SBJ/June 2-8, 2014/In Depth

Meet the soccer fans and find out what got them hooked

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Melissa Briski
Fairfield, Ohio


Melissa Briski was up late watching the U.S. men’s national team last Tuesday night, but she was still up and
willing to chat the next morning about how she became the in-deep, live-tweeting fan with the handle: UnderYourBootSolesFC.

“A friend took me to a soccer bar — like, a legit soccer bar, where they don’t even serve food,” said Briski, a 32-year-old nurse who lives about 30 minutes north of Cincinnati. “You’re crammed in, wall-to-wall, with people. You’re yelling, laughing, crying and hugging total strangers. It really took me by surprise. I’d never been that excited at a sporting event before.”

Briski dove headlong into the 2006 World Cup, her interest expanding beyond the U.S. team. When it ended, she wanted more. She continued to soak up information, reading stories online and embracing an EPL club, Liverpool, largely because she favored two of its midfielders, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso.

World Cups have come and gone, but Briski’s interest has remained, and even grown. “I’m not sure I’d have even done any of this if not for social media,” she said. “I have friends all over the country. We watch the matches together on Twitter. I love to go watch at a soccer bar, but I can only do that so much.

“Soccer is in a sweet spot right now. The people into it are extremely passionate, and there is this community out there. You may find something like it at a mosque or a temple or a church, but that’s about it.”

— Bill King



Matt French
Charlotte


Matt French caught our eye about six weeks ago, when the following showed up beside his handle on a
Charlottesoccer bar’s Twitter feed:

“So what are the chances my wife will agree to Mother’s Day brunch at @HooligansClt for the last day of the EPL? @LFCUSA #YNWA”

Alas, they weren’t very good. Still, French said he appreciates wife Mandy’s tolerance of a habit that emerged four years ago, when he was drafted to run the office World Cup pool. He watched every match, and hasn’t stopped since.

Thanks to NBC Sports’ streaming coverage, French watches almost all the matches of the EPL club he adopted, Liverpool, tuning in on TV or watching on the iPad. He has taught his two soccer-playing daughters, Molly, 8, and Anna, 6, the names of all 20 clubs in the league. French also follows a couple of Bundesliga clubs and will watch anything from any of the top European leagues or cup competitions. And, of course, he tracks the U.S. team closely.

French’s Twitter feed is about 80 percent soccer and 20 percent politics.

“They say that there’s no zealot like a convert and that’s absolutely true in this case,” said French, who works in public affairs at a law firm. “While there might not be a lot of people following it like you are in the office, there’s no shortage of people out there on Twitter. You really are part of a closed society. When I get the chance to go watch a game at Hooligans, being surrounded by people who appreciate the game and understand the tactics, it’s almost as good as being there.”

— Bill King



Fernando Proano
Vancouver, Wash.


When we caught up with Fernando Proano last week, he was in a hotel room in San Francisco, to which he traveled
for the U.S. men’s national team’s friendly against Azerbaijan.

“It’s almost a religion when you’re into it as deeply as I am,” said Proano, a 61-year-old physician from Vancouver, Wash., who is a member of the American Outlaws supporter group in Portland. “I got the soccer bug early in life and never lost it. And today, really, you can follow everything like never before.”

Proano’s parents were from Ecuador. He was born the year after they migrated to Vancouver. Though soccer was not popular in the U.S. or Canada, his father, Augosto, remained immersed in it, starting a youth team. When Portland was working to land an NASL franchise, Augosto Proano invested in it.

Years later, Fernando Proano is struck by the momentum building around soccer in the U.S., not only for the national team and the MLS matches that he regularly attends but for international competitions, such as the Copa Libertadores, which features clubs from Central and South America.

“The supporters, we’re sort of like soccer evangelists, getting people interested,” said Proano, who frequents the cleverly named 4-4-2 soccer bar when in Portland. “With the watch parties we do for the World Cup, we’re going to introduce the casual fan to the game. Soccer is a social event. Watching a match together like that is a different experience. A certain percentage of those people will become real fans. You can follow the game from around the world every day now. You couldn’t do that when we had the Timbers in the NASL.”

— Bill King



Patrick Staley
El Paso, Texas (via Chicago)


Patrick Staley played soccer in high school. But when you ask him what made him the fan that he is today —
Staley (right) walks with his brother after watching Liverpool at a pub in Chicago.
yched to be off to São Paolo later this month to catch a few World Cup matches — he points to connections he made in his dorm room in college and then on weekend mornings watching Liverpool at a soccer bar about a mile from Wrigley Field.

It was at Ball State that Staley began playing EA Sports’ popular FIFA game, which broadened his familiarity with the world’s premier players and clubs. And it was soon after that, while working as a teacher in Chicago, that he joined his brother to watch a Liverpool match over breakfast at the Globe Pub, and found himself falling deeply for the club whose supporters are known for their spirited renditions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

“It’s bizarre the way you can form this kind of connection,” Staley said. “I’ve never been to Liverpool. But it’s kind of like falling in love. You have this connection to a team that you really can’t explain.”

Last year, Staley, 30, moved to El Paso to work as a consultant with an educational software company. Though none of the bars that aired soccer opened early enough for EPL games, the one that hosts the local U.S. national team supporters club said it would open for him if he could bring a group of 10 Liverpool supporters. Staley created an El Paso Liverpool group on Twitter, but fell just short of the 10 he needed.

“We just didn’t have enough time,” Staley said. “But we’re hoping to build off that and have our own little mini Globe in El Paso for next season.”

— Bill King

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