Tonight I felt a rush of nostalgia and regret flow through my mind for something that I barely had an awareness of 20 years ago. This July will mark the 20-year anniversary of the opening soccer match of the 1996 Summer Olympics. I was barely out of grade school and was heavily immersed in another pastime that summer: travel baseball. Soccer was but a fleeting blip on my athletic radar. After all, I still had dreams of dressing out for the Atlanta Braves. But just 15-minutes from my house sat the “The Old Grey Lady” (Legion Field for those that are unfamiliar with the colloquial moniker) and she was the center of the soccer universe for a brief moment in time.
The game: USA vs. Argentina. In what was most certainly one of those hazy, hot Birmingham summer evenings, 83,810 patriotic fans filled the bleachers of the still glorious Legion Field in late July. It’s not hard to imagine the scene: eating, drinking, singing, chanting, and cheering. Flags waving. National anthems belted out loud. Red, white and blue. Sky Blue and white. A proud soccer world power in Argentina taking on the host nation in the Heart of Dixie. It must have been a sight to see.
As for the game, it went about as expected. Eventual silver-medalist Argentina pulled out a 3-1 victory. The Albicelestes scored three unanswered goals after Claudio Reyna’s 1st minute score. But boy-oh-boy! That goal must have been something to see. Just imagine: The US Men’s National Team had a successful, if not surprising World Cup in 1994. The country was mad with soccer fever leading into the ’96 Olympics. And to score a goal in the opening minute of the opening match against one of the most decorated soccer teams of all-time. Wow, Legion Field must have been on fire.
The 1996 Olympics were held in Atlanta, but the men’s and women’s soccer tournaments were held in various cities across the Southeast. In addition to Legion Field, the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the Orange Bowl in Miami, RFK Memorial Stadium in Washington D.C., and Sanford Stadium in Athens, GA all hosted games. Never has the world of soccer been as concentrated and focused in the South as it was during that 10-day period in July of 1996. And by all accounts, the tournament was wildly successful.
FAST FORWARD 20 YEARS
I am playing Yahtzee with two of my children as I watch the draw for the Copa America Centenario in the background. The Copa America will be the first major men’s soccer tournament to be held in the US since the Atlanta summer Olympics, multiple Gold Cups notwithstanding. The best teams from the Western Hemisphere will all be there: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Chile. The US will play in the tournament as well, along with rivals Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Panama. All together, 16 teams will be flying from coast to coast to play the beautiful game in front of adoring fans in 10 separate venues. But noticeably, the South is underrepresented in the pool of host cities, with only Orlando making the cut.
My frustration begins to set in as I observe my soccer-loving kids watching the Copa America draw on television. They see flashes of Neymar, Messi, and Suarez on the screen during the commercial breaks and they get big smiles. These players are some of their favorites. And I would love to give them the chance to see at least one of them play this summer in-person. But I know it’s not economically feasible to fly a family of five across the country for a soccer game. Why not Nashville? What’s so wrong with Atlanta or Charlotte? We could’ve easily made those trips. Why couldn’t US Soccer find a way to bring soccer to my front doorstep again? And unfortunately, I begin to regret not taking advantage of what was just next door 20 years ago, right here in Birmingham.
You see, I took soccer for granted back then. And I missed a chance at seeing some of the titans of the game play just minutes from where I slept at night. I wonder if my kids will ever get the same opportunity. Realistically, they may have kids of their own before another major soccer tournament is set to return to the South. A lifetime away indeed. So what’s a soccer-loving family in Birmingham to do? One thing is not take for granted the soccer options that are available to us right now. The Birmingham Hammers play 15-minutes from where my kids rest their heads. Not on Graymont Avenue, but in a much smaller, less historic complex in the opposite direction off Sicard Hollow Road.
No, the Hammers are no U.S. Men’s National Team. And the ‘Boys in Red’ are no Alexi Lalas or Claudio Reyna. But through the eyes of a kindergartener, they might as well be. A year later, my son still talks about a backheel goal that Karl Chester scored last season. He turns shy when taking a soccer lesson from Victor Sambade because Victor is dressed in his Hammers’ practice kit and probably looks 10 feet tall. Believe it or not, to a kid, there is not much difference between Messi and Chester. And the one thing Samdade has over Neymar for my son and daughter is that they get to take a picture with him after a hard fought 90-minute game.
Twenty years from now, I do not intend to be regretful that I didn’t support my hometown club with my kids when I had the chance to. And if you are a soccer fan in the city of Birmingham, I hope you choose to support your local team as well.
In terms of events, the 1994 World Cup can only be described as a runaway success. Record attendance in stadiums across the country illustrated that the United States was clearly embracing the world’s game. Two years later, the 1996 Olympic tournament only reinforced the notion that soccer was growing in popularity in our country. Over 1.3 million fans packed stadiums across the Southeast to cheer on the beautiful game.
Yet, some say that the South will never embrace soccer as much as other parts of the country. But just 20 years ago, Legion Field and the city of Birmingham honorably played a part in helping make the Summer Olympics a wild success. And if you are one to believe that professional soccer has no chance of surviving in Birmingham, I ask you to consider this fact: despite a whole history of Iron Bowls and Magic City Classics played in the shadows of Birmingham on Greymont Avenue, no single event at Legion Field tops the opening match of the 1996 Olympic soccer tournament between the USA and Argentina in terms of total attendance. The Old Grey Lady loved her some soccer.