Anyone who follows soccer — yes, we know the real name of the sport is “football,” but bear with us in this post as we stick to the Americanized term — knows that there are soccer fans all over the United States. Deep, vast pockets of fervent soccer fans of all ages, races, genders, and nationalities, all crazy for the sport, and unable to get enough of it. But the passion, reach, and depth of the U.S. soccer fanbase was on full display for the past two weeks, as FC Barcelona swept through New York (New Jersey if you want to get technical about it), Washington, D.C., and Miami as part of a series of friendlies (the European football term for exhibition games or scrimmages) for the International Champions Cup.
For their game against Juventus at MetLife Stadium, the team stayed in New Jersey, and although this trend would only pick up steam in subsequent cities, there were still dozens of fans milling about the hotel where the team was staying in a fairly remote part of the Garden State, all decked out in Barca gear and congregating around the team bus, hoping desperately for a glimpse of just one player.
The day before the Juventus match, Barcelona held a public workout at Red Bull Arena in Harrison (NJ). Thousands of fans flocked to the session and filled at least the shaded half of the stadium.
Barca’s latest global partner is Japanese internet commerce giant Rakuten, which is the new lead sponsor on the team jerseys for the next few years. Although the new Rakuten-emblazoned jerseys are less than a month old, I saw thousands of them over the course of three games. Merchandise at all of the games was brisk business, as fans scooped up jerseys, caps, shorts and scarves by the armload at every stop. The third Rakuten jersey for the 2017-18 season was unveiled prior to the Juventus match, and assumedly many of these fans will be adding yet another No. 10 jersey to their collection as soon as they can.
Everyone was in fine voice, and they were absolutely dying to see Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and the rest of the team go through some drills and play a bit of quarter-field scrimmage. The fans thundered any time Messi or Neymar found the net, even if it was in the context of a drill. Messi and Neymar are the two undisputed kings of the Barca fandom, and “MESSI” chants rang out numerous times over the next 10 days or so.
Those Messi chants would only get louder at the culmination of the entire tour in Miami for El Clasico.
When Messi finally checked out of the match on July 29, the response was electrifying, and it was easy to see why soccer brass and brands like Heineken (who have poured inexhaustible amounts of time and legwork into helping to develop soccer in the states, and especially in cities like Miami) are on board.