I started writing this article during the Olympic games in Rio, after Portugal won Euro 2016 and my national team lost the Copa America final in New York.
The Copa America, outside of Europe, is perhaps the second most important soccer event after the World Cup, and the fact that it was played on US soil for the first time to celebrate the centenary of the tournament made me think about how differently we experience these sports in California.
The first thing to note when you attend an event in the US, not just a sporting event, is how well they are planned. If it is not a high-demand event, it’s fairly easy to get tickets and parking permits online a few days before the event. You also receive an automatic reminder about the security policies, transportation options and other helpful information ahead of the event.
Arriving at the event is as organized as possible, as is checking in. Helicopters flying over the stadium and professional police and security forces on the ground make you feel that everything is, if not safe, at least under control.
A very clear characteristic of US sport events – one that I have never seen in South America or Europe – is the tailgate party, where people arrive hours early with picnics and barbecues so smoke and the perfume of grilled meat and beer welcome you to the event. It’s a great way to spend time with friends before the game starts.
Stadiums are, in general, modern and clean. In the Bay Area, I have visited the SAP Center in San Jose, the Earthquakes Stadium in Stanford and the Giants Stadium in San Francisco, which are all great, but the most impressive is Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. It is a state-of-the-art sporting venue: solar powered, hi-tech, and with great views. Clearly, a lot of thought went into making the whole experience as convenient (and profitable) as possible. You can even check on your phone which food vendor has the smallest line!
On the other hand, when I want to attend a soccer match of my beloved team River Plate in Buenos Aires, online tickets do not always work as expected, unless you have a VIP ticket, parking close to the stadium is impossible unless you pay a cash fee to informal valets that “reserve” parking spots for you.
At the game, the difference starts with how fans arrive at the stadiums. Everybody is singing the team songs and flapping their flags in an energetic and chaotic environment that makes your heart beat faster even before you are inside the stadium. Everybody is so excited. Often over excited, as recently, the fans of visiting teams were banned in an attempt to reduce the violence that often erupts on the streets and on the terraces at games.
Sports events are not just for high-income spectators, however, stadiums are divided into “platea”, the best and most expensive seats, and “popular”, usually the spaces behind the goals are cheaper, where fans watch the match jumping, cheering and singing. On the “plateas”, people also sing, cheer and shout but are most of the time they are sitting, so it feels more relaxed.
Probably the most important difference is that fans do not consider themselves as passive viewers, they are part of the team and they need to sing and cheer louder than the other team’s fans, leading their players to win the match on the field. They give their love to the team very proudly and in a committed way. You will see babies wearing the team kit, people with tattoos displaying the colors of the team and even the faces of the players, and flags that are made by the fans.
And the best thing (for the winner), is that the day that follows a match between two classic rivals, the city wake up full of posters with congratulations to the winner and subtle jokes about the loser. Of course, this helps to ignite the debate, discussion, and more jokes leading up to the next game.
The beautiful game
This whole experience is so amazing that one of the most successful packages that the tourism agencies sell to foreign visitors is a “fan experience” during a soccer match. It may not be your cup of tea but is hardly forgettable.
It is a little difficult to explain the intensity, but I recall an anecdote from a friend flying to Japan this year to watch River play against Barcelona for the International Club Final.
In the airplane, close to my friend sat a person who could hardly afford a trip from South America to Japan. During the flight my friend started talking to this guy and finally asked him how he made it for this trip. His answer: I sold my family’s car. Crazy and awesome at the same time.
To imagine how a soccer match in South America or Europe feels, think about that guy and multiply it by 50,000. Nonsensical, beautiful, a little polluted by marketing, extreme passion.