A Lot Of Hopes Are Riding On Chelsea-ac Milan Match

July 23, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

Mystique will give way to history when 22 of the world's best soccer players rendezvous on the freshly sodded pitch of M&T Bank Stadium before a sellout crowd of 71,000 on Friday night.

If Florent Malouda is any indication, there will be as much curiosity on the pitch as there is in the stands when Chelsea FC stares down AC Milan in the World Football Challenge exhibition, known as a "friendly" in soccer parlance.

Malouda, a 29-year-old French winger playing for Chelsea, was clearly intrigued with the prospect of a packed stadium on U.S. soil. At least three times in a 10-minute interview this week, he mentioned the crowd.

"It's always a pleasure for a footballer to play in a full stadium," Malouda said, looking forward to the first sellout in Chelsea's American tour.

It might not seethe with the passion of a match in the Premier League, where Chelsea plays in Britain, or Italy's Serie A, where AC Milan performs, but the scene at M&T figures to be electric.

History says so.

On May 30, 1973, a Memorial Stadium crowd of 24,680 - then the largest soccer crowd in Baltimore history - watched Pele score three goals as his Brazilian team, Santos, defeated the Bays, 6-4. According to reports in The Evening Sun the next day, Pele was mobbed by fans at the end of the game and escaped to the locker room attired only in a pair of black bikini briefs.

"This is the best of the best," said Pete Caringi, men's soccer coach at UMBC and an ardent AC Milan fan. "This is like two big-time NFL teams going to England to play. It's like the Lakers and the Celtics, like Magic [Johnson] and Larry [Bird] going to play a game overseas."

It will not be the first time Chelsea has played in Baltimore, however. The team from south London visited Westport Stadium on May 21, 1954, and thumped the Baltimore Rockets of the American Soccer League, 7-1, on the third leg of an eight-game tour.

This time, Chelsea has a bigger investment in the city. Last December, the club reached a four-year agreement to support and help finance the Baltimore Bays' youth soccer program, which sponsors 35 teams for boys and girls.

Kevin Healey, president of the Bays and general manager of the Blast, helped broker the deal and then steer the centerpiece of the World Football Challenge to Baltimore. Healey said he brought the tour's promoter, Jon Sheiman of Creative Artists Agency, together with city officials and Blast owner Edwin F. Hale Jr. last winter to keep the game from going to another city.

The Ravens' involvement with M&T Bank Stadium and the promise of a big crowd helped push it over the top.

"What we were able to pull off with everybody helping out shows [Chelsea] that we're for real," Healey said from Boston, where the Bays are playing in the U.S. National Soccer championships. "And we're very impressed with what they've done for us."

The deal, which lessens the financial burden for the Bays' older teams, provides at least $100,000 in value to the organization. Among the perks are 40 auction items (signed jerseys and balls), six trips to England for Chelsea games, and 10 percent of however many tickets the Blast sells when Chelsea plays in the United States. This year, the gain for the Bays will be greater than $100,000, Healey said.

In addition, Chelsea sent over a coach from its soccer academy in June to help direct a Bays' youth camp.

At a time when European teams are making more inroads into American soccer, Healey said the relationship with Chelsea is not just about selling merchandise.

"Some deals are not real," he said. "Some are just about merchandising. With Chelsea, they were looking to establish their brand. They want to be the No. 1 club in the world. Part of that goal is being in the U.S., and the reason they came after us is the quality of our organization."

What Healey hopes to do with Friday's match is expose the casual soccer fan to the sport, with its surgical passes and precision play.

"We need that casual fan to start enjoying the game of soccer," he said. "Hopefully, they'll see the passion of the game, the excitement of the game. I think this game will be a little more wide-open than a World Cup game and the teams will take a few more chances, play a more offensive-style soccer." Toward that end, Malouda understands his role as ambassador to help the sport get a better toehold in the U.S. When Chelsea met Major League Soccer's Sounders in a friendly in Seattle last week, a crowd of an announced 65,289 flooded Qwest Field.

"Sometimes I'm watching games in America on satellite and I can see there's more and more people coming and watching the game," he said. "In the beginning, I think it was a sport for the women, or the university.

"When we started the [Seattle] game, it was like the FA Cup last year [which Chelsea won]. There were fireworks, and it was a big show. When people come to see the game, they come to enjoy themselves, and for us, it's nice that the stadium is full."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

In 'Live!'

Check out good pubs to catch the match and have a pint

WORLD FOOTBALL CHALLENGE

What: AC Milan vs. Chelsea FC

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Tickets: Sold out

TV: ESPN

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