The COVID-19 pandemic might be waning, but it’s not completely gone, with more than 127,000 infections and nearly 450 deaths having been recorded daily across the US in the last week.
And judging by the crowd that packed the Rose Bowl on a picture-postcard Saturday evening to watch Real Madrid play Juventus in a meaningless summer friendly, American soccer fans have apparently grown tired of waiting for the virus to go away.
Real Madrid, the reigning European champion, won 2-0 but that wasn’t the most important statistic. The big number was 93,702, the number of tickets distributed for the game, the most for a soccer match in the US since July 2018 when 101,254 packed Michigan Stadium to watch Liverpool beat Manchester United in the International Champions Cup.
The ICC, an annual series of summer friendlies featuring as many as 18 of the world’s top clubs, organized by veteran promoter Charlie Stillitano and the Relevant Sports Group, was scrapped in 2020 because of COVID-19. The idea was revived this summer by sports and entertainment presenter AEG in the form of the Soccer Champions Tour, a series of five exhibitions in four cities that concluded with Saturday’s match.
The reception the brief tour received — the average attendance for the five games topped 56,000 — proved US fans missed the giant European clubs during their three-year absence.
“We wouldn’t have done it unless we thought it was going to be successful,” said Tom Braun, senior vice president of soccer, business operations and business development for AEG, which didn’t announce the tournament until six weeks before it kicked off. off. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand. You have the UEFA Champions League winners in Madrid. You have a perennial champion in Juventus. We didn’t see it as risky.
“We saw it as these teams haven’t been here for a lot of years because of COVID.”
Stillitano, who was among the crowd at Saturday’s game, agreed. But he also saw a deeper meaning in the attendance figures.
“You attribute some of that to a pent-up demand, no question,” he said. “[These teams] haven’t been around for a couple of years.”
However, he added “this is just another indicator that soccer has made it. This has become a soccer nation. It makes me happy to see that there are 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl. We started something a long time ago and you see the fruits of your labor.”
In addition to Real Madrid and Juventus, the Champions Tour featured Spanish giant Barcelona and Mexican teams América and Chivas playing in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Dallas, as well as Pasadena.
Other prominent European clubs, including Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton, visited the US as well this month, with the Manchester City-Bayern Munich match drawing 78,128 to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., earlier this month.
That was the largest attendance for a soccer match in the US in more than three years — until it was eclipsed by Saturday’s Rose Bowl crowd, the largest for a sporting event of any kind in Southern California since the 2017 Rose Bowl game.
“We have a very educated fan base that wants to see the best players in the world,” said Stillitano, who is involved in litigation with his former partners at Relevent. “We’ve all grown up with the game now.”
Ari Mahller, a small-business owner from San Diego, is part of that educated fan base. He brought his two sons, ages 6 and 8, to Pasadena for the weekend so they could see Real Madrid, the La Liga and Champions League winner, and its star striker Karim Benzema in person.
“Any day could be the last opportunity to see these great players,” he said. “Benzema’s never coming back to the US again. The opportunities for us are special.”
The Mahlers did not dismiss the COVID threat, masking up despite being in an open-air stadium, a precaution few others took.
“We’re getting back to normal,” Mahller said. “For me to take my kids to the Rose Bowl, where I saw my first Galaxy game in 1996, is just something to kind of pass the tradition on. As much as I’d love to take them to Madrid, they’re young for that.”
Mel Miranda, the assistant athletic director at Cal State Dominguez Hills, brought his wife and two children to the game for much the same reason.
“We’ve only been to Galaxy games and wanted to see a La Liga [team] in person,” said Miranda, who bought his tickets two weeks ago, after his family recovered from COVID, and wound up in the first row behind the south goal.
As for the game, it was sluggish and lackluster for long stretches despite both teams starting most of their first-choice players, the exceptions being Juventus midfielders Weston McKennie and Paul Pogba.
McKennie, a US national team standout, did not play in any of Juventus’ three tour games as the team entertains transfer offers. Pogba hasn’t played since injuring a knee in the first half of Juventus’ first game against Chivas and will probably miss the start of the Serie A season next month.
That left it to Benzema, the French international so many of the fans came to see, to put Real Madrid ahead to stay in the 19th minute, driving a right-footed penalty shot between the outstretched arms of Juventus keeper Mattia Perin and the left post . The penalty was awarded when Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior was tripped by Juventus defender Danilo on a zig-zagging run into the box.
Marco Asensio doubled the margin in the 69th minute, five minutes after coming off the bench, redirecting a nifty pass from Jesús Vallejo.
Watching the crowd file into the stadium from a suite high above the western sideline, Braun accepted pregame congratulations for a successful debut tournament. But he was already thinking about a bigger, better tour next year.
“We’re in conversations,” he said. “We’re going to quickly pivot our attention to 2023. We have to deliver a product that the fans want to see, and the teams want to play in.”
Judging from Saturday’s crowd, he more than delivered on that this year.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.