It takes time to build something special. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. Manchester United and Chelsea. Club America. The L.A. Galaxy (don’t laugh!) All of these teams had to start somewhere before they came to dominate the landscape of their respective markets. Eventually a club hits a tipping point. Fans fall in love with the team as it writes its respective chapter in the archives of the beautiful game.
Yes, the beautiful game. Soccer. Futbol. A game, so beloved and transcendent, it has permeated the farthest reaches of the globe. No matter the language, no matter the borders, soccer finds a way. And once the game takes root, it does not let go. I can speak from experience.
Just 15 short years ago, I was your typical sports fan in the Southeastern US. I grew up playing football, baseball, and basketball, but mostly baseball. I abhorred soccer and the pseudo-athletes that mindlessly kicked a ball around for what seemed like hours. You could not have paid me enough money to stop playing baseball and pick-up the game of soccer as my sport of choice.
And then something strange occured. I happened across the 1999 USWNT journey in the world cup. With great pride, I watched Chastain rip off her jersey in jubilation having just beaten China for the championship. Her ab muscles rippled as sweat sprayed through the air. Her teammates piled on in celebration. These were real athletes of the highest order… and they gave me pride in my country for this first time. Baseball never did that. Neither did college football or basketball. What can I say? This 17-year-old (at the time) never really stood a chance after that. MLS became more relevant in my life. I paid even more attention when Beckham signed with the Galaxy. And then during my lunch break between classes on the campus of Georgia Tech, I watched Landon Donovan and the USMNT beat Algeria 1-0 in extra time to move on to the knockout rounds of the 2010 World Cup. Where were you when that goal happened? Most US soccer fans have a story to tell about that moment. LD and the USMNT won over a lot of casual sports fans that morning. Soccer found a way.
So now I find myself in Birmingham, Alabama. The city that was lost for so long prior to and during the civil rights era and has endured so many self-inflicted wounds. The city that lost the majority of its population due to suburban migration. The city that has been a shell of its former self with discarded businesses and dilapidated buildings.
But no more. Resurgence in urban life is underway. Once-forgotten sections of our town have been revitalized. Avondale, Lakeview, Uptown, and 2nd Avenue North are teaming with energy. The young and the old are moving back to the city. Businesses are sprouting up like the first flowers after a long, cold winter. Birmingham has finally turned the page from its checkered past to a brighter future. Its citizens can take pride in the effort of so many to make Birmingham a jewel in the South.
And in this city of Roll Tide, War Eagle, and Go Blazers, where does soccer fit in? One only has to go as far as the local youth soccer scene to see exactly how soccer plays a role in the community. Birmingham United Soccer Association and Vestavia Hills Soccer Club (among many others) consistently develop top boy and girl talent. The mighty UAB Blazers located in the heart of the city have one of the top collegiate soccer programs in the country in recent years. They are supported by their Green Army of loyal patrons. The American Outlaws have a loud and rowdy chapter that meet at Good People Brewery for each USMNT match. And perhaps most importantly, one should look to the grassroots effort to bring professional soccer to the heart of dixie – the Birmingham Hammers and their supporters group. The Magic City Brigade. What started as just an idea between a couple of college buddies 2 years ago has now blossomed into a movement with 4,000–plus likes on Facebook. The Hammers are fielding a team this year and will be competing against professional teams from the Southeastern US this summer.
Yes – soccer is no longer in its infancy in the Magic City. Like Birmingham itself, soccer is budding from the ground up. Can you see it? Can you feel it? Soccer has taken root. I don’t think it is letting go anytime soon. And if I am right, soccer will find a way.