When I was a sports editor some 20 years ago, my decision to increase the coverage of soccer drew considerable scorn from traditional, red-blooded American sports fans. But there was an undeniable surge of f°tbol fandom in the Santa Barbara community, and it has only gotten stronger since then.
UCSB’s Harder Stadium, built for the erstwhile Gaucho football team in the 1960s, has become a major venue for soccer, which plays well in mid-sized stadiums (see the Home Depot Center in Carson). There was a well-attended appearance by the U.S.A. women’s team in 1991 shortly before it departed for China and won the first Women’s World Cup. There was an exhibition match between the U.S.A. men and Romania during the buildup to the 1994 World Cup that drew a crowd of almost 12,000.
The 21st century has seen the emergence of the Gauchos as a collegiate soccer power under Tim Vom Steeg. They reached the NCAA championship game in 2004 and won the national title in 2006. In the two seasons since then, UCSB has led the nation in average home attendance, pulling in more than 3,400 fans per game. It has put in a bid to host the College Cup in 2010.
The most devoted fans of all were the estimated 8,000 who poured into Harder Stadium last Sunday to witness the friendly game between the Mexican professional f°tbol teams Club America and Atletico Morelia. They created a festive atmosphere reminiscent of the recent World Baseball Classic final between Japan and Korea in Los Angeles-a capacity crowd that cheered passionately throughout the evening and, unlike many Dodger fans, stuck around after the seventh inning.
Five busloads of Club America supporters came to Santa Barbara from L.A. and Orange counties. They arrived early, unfurled their banners and giant yellow ribbons, and started drumming, tooting horns, dancing, and chanting an hour before the teams took the field. They kept up the racket for almost an hour after the match ended, unfazed by Morelia’s 1-0 victory over their guilas (Eagles). “Win or lose, we’re still America, the greatest champions of Mexico,” said Roger Zetina, a physician’s assistant from Eagle Rock. He sometimes flies to Mexico City to watch the club’s home games.
“I’ve got to hand it to the America fans,” said Marisol Cruz, a banker from Santa Maria. She was a supporter of Morelia, the hometown of her parents. Rudy Ybarra was counting on the loyalty of Mexican immigrants when he arranged Sunday’s match. It was the third time Ybarra’s company, Santa Barbara Soccer Entertainment, brought teams from Mexico to play in Harder Stadium to much fanfare.
Another S.B. soccer pastime is watching televised matches from Europe. It reaches the madness stage this month: eight teams, four of them from England, remain in the Champions League, a tournament matching the continent’s top clubs in a knock-out competition spread over most of the year. The quarterfinals will be played April 7-8 and 14-15 (visiting and host teams trade places the second week). Among the contenders are defending champion Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Barcelona, which won the title in 2006.
Ybarra visited England last month and attended five soccer matches, including Manchester United’s 2-0 victory over Inter Milan in the Champions League. Supporters of both clubs packed the subway en route to the Old Trafford stadium, Ybarra said, and instead of taunting each other, the Italians and Brits took turns singing their songs. The crackdown on hooligans must be working. “I never experienced any vulgar behavior by the fans,” Ybarra said.
Chelsea, AC Milan, and Inter are coming across the Atlantic this summer for a series of exhibition games that will test Club America’s drawing power. The Mexican team will face Inter at Stanford Stadium (July 19), AC Milan at the Georgia Dome (July 22), and Chelsea at the new Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas (July 26). Chelsea and Inter will square off in the Rose Bowl on July 21.
GAMES OF THE WEEK: UCSB hosts Pacific in a three-game baseball series (2pm on Fri.; 1pm on Sat. and Sun.) at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, the campus diamond. : Pepperdine brings a No. 2 national ranking in men’s volleyball into a 7 p.m. Saturday match against the Gauchos at Robertson Gym.
SIGNING OF THE WEEK: The Santa Barbara Breakers, which open their third semipro basketball season at SBCC on April 25, have added former Santa Barbara High and Westmont College star Santiago Aguirre to their roster.