Crossing the rickety wooden overpass of the railroad, it seemed everyone around me was wearing something that held the regal purple of the Viola. Chants and horns were echoing along the narrow cobblestone streets near the stadium, and fans were waving their scarves or holding them taut over their head.
It was match day in Florence, Italy, and for the first time in recent memory Fiorentina was in the running for the Serie A scudetto, or league title. Ahead of me, a child rode atop his father's shoulders, wearing a No. 30 jersey with "TONI" across the top. Luca Toni was the new star striker for the team.
Tickets being sold near Piazza Republica on the Monday prior had sold out in 15 minutes. Buyers had begun lining up before dawn for the 10 a.m. ticket office opening. The match was an important one. On that overcast Sunday afternoon in early December 2005, Fiorentina would be taking the field against its hated rival and the current league leader, Juventus. There would be a wall of clear plastic encircling the field, almost like a lion's den at a zoo.
The atmosphere around the Stadio Artemio Franchi, Fiorentina's home stadium, was tense. The stadium itself was nothing much to look at, mostly a concrete bowl with seating. The growing crowd was energetic, but seemed at the same time apprehensive. The outcome of this game would dictate the mood of the upcoming week for many of those in attendance. Therein lies the secret to why soccer, or football, matters in Florence: a deep-rooted emotional attachment.
When the New York Red Bulls took to the pitch of its brand new European-style stadium in Harrison, N.J. this past Saturday evening, I felt that something was missing. The new digs were, in fact, stunning - a beautifully constructed, soccer-specific palace. The crowd seemed charged for the first game of the season. The setting was right for the Red Bull Arena's Major League Soccer christening.
Does a new stadium mean the beginning of a new era for soccer in this country? I believe not. A shiny new $200 million stadium is hardly the answer to the woes of a sport struggling to gain a foothold in the U.S. sports market.
At least one man seems to disagree. Jack Keane is a bartender and football fanatic at Nevada Smiths , the preeminent soccer bar in New York, or according to its mantra, "Where Football is Religion!" According to Keane, who's originally from Kerry in southern Ireland, the new Red Bull Arena is exactly what the team and MLS needs to right itself. Keane is a long-time supporter of the club, dating back to its MetroStars days, and is currently a season ticket holder.
"When the Red Bulls were playing away on an [NFL] stadium with those 10-yard lines, I wouldn't watch," Keane said. "Even if they flew me there on a jumbo jet, I wouldn't watch. Those lines were awful; those fields were sacrilegious."
Keane believes that a stadium of the team's own, in a site easily accessible by public transportation, means the beginning of a new soccer culture. "It's never been about the quality of the game," said Keane for why the crowds didn't come. Instead, he explained, it wasn't worth it for a soccer enthusiast to attend a game when the sport was treated as second-rate.
I agree with Keane, to a degree. Soccer-specific stadiums will help develop an identity and a home for a club. But the Los Angeles Galaxy built the Home Depot Center in Carson, California in 2003 and in the years since, the team doesn't come close to rivaling the popularity of the NBA or MLB teams in town. Even USC football is a bigger draw.
The popularity of soccer is going to take more than a new stadium. The MLS could ship over Old Trafford, the stadium belonging to the most popular club in Europe, Manchester United, and seats would still be empty. What the Red Bulls and the MLS needs is time. It needs to develop a history and an identity. Football, or soccer, in this country is still in its infantile stages.
When the Red Bulls' Joel Lindpere tucked a beautiful volley just beneath the cross bar in the 40th minute, cheers and chants erupted stadium-wide, and two red smoke flares were lit. A near sell-out crowd of 24,572 was on hand to see the 1-0 Red Bulls win. Last season, in Giants Stadium, which could hold over 80,000 spectators, the team averaged a franchise low 12,229. The team was a paltry 5-19-6 and the fans didn't care to come watch.
Fans of Fiorentina are invested in the team in a way that goes beyond the cost of tickets, memorabilia, or a new stadium. They see beyond the wins or losses. The players wear the fleur-de-lis on their jersey, a sign of the city. The New York Red Bulls wear a corporate logo, a sign of big business. Following its 1-0 loss to Juventus, Fiorentina fans left disheartened and angry, the way Boston Red Sox fans do when the team loses to the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. For a part of the sporting community in this country, the MLS simply hasn't yet tapped into the bloodline of its corresponding city. That can and should come with time.
The Red Bulls are only a game into the new season, so it's too early to tell whether the stadium was a worthy investment. Whether the team wins or loses is irrelevant; what matters is if anyone cares, like the fans of Fiorentina did following its loss to Juventus. An emotional investment from the fans is what will determine whether the financial one pays off.