A Great Day For Soccer

Fans Fill Downtown Sidewalks And Parking Lots As World's Most Popular Sport Comes To Baltimore

July 25, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

Devotees of the world's most popular sport descended Friday on Baltimore, filling sidewalks and tailgating lots with Chelsea blue and AC Milan red-and-black in a city more accustomed to pigskin.

The European soccer clubs that faced off in a much-hyped match are "the cream of the crop," said Jeff Bondura, a construction worker from Baltimore, who awaited the event in the shadow of M&T Bank Stadium as his sons and their friends played a soccer scrimmage in Lot N.

The two prestigious teams found a receptive audience in a town where most fans this time of year are either grousing about another lost Orioles season or growing antsy for the start of Ravens training camp in Westminster.

Downtown streets were crowded with kids and adults wearing jerseys of players such as Chelsea's John Terry and AC Milan's Ronaldinho. Tailgate parties featured futbols rather than footballs - although many still had the requisite all-American Frisbee.

"I've always wanted to see big-time soccer," said Colin Smith of Columbia. "They usually don't come around Baltimore."

The inaugural World Football Challenge's Maryland stop was part of a four-team round-robin that has made visits to California and Georgia, and is heading to Massachusetts and Texas.

In a riveting match Friday night that nearly saw American Oguchi Onyewu score the tying goal for AC Milan, Chelsea held on to win, 2-1, before a screaming, chanting crowd of 71,203.

Chelsea fan Steve Rozovsky, who made the trip from Brooklyn, N.Y., called it "an original European soccer match" and said that the atmosphere in Baltimore "was very friendly, very open-minded, you can drink beer in the street, not like in New York."

Said Kwaku Kankam, a Chelsea fan from Atlanta who passed up a game earlier this week at the Georgia Dome between AC Milan and Team America, "It gives us a chance to see the level of talent that is really out there. When they come here, it shows us what it can be like if we paid more attention to it."

Bondura, the construction worker who regularly attends Ravens and Orioles games, felt similarly. "I think this will get a lot of other European teams to come over," he said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm."

While they are treated like rock stars at home - or like NBA or NFL players are treated in the U.S. - most players can roam the streets of Baltimore without much fanfare.

In the lobby of the Marriott Waterfront on Friday afternoon, two AC Milan players went virtually unnoticed as fans checked in.

"It'll never be like it is over in Europe," said Chuck Megee, who drove in from Easton, Pa., with his two sons and one of their friends.

There is also a lack of understanding among some about the nuances of a sport most Americans still don't thoroughly appreciate or understand.

In reality, this barnstorming tour is nothing more than preseason games for the teams involved.

"You're not going to see these guys going at it like they would during a league game," said Grant Wahl, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, as he signed copies of his recent book, The Beckham Experiment, at a Fells Point pub. "You're not going to see hard slide tackles. The star players are probably going to play a little longer than the starting quarterback for an NFL team in a preseason game."

Wahl, who lives in Baltimore, said that the Chelsea players he talked with earlier this week were surprised by the size of the crowds. In another game that wasn't part of the challenge, 65,000 showed up in Seattle to watch Chelsea play that city's Major League Soccer team.

"They're used to seeing 25,000 for games in the U.S, and when they showed up to see 65,000 at an NFL stadium, they were impressed," Wahl said.

Charlie Stillitano of Creative Artists Agency Sports, who along with business partner Jon Sheiman chose Baltimore over Montreal when the date at M&T Bank Stadium opened up, said that Baltimore has a different feel than other American cities that have played host to such international events.

"All of us had been to Baltimore with our families, did the Harbor, and Jon had been an intern with the Orioles, but Europeans know New York, they know Los Angeles," said Stillitano. "But it's a place where we wanted to come, and a stadium we wanted to play in. I think the players have enjoyed the Harbor; it has a European feel."

European football devotees are known for their hard-drinking and hooligan antics, but fans yesterday hoisted beers and traded barbs in the pubs of Fells Point and Federal Hill without incident.

The most ardent supporters flew in from England and Italy, even for a match with little import other than bragging rights. While the most crazed fans in town yesterday had American accents, they seemed just as enthusiastic as their European counterparts.

Travis Roberts drove in with a group of friends from Elizabethtown, Ky., where he grew up playing soccer and rooting for the Kentucky basketball team. He became a fan of international soccer about six years ago after discovering Fox Sports carried English Premier League games, and Chelsea now runs a close second to his 'Cats.

"It's going to have a tremendous impact on the community and soccer fans in the States, to see such a high level of soccer and some of the greatest stars in the world," Roberts said outside a Fells Point pub. "It doesn't have the same following as it does in Europe, but hopefully that will change in the next five or 10 years."

Inside

Chelsea remains unbeaten in its U.S. tour in a game featuring excitement, missed chances. Sports, PG 1

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