Well, folks, I have finally made the jump to a full fledged soccer fan. This past weekend, Nomi the Greek and I took a little road trip to Charlotte, North Carolina for the Guinness International Champions Cup. The match, which pitted AC Milan versus Liverpool, was a star studded bout that ended in a two to nil victory for the boys from England. I was extremely spoiled as I got to see not one, but two whole goals scored! Based on my past attempts in converting to a soccer fan, this seems like a rarity.
Our adventure goes back to the World Cup final. While enjoying the game at our World Cup headquarters, Old Blinde Dog in Atlanta, where friends of Wayniac Nation Nomi the Greek, Jaybird and Kid Robot bartend, my fiance won two tickets to the match. While my fiance, a former standout soccer player herself, enjoys the game very much, she knew Nomi the Greek is a huge Liverpool fan and insisted the two of us take the tickets. Did I pick a winner or what?
We took the four hour drive from Atlanta to Charlotte and got to Bank of America Stadium right around game time. It was my first time visiting the Queen City as it’s affectionately called and it really had a fun looking downtown area. The town was overflowing with soccer fans. When it comes to soccer in America, I am still somewhat a cynic. No matter how grand the World Cup ratings were, that is a once-every-four-year phenomenon. To say I was very surprised by the amount of people flooding the streets in the Liverpool red and AC Milan red and black kit would be an understatement. Nomi the Greek who is a huge soccer fan concurred, which surprised me even more. I figured he would take the “See, dude, I told you soccer was for real,” approach, but he too was amazed by the outpouring of love for futbol.
Our section on the ticket was 342. Based on endless trips to stadiums across the country, Nomi the Greek and I both thought we were in the upper level. As we ascended the ramp amongst the drunken soccer brood, we stopped in confusion when we approached the 300 level. The sign read Silver Club Level. There was no way we won free tickets to this game AND were going to get to sit in sick seats, was there?
Why, yes, yes there was. We had a great view and after an endearing singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone (Liverpool’s theme song for those of you not in the know… how these buffoons chose a Gerry and the Pacemakers tune over a Beatles song is beyond me but that is their business) the ball was in play. Less than twenty minutes into play, Liverpool led a ferocious attack on AC Milan’s net, booting one off of the post and then one off the goalie before Joe Allen put the rebound in the net. The crowd went bananas, Liverpool had one of those group hugs that futbol clubs do after scoring and I was pumped. I was certain that I was in for a high scoring affair unlike any other. Alas, I would wait approximately 68 minutes for the next goal to occur.
Is that why soccer finds itself such a hard time being accepted stateside? The tempo? It can’t be that because if you have ever been to a baseball game in Atlanta in mid-August when the temperatures are always hot and the Braves are always cold it feels like the game last for days. Is it the lack of finality? Of the Big Four American sports, hockey is the least favorite. Like soccer, it is the only sport that has a healthy amount of ties throughout the season. We like resolution. We want answers, we want to know who is the better team. Think about how angry you are when two NFL teams play to a tie. It’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen, right?
Being at a soccer match is a world of difference. The fans are totally energized and it felt like ninety of the quickest minutes I have ever lived. I’ve often felt that when I am watching soccer matches on TV that it takes an eternity to get through, especially when I have no rooting interest in either team. But actually watching this match in person with two teams I had nothing invested in was a blast. I was actually yearning for another half of futbol, but Liverpool had to get down to Miami to get whooped by Manchester United in the Championship Match.
While driving back to Atlanta, Charlotte’s streets were a mob scene. Nomi the Greek was creeping along at maybe two miles per hour. We were sitting in the middle of some road, dead stopped in traffic when all of a sudden AC Milan’s coaching staff started getting off of the bus two cars in front of us. Tired of the jam, they started walking towards the Omni Hotel. Shortly after, the players started walking. “If Balotelli gets off that bus, you are getting out of this car and getting an autograph,” Nomi the Greek commanded. Sure enough, a few players later, there he was. I felt like I was looking at the Shaquille O’Neal of soccer. He was a huge hulking specimen with an electric blonde mohawk. The rap against Balotelli is that he is extremely over rated, which I can understand, but watching him play live and in person, I see it otherwise. Balotelli is about to turn 24 years old. He is a kid who is sought after by every significant futbol club in the world. Like many youngsters who had too much too soon, he seemed to get cocky. I can tell you straight up after watching him in Charlotte that this kid can do what ever he wants with a soccer ball. He can dribble in and out of defenders, send a perfectly placed pass anywhere he chooses and fire on goal seemingly at will. But the effort was clearly not there 100 percent of the time. He often looked bored on the field. Maybe he is one of those Carmelo Anthony-esque players who look like they are just cruising along because the game comes so easily to them, but I think he takes plays off. I can also tell you he is not the most personable of people, but hey, at least he signed an autograph for me!
Overall it was an amazing experience, especially for a sports blogger who has just recently began to explore the unchartered territory of soccer fandom. Perhaps I will finally take in that first WNBA game in hopes that the experience is the same, although I highly doubt that day will come. Thanks for a great evening Charlotte!