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.
There’s a hunger here, and a buzz that you can’t quite capture when jumping into an already established sport in America like football. Trying to gobble up a part of that pie is not only a fool’s errand, but it’s also inauthentic to the experience as a whole. With soccer there’s a bit of a stewardship, and it’s no surprise after a soldout match in Miami that Heineken brand folks were celebrating as if they won the Champions Cup themselves.
All of Miami seemed to be talking about the match in the lead-up. Uber drivers and hotel workers talked about it in hushed tones as if they were worried talking any louder would spoil the surprise. Supporters donned kits days in advance and wore scarves even in 100-degree heat. Restaurants put up banners, places like Brickell City Centre built installations, and Bayfront Park was transformed into a festival. Musicians like Drake, French Montana, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, and others made the trek. Basketball stars from Draymond Green to Carmelo Anthony hopped down instead of spending time in Las Vegas or at the Drew League. And there were parties everywhere, at all hours.
El Clasico firmly planted its flag in America, and its just a matter of recognizing what worked, fine-tuning what didn’t, and capitalizing on that energy. It only needed the match to deliver, and it did. With two goals in the first few minutes (including one by Messi himself), a minor Neymar controversy (we’ll get to that later), and an energetic halftime show by Marc Anthony, all the ingredients were there – and the fans left happy. It wasn’t quite the Super Bowl, but it wasn’t far off.
The American debut of El Clasico wasn’t just a success: it was a proof point, for anyone who believes in the translation of international soccer to the states.
Part of the tone of the tour — or at least the press aspect of the tour, especially early on — was the subject of Neymar Jr. Rumors had begun swirling shortly before FC Barcelona touched down in the U.S. that Paris Saint-Germain F.C. is preparing to shell out an all-time record of a contract in order to take Neymar away from Barca. This news was on the lips of many fans throughout the tour, but the international media just couldn’t stop asking Neymar-related questions.
At the press conference prior to the New Jersey public workout, all but two or three questions over the course of the half-hour were different permutations of “What is going to happen with Neymar?” or “How concerned is the team about Neymar potentially leaving?” or “Have you spoken to Neymar about where he’s going?”
Every press conference on the tour, and post-match interviews with players, tended to follow along those lines. People wanted to know about Neymar, and no one at all was talking. Players insisted no one in the locker room had spoken to Neymar about the decision, and that he’ll make his own decision, and they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. (More or less.)
But back to the fans.
On the morning before the game at MetLife Stadium, four thousand fans queued up in a line that snaked all the way around Bryant Park in Manhattan. They weren’t there to see players (although maybe some had made that assumption), or to see a public workout or a game. They were there to be part of “the world’s largest jersey” event. The fans watched through the setup of four thousand cards, arrayed on the Bryant Park grass to form a huge Rakuten/Barca jersey, which would then be photographed by a helicopter.
It was a long, hot, sweaty wait, but eventually the cards and the fans were lined up and held their cards aloft, successfully completing the stunt. The effect was great, and I heard very few complaints from fans over the several hours they were waiting to be part of some semblance of history. Actually, I heard zero complaints. Because these are soccer fans, and they’ve been waiting to do something soccer-related, and that’s perfectly good enough for them. Hours after the event dispersed, I still saw fans walking around Manhattan, clutching their cards as souvenirs and being careful not to leave them too mussed.
The Juventus match itself was precisely what the MetLife crowd wanted to see. Although they played three of the biggest teams in the world over the course of their tour, every stadium was decidedly a Barca home crowd. I guess that’s one of the fun byproducts of having on your roster quite possibly the greatest footballer who ever lived. But Messi wasn’t the hero through the first two games of the tour: that honor belonged to Neymar.
At MetLife, Neymar scored a brace, and his second goal was met by an even more thunderous ovation than the first as some light rain began to fall. As the play developed, every fan in attendance had a pretty good idea of Neymar’s path to the goal, and the anticipatory ovation swelled like a vast wave about to crest. And then the ball found the back of the net, and the wave thundered down, every Barca fan leaping to their feet with an ear-splitting cry of jubilation.
A few days later, the team flew from New Jersey to D.C., where the word got out early that the FC Barcelona was staying at the Watergate Hotel. Hundreds of fans were outside the Watergate when the buses rolled in, shouting hellos and hoping there would be a chance for an autograph. (There wasn’t.) Inside the hotel, American fans wanted to get close to stardom any way they could, by eagerly lining up to take pictures with Neymar’s father, Neymar Sr. (Or, as many of the fans called him, “Neymar’s Dad.) These are American soccer fans: they know everything you could know about this team, and they love it with all of their hearts.
Another public workout, this time at FedExField, drew thousands more fans, and their delight in Messi taking the field and scoring some inconsequential goals was even more intense.
The next day — game day, prior to Barca’s match against Manchester United — I was lucky enough to hop in a cab that was driven by a Manchester United fan. He hadn’t been able to score tickets to the game, but he was planning on watching that night. All his free time, he said, was spent either following football scores on a special app, or watching any match he can on television. As for how he ended up a Man U fan, he follows manager José Mourinho. Where Mourinho goes, so too goes the heart of this passionate fan.
That’s one of the main lessons I learned on this trip (although I had had a suspicion). Everyone is a soccer fan. You just might not think of asking as often as you could.
FedExField drew a second sellout crowd, with 80,000-plus fans once again packing an American football stadium to wave banners and to scream in delight as Neymar scored a nearly impossible stumbling goal. Barcelona won again, and the crowd was pleased despite Barca supplanting their entire front ten in the second half. Eventually both teams were swapped out for all-new members, but the 80 percent or so of the crowd that were Barcelona supporters (or at least, it looked and sounded that way) didn’t mind. Their team held the lead, and they were amped up.
I asked goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen what the experience was like at these first two games, “At home, we play for 100,000 people,” he said, laughing. “So it’s 20,000 people more [in Barcelona]. But the atmosphere here in the States is great. To play these two games in front of 80,000 people is unbelievable, the way people live through the game of football. I spoke with Daley Blind before the game, he had the same [feeling] with Manchester United. It’s unbelievable how the fans here are, and we’re very happy to have those kinds of fans here.”
Those fans were once again milling about the FedExField loading dock in a huge throng, waiting to see Barca’s bus off. Those fans were still camped out on the street near the Watergate when the buses rolled back in around midnight. Of course they hoped for some sort of interaction with players from their favorite team, but just seeing the bus was a thrill for them. In fairness, it was a really neat bus.
(UPROXX Sports managing editor Martin Rickman contributed to this piece.)