On Wednesday night, I ventured into Fenway Park, the heart of our national pastime, but not to watch the hapless Boston Red Sox.
No, I was there for soccer, a sport as un-American as ketchup-less dining or the Soviet Union.
And I wasn’t alone. Fans filled Fenway nearly to capacity to watch Roma defeat Liverpool 2-1.
A decade ago, the thought of seeing big European soccer teams play in America would have been laughable. Now, it’s commonplace. Every summer, teams like Barcelona, Chelsea, A.C. Milan and Real Madrid come to the U.S. on lucrative preseason tours to play “friendly” matches in converted baseball and football stadiums.
What’s driving this new enthusiasm? In part, it’s the fact that American businessmen now own many of Europe’s biggest clubs. The teams have become the newest luxury item for our one percent.
John Henry, who owns the Red Sox, bought Liverpool in October 2010 after its previous management – also American – drove the storied English soccer team into near bankruptcy. Despite spending a boatload of money on new players, Liverpool doesn’t have anything to show for the purchase yet. Remind you of any Boston-based ball club over the last few years?
Meanwhile, Thomas DiBenedetto, president of the Boston International Group, has owned Roma since April 2011.
The European teams don’t treat their American appearances as seriously as they would if they were playing back home. Both teams left many of their biggest stars in Europe. But the back-ups and youngsters performed creditably, scoring three fine goals.
Even so, it was bizarre to see soccer nets lined up on Fenway’s outfield grass and a sea of Liverpool and Roma jerseys filling the stands — though at least both teams wear red, like the Sox.
Soccer is still a tribal game in a way that isn’t as true of American sports. But with its loud, proud Irish and Italian immigrant communities, Boston was a natural place for the match to take place.
No one got a bigger cheer at Fenway than Liverpool’s midfielder Lucas Leiva, after he was subbed onto the field in the second half. Why? Because Leiva is Brazilian, and Boston boasts a large community of soccer-mad Brazilians.
As a Greek-American, I had my own reasons for watching the game: a young Greek player, Panagiotis Tachtsidis, started in central midfield for Roma. I jumped out of my seat when the keeper saved his well-struck attempt on goal in the first half.
But the whole stadium went wild when Michael Bradley, an American who also plays for the Italian club, drove a low shot past Liverpool’s goalie and into the bottom left-hand corner of the net for the game’s first goal. “USA!! USA!! USA!!” the crowd roared.
Italians to the left. Brazilians to the right. Irish in the middle. But Americans all around.
At half-time, I asked the man sitting next to me if he thought soccer was growing more popular in the U.S. “Absolutely,” said Mike Ceddia. “You’ve got kids playing all over. You’ve got more women’s college programs than ever. And it shows the caliber of soccer happening here when a young guy like Bradley can step it up to the next level in Europe.”
His seat-mate, Adam Moon, agreed. Adam teaches at a largely Hispanic school in Phoenix, Arizona that doesn’t even have a football team. He coaches soccer, which he says is the biggest sport in the area. But the state’s budget crisis might prevent his students from pursuing the game: the school is having trouble finding the $1,400 it needs to keep the program going next season, he said.
Then, at a certain point, I noticed Mike and Adam weren’t paying attention to my questions anymore.
I put my notebook away.
The second half had started, and nothing else mattered but watching the game.