Soccer & America. Truly Madly Deeply?

Soccer at Fenway 2014

Soccer Pink Hats

Soccer and America. It’s hard to know where to look these days, given all the articles on “Has America finally fallen in love with soccer?” after the excitement of the World Cup. The pre-season tours to the USA by the great and the good of global football perhaps give a chance to see exactly where in this slow process of America falling in love really, truly, deeply with soccer. Cut to Boston last night for a glimpse as to how the romance is faring.

Fenway Park in Boston last night played host to the Buick Football At Fenway event, a very unique meeting of two Club football giants, who are taking different routes back to that oh-so-small-very-elite band of the most global elite teams. On the face of it, the similarities are very evident; both teams are back in the Champions League next season after some years’ absence, both teams are American-owned with Boston-based men at the helm, both clubs are trying to expand their global branding in an aggressive fashion, both teams have bought English players over the summer to bolster their rosters. The paths chosen by each team’s brand, however, are very different. Roma has decided to build a new 52,000 seat stadium, Liverpool is tweaking 45,000 capacity Anfield (now 7th largest in England) into a larger 54,000 seater stadium. Roma has welded itself onto the Disney brand & is twinned with grass roots youth soccer organizations in America, Liverpool is still looking as much to Asia as it is America with Standard Chartered as its main club sponsor and Garuda Indonesia as its kit sponsor. Whilst Roma’s coach using Google Glass during the second half of Roma’s May 2014 match in Orlando certainly appeared ground-breaking, Roma’s success in the rapidly growing social media brand wars is still modest. The official AS Roma twitter feed has 464k followers at time of writing. Liverpool FC has an impressive 2.93m, more than Manchester United at 2.83m or Manchester City at 1.88m

In terms of the actual game day experience, soccer at Fenway Park is always going to be a mismatch of some sorts. The benches are in front of the Green Monster wall, which leaves the manager and substitutes far away from any crowd atmosphere and many of the seats are facing home plate rather than the center of the field. The Liverpool owners had clearly worked very hard to make this a success. As in 2012, penalties but not extra-time would be used to determine a winner if it was nil-nil at the end of 90 minutes. The PR machine had been hard at work as well. Robbie Fowler and others spent time that week running soccer sessions with the children at the world-renowned Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, King Kenny was wheeled out to be the one to let loose 96 red balloons in memory of the Hillsborough victims, and Stevie G, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge all walked out to applaud the supporters, despite not being named in the playing squad.
However, some things conspired to make the event less than it might have been. It was hard not to be a little distracted during the game by the fact that, at the bottom of the Green Monster wall, there were two huge white hot dog shaped balloons, each with the teams’ crest and name on, each held in place by a dozen youths. At halftime, for some reason, the Liverpool sausage was noticeably sagging a little. The word flaccid was even been whispered in the stands. The sausage revived itself in the second half, perhaps resulting from a stern phone call from John Henry’s box, prompting a flurry of youthful retagging of ropes. Some of the fans were also less than hard core. Boston Red Sox fans will know the expression “Pink Hats” as a derogatory phrase describing the sudden flurry of mostly, but not exclusively female, fans who swarmed to baseball games in the season after the Sox won the 2004 World Series, ending the long drought. These are fans who were there because a Red Sox baseball game became the hip place to be in the glow of the World Series glories. At Fenway last night, one could also see the emergence of soccer Pink Hats, perhaps emboldened by the recent Team USA World Cup palaver. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just not traditionally been a football thing.

Talking of the football, it came over as a poor game, especially after the feast of the recent World Cup. Some of the Liverpool youngsters impressed, such as Ibe. Others, such as Kristoffer Peterson seemed as if he would look out of place on Fratton Park, let alone Fenway Park. Some parts of the game were predictable; Coutinho was by far the best player on the pitch, Ashley Cole was roundly booed and Roma scored the winner at the death as Marco Borriello got the better of three Liverpool defenders in the box. Still, pre-season is pre-season. Brendan Rogers said he was happy for the experience and the fitness elements to playing on a very hot evening. The crowd was 95% red with many $125 new Liverpool shirts being sold and worn, which must have made the owners happy, but one couldn’t help feeling that the crowd would have been vastly preferred penalties.

The romance, at least last night, was full of wanting and full of show, and a lot of money was flashed around during the date. The partners, however, still appear to be fumbling around with the lights on and haven’t, well, got it fully “on” quite just yet.

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