position in the sports world. Soccer is more than just a game.
Two years ago, when Robbie spent two weeks in Spain playing soccer with the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, he experienced firsthand the intensity of passion soccer generates. After a beautiful day spent exploring a mountain top chapel and grotto, he entered the stadium at Barcelona. He was immediately struck with how the stadium reflected many of the same details he had already witnessed that day. In the chapel sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows and the flickering candlelight danced off the walls and faces of the worshippers. In the stadium the setting sun glimmered through the frame of the roof, spilling rosy shafts of light across the seats and the faces of the fans. Thousands of camera flashes glimmered around the arena while overhead stadium lamps filled the pitch with brilliant light. Robbie had seen an old woman praying at the chapel, her gnarled hands clasp in supplication. As he walked to his stadium seats, he saw a man on his knees in a Barcelona jersey fervently praying. While there weren't crowds in the chapel leaping up and down and bellowing out team chants, the parishioners were joined together by a common bond of worship. Likewise the fans shared an immediate bond that transcended gender, income, race, and even religion. For those two hours of the game, every fan shared the same wish and the same loyalty. No one would suggest that soccer takes the place of faith in anyone's life, but Robbie saw how fans treated soccer with the same serious reverence.
Saturday night a taste of that intensity visited Chicago. A good percentage of the fans were Honduran. With a total population of 7.5 million in Honduras I would estimate that .05% were in Chicago at the game. The U.S. was severely underrepresented, but those who came got a great immersion in "true" soccer. A kettle drum boomed throughout the game, fans never sat down, flags, scarves, and t-shirts swirled non-stop, and flashes lit up the stands. Every move of the Honduran team from pre-game to post-game was greeted with a deafening roar. When the trainers trotted over to the bench, the fans went wild! The various elements of the experience fed off each other, so that the frenzy of the fans rolled like a wave around and over the arena. The entire city of Chicago could probably have been lit by the energy generated by the fans. When Honduras scored in the sixth minute it set off a crescendo of exhilaration that lasted nearly the entire game, even after Landon Donovan successfully scored a PK to tie. It only waned a bit when a Bocanegra goal sent the U.S. into the lead. The fact that the home team couldn't generate a larger crowd shows how far soccer stills need to grow here. Other more marketable sports steal away fans and dollars. But right now soccer is a great value, so hopefully American fans will recognize what an amazing experience they can have for their admission price.
As the four US Youth Soccer Regional Championships begin, hopefully our youth players will get a taste of the soccer fever that visited the U.S. last week. In these smaller locations, the international level of fan intensity will seem not only out of place but excessive. But we can still offer our kids enthusiasm. As one soccer season winds down and another begins, we can also provide opportunities for our kids to watch matches that don't involve just youth players. Part of what makes for great fans is that they are educated fans. That happens by watching games at all levels as often as possible. Few of us get the chance to go overseas to watch games or attend the World Cup, not to mention World Cup qualifiers, Gold Cup, or professional league games. But college games are abundant and inexpensive. Some of the best future players can be seen at these soccer games. If a major youth tournament comes to your town, take time to go watch a few games. Many of these tournaments have international youth teams attending where you can possibly catch the new David Beckham or Mia Hamm. We've had the privilege of seeing many of the present soccer stars when they were just U19 players visiting for a tournament. No matter the venue, immerse yourself in the games that are readily available throughout America. Then, at the next international game in the U.S. we won't have to listen to the opposition fans. We'll bring down the house all on our own.
Follow the moments from the US Youth Soccer Regional and National Championships on http://championships.usyouthsoccer.org