The COVID-19 pandemic, while easing, is not completely gone as the US has seen more than 127,000 infections and nearly 450 deaths every day for the past week.
And judging by the crowds who wrapped up the Rose Bowl on a postcard on Saturday night to watch Real Madrid take on Juventus in a meaningless summer friendly, American football fans are apparently tired of waiting for the virus to go away.
Real Madrid, the reigning European champions, 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 game 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 up to 18 of the world’s top clubs organized by veteran promoter Charlie Stillitano and Relevant Sports Group, has been suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19. The idea was revived this summer by sports and entertainment promoter AEG in the form of the Soccer Champions Tour, a series of five exhibitions in four cities that culminated with Saturday’s game.
The popularity of the short tour – the average attendance for the five games exceeded 56,000 – proved that US fans missed the big European clubs during their three-year absence.
“We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think it would be successful,” said Tom Braun, senior vice president of football, operations and business development at AEG, which only announced the tournament six weeks in advance. “There is a lot of catching up to do. They have the UEFA Champions League winners in Madrid. You have a permanent champion in Juventus. We didn’t see it as risky.
“We saw it because those teams haven’t been here in many years because of COVID.”
Stillitano, who was in the crowd at Saturday’s game, agreed. But he also saw a deeper meaning in the attendance numbers.
“They attribute some of this to pent-up demand, no question,” he said. “[These teams] I haven’t been there for a few years.”
However, he added: “This is just another indicator that football has made it. This has become a soccer nation. It makes me happy to see 90,000 people in the Rose Bowl. We started something a long time ago and you are seeing the fruits of your labor.”
In addition to Real Madrid and Juventus, the Champions Tour featured Spanish giants Barcelona and Mexican teams América and Chivas in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Dallas, and Pasadena.
Other prominent European clubs including Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton also visited the US this month, with the match between Manchester City and Bayern Munich earlier this month drawing 78,128 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
That was the largest attendance for a soccer game in the United States in more than three years — until it was eclipsed Saturday by the Rose Bowl crowd, the largest for any 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 embroiled in a legal battle 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 one of that educated fanbase. He brought his two sons, aged 6 and 8, to Pasadena for the weekend so they could see La Liga and Champions League winners Real Madrid and their star striker Karim Benzema in person.
“Every day could be the last chance to see these great players,” he said. “Benzema is never coming back to the United States. The chances for us are special.”
The Mahllers did not dismiss the COVID threat and, despite being in an open-air stadium, masked themselves, a precaution few others had taken.
“We’re getting back to normal,” said Mahller. “Taking my kids to the Rose Bowl, where I saw my first Galaxy game in 1996, is just something to pass on the tradition. As much as I would love to take them to Madrid, they are young.”
Cal State Dominguez Hills assistant athletic director Mel Miranda brought his wife and two children to the game for the same reason.
“We’ve only been to Galaxy games so far and wanted to see La Liga [team] personally,” said Miranda, who bought his tickets two weeks ago after his family recovered from COVID, and ended up in the front row behind the south gate.
The game was sluggish and lackluster for long stretches, although both teams had most of their regulars in the starting XI save for 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 has been entertaining transfer offers. Pogba has not played since suffering a knee injury in the first half of Juventus’ first game against Chivas and is likely to miss the start of the Serie A season next month.
It was up to Benzema, the France international seen by so many fans, to put Real Madrid ahead in the 19th minute by firing a right-footed penalty between the outstretched arms of Juventus keeper Mattia Perin and the left post . The penalty was awarded when Madrid’s Vinícius Júnior was brought down by Juventus defender Danilo while zigzagging into the box.
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Marco Asensio doubled the lead in the 69th minute, five minutes after coming on as a substitute, deflecting a skillful pass from Jesús Vallejo.
From a suite high above the west touchline, Braun watched the crowd pour into the stadium and accepted pregame congratulations on a successful debut tournament. But he was already thinking of a bigger, better tour next year.
“We’re in talks,” he said. “We will quickly turn our attention to 2023. We have to deliver a product that fans want to see and teams want to play.”
Judging by the crowd on Saturday, he more than accomplished that this year.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/story/2022-07-30/real-madrid-juventus-crowd-93000-fans-covid-rose-bowl Real Madrid vs. Juventus provides satisfaction for 93,702 fans