US fans show ap­petite for Euro­pean stars

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Hav­ing paid nearly $500 for a ticket to watch his team in a pre­sea­son friendly against Barcelona, Manch­ester United fan Vikrom Ahuja could hardly con­tain his ex­cite­ment. “It’s a life­time op­por­tu­nity be­cause you’re not go­ing to see this kind of op­po­si­tion in the US,” said Ahuja as he sa­vored the prospect of see­ing Jose Mour­inho’s side take on the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at a sta­dium in the sub­urbs of Wash­ing­ton.

“I don’t sup­port a lo­cal team be­cause the way they play, it doesn’t ex­cite me, it doesn’t get me out of my seat.” Do­mes­tic soc­cer has long strug­gled to draw big crowds in the United States, even though ticket prices of­ten are sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper than for sports such as base­ball or Amer­i­can foot­ball. But huge at­ten­dance fig­ures at a se­ries of friendly matches in­volv­ing the big­gest teams in Euro­pean foot­ball have un­der­lined a de­cided Amer­i­can in­ter­est in the game-as long as the qual­ity is top-notch.

Tickets for last night’s match be­tween Real Madrid and Barcelona at the 65,000-seat Hard Rock sta­dium have been sell­ing for nearly $1,000 on the black mar­ket. A match be­tween Real and Manch­ester City drew a crowd of more than 90,000 in Los Angeles ear­lier in the week, while up­wards of 82,000 fans watched Barcelona take on Ital­ian gi­ants Ju­ven­tus just out­side New York last week­end.

For years, Europe’s top clubs tended to head to Asia in the close sea­son in a bid to grow their fan base, but the United States ap­pears to be in­creas­ingly the num­ber one choice. Other teams to have toured the States this year in­clude Paris Saint-Ger­main, Roma and Tot­ten­ham-some them com­pet­ing in the grandly ti­tled In­ter­na­tional Cham­pi­ons Cup.

The matches give US-based fans a chance to watch their team’s new­est stars even be­fore they make their de­buts back home, such as United’s new record sign­ing of Romelu Lukaku. Barcelona fans mean­while got to see Brazil­ian star Ney­mar score the win­ner in what could turn out to be one of his last matches for the Cata­lan team if a much-touted move to PSG comes to fruition.

Eric Wes­ner, part of the 82,000strong crowd at a sta­dium which is nor­mally home to the NFL’s Wash­ing­ton Red­skins, said he had no re­grets about pay­ing $200 for a seat even if the venue is a good two-hour drive north of the cap­i­tal. “I paid 200 bucks af­ter fees when I usu­ally pay $30-$40 for DC United,” he said in ref­er­ence to the lo­cal MLS fran­chise which plays in the cen­ter of Wash­ing­ton and which gets av­er­age crowds of around 16,000 per match.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing be­cause there are a lot of stars, and the level is much higher than the MLS.” Back in the 1970s, US fans did have the chance to watch the game’s big­gest names on a reg­u­lar ba­sis when the likes of Pele and Ge­orge Best played in the now de­funct North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League. The MLS has man­aged to at­tract some big names in the au­tumn of their ca­reer such as France’s Thierry Henry and Eng­land’s Frank Lam­pard but strug­gles to com­pete with the likes of China and even In­dia when it comes to wages.

But Lau­rent Dubois of North Carolina’s Duke Univer­sity, who has writ­ten a book which de­mys­ti­fies the game for Amer­i­cans, was not sur­prised crowds had flocked to the pre-sea­son friendlies “Soc­cer is of course over­shad­owed in the me­dia by Amer­i­can foot­ball, bas­ket­ball, and base­ball and yet I think prob­a­bly more peo­ple play soc­cer in this coun­try than any other sport,” Dubois told AFP.

Dubois was con­fi­dent that it is only a mat­ter of time for the MLS to build up its fan base and for those fans to go to see their home­town he­roes, not just save up to watch for­eign stars. “There will be a prob­lem for a while that many in the US will feel like the best soc­cer is be­ing played else­where, and they would rather watch Chelsea or Barcelona than an MLS team.

“But the fan cul­tures for lo­cal teams will keep grow­ing I think.” —AFP

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