Where Football Will Never Be Football
The jumbotron at Bank of America Stadium flashed to a crowd scene in the middle of the match. Once people realized they were on the massive, newly built video screen, they flashed their Liverpool and AC Milan paraphernalia. One man, wearing a black polo and white pants, decided to take the opportunity to take his hat off to show the insignia that was on it’s side. It was an image associated with the other kind of football.
“Steelers?!” A child behind me screamed in disgust. “Doesn’t he know this is a football game?”
Where the hell am I?
The Guinness International Champions Cup is an exhibition series which places many of the top European clubs in American sporting venues to try and draw interest in soccer. This year, the locations have included Yankee Stadium, the Big House at the University of Michigan and Charlotte’s own Bank of America Stadium. I headed to this event to gauge if the viewership of soccer in America would translate over to an event like this. My expectations were low given that the location was Charlotte, a city with a passionate American football fan base.
I entered the north gate of Bank of America Stadium as the match went into the fifth minute of play. A few stragglers were still waiting in line for snacks as sounds of chants echoed around the concrete structure. As I walked past one of the open halls that headed out towards the seats, I caught a glimpse of the stadium seating. There were hundreds of people in red seated – it did not look like there was a single empty space available. I was caught off guard. This was an international exhibition soccer match in Charlotte in August. Surely, that small view did not reveal the whole picture.
As I walked up the ramp, throngs of people in Liverpool jerseys passed. Most bore the number and last name of the captain and Anfield hero, Steven Gerrard. Gerrard had recently retired from international play for the English, and Liverpool is now his full time focus. However, at the age of 34, it remains to be seen how long the Liverpool lifer will remain with the Reds. The walk to the upper section also included a small cadre of AC Milan jerseys, with the occasional Barcelona uniform in the mix. I was also wearing a Barça shirt as a sign of my newfound fandom as well as to state that I was basically the equivalent of Switzerland to both AC Milan and Liverpool partisans (even though you could make the case that I was Luxembourg, given the Luis Suárez transfer). I had done this neutral showing at the ACC Championship Game in 2013 between Florida State and Georgia Tech, when I wore a Virginia Tech shacket. The results provided for a night of vitriol which I expected to be amplified given the passion involved in European soccer. Yet, I reached my seat without snark or sneer. But I was fearful of a young, bi-lingual AC Milan fan behind me who seemed displeased with every single signifier of American corporate largesse.
The crowd was blanketed in red. There were about five or six sections within the stadium that were “process blue,” an indication that the only spectators in that area were chairs. There was a huge collective near one of the end zones of Liverpool fans. They would raise their scarves and banners then proceed to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” their anthem. As I scanned the venue, I noticed different colors. There was the flag of Uruguay, a huge Colombian scarf, a Brazil national team hat, a jersey from Manchester City and a German banner. It was a small potpourri of soccer miscellany infused into a Never Walk Alone bowl.
The match itself was an experience that seemed very alien. Due to the continuous clock and the rules of the game, there is no placeholder for advertisements except halftime and at the sides of Jerry Richardson’s Mecklenburg County-funded video screen. There is in-game music. There is no “LOUD METER.” There are no graphics depicting a football ordering nachos and the concession stand. There is a soccer match and crowd reaction. The only songs are sung by the fans. The chants are natural and fluid. There is no PA Announcer demanding that you snap out of your malaise. You are already excited. That’s why you bought the damn ticket. It’s limited interruption and limited time for an advertisement to implant itself in your brain so it can empower a brand.
At halftime, I headed for a snack. Throngs of people joined. Inside Bank of America Stadium, there are a few vendors that are region specific just like any of the other sports facility in the United States. The Home of the Panthers offers expensive varieties of Queen City Q and Scotty McCreery’s Excuse for Voluntary Family Excommunication, Bojangles. I couldn’t help but laugh when I watched a guy in a Cristiano Ronaldo shirt order Chicken Supremes. Then, I thought about Ronaldo being in a Bojangles ad. Bo Time isn’t strictly an Eastern Standard thing.
As the second half came to a close, the PA Announcer boomed, “today’s attendance is 69,364.” The number was met with some minor fanfare. A long-haired dude who could be mistaken for a younger Allman in front of me remarked, “Hell, that’s more than any Panthers game.” He was only telling half of the truth. In seasons past, there were games I’ve watched on TV that seemed as if only ten sections were filled. Other games, like the Panthers-Patriots affair, was packed to the gills. Yet, in a stadium whose capacity is 73,778, I think you could call the attendance of the AC Milan-Liverpool match a testament to how much soccer has grown within the United States.
The match ended with Liverpool blanking AC Milan by two points. Everyone had a great time except for the opinionated child behind me who will learn later in life that exhibition games don’t mean anything and Mario Balotelli is just happy to be playing soccer. The masses emptied out into Charlotte with plastic toy horns blaring into the cloudy, night sky. As I turned the corner on Mint towards the tunnel that headed to Morehead, I could hear people drumming up the song of Liverpool: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It was a drunken parade of exuberance that trailed off into the night. I made my way into downtown proper with the milling herd who were receiving skeptical glances from passers-by. You could infer that they couldn’t make out any of the logos that they were wearing. The passers-by were quizzical of why so many people attended a soccer game. Just hours ago, I’m sure I had the same look.
The next morning, I woke up to find out that the Real Madrid and Manchester United match drew a crowd of over 109,000 at the Big House. It’s the largest number on record of people attending a soccer match in the United States. Then, I saw a video of Sergio Ramos acting like a running back while training for the match at Eastern Michigan University. There are more videos and stories about this on the Internet. Videos of soccer players acting like football players and having a general good time. There are probably some people on the Internet scoffing that these guys are finally playing “real football.” Yet, “real football” is a concept that is about as abstract as Bojangles sponsoring an English Premier League team.