BERKELEY, CA. - The flashing electronic bulletin board on College Avenue read “SOCCER EVENT.” Berkeley Police closed off main roads a mile out from California Memorial Stadium an hour before Real Madrid was to play Inter Milan in a fake soccer game as part of the International Champions Cup, a fake soccer tournament. The atmosphere in Berkeley was similar to Cal football gamedays; frat types postured and drank loudly, scalpers tried to glower their way into excess tickets, and stressed-out families struggled to keep their brood from vibrating apart. It could have been anywhere, but it was here. I went to SOCCER EVENT, to watch a Spanish team led by a Welsh star play a team from Italy led by an Argentine star, in a tournament sponsored by an Irish beer, at a stadium built with California state money, with a group of Mexico fans.
Top teams have been chartering transnational preseason tours for decades. In 1968, Pele’s team, Santos, traveled from Brazil to New York City to play Napoli in front of 43,000. It’s a famous game that foreshadowed structural changes to the way big club teams spend their offseasons. Back in the Maradona era, domestic league play lasted about six months and overlapped better with continental competitions, leaving players far more time off than they have in the modern August-May club season. If Manchester United make the ICC final on August 4, they will have less than two weeks before they start the EPL season. Accounting for the World Cup and associated international camps, most United players have about a month off total between seasons, not nearly enough time to prepare for the physical rigor of the Premier League.
Prominent managers are on the record complaining about the demands of excess travel and training, and clubs are explicit about their expansionary intentions. Tours are set up in conjunction with big companies with an eye towards making money for everyone involved, and more importantly, colonizing nascent soccer fans’ hearts and minds for their allegiances and future dollars. It’s like when the NBA visits England or Mexico. The logic of business supersedes everything. Owners risk injury and burnout by wringing their team for all they’ve got instead of letting them recover and prepare, but the possibility of new fans and revenue streams is more important than solidifying their team. The money from 62,582 seated butts doesn’t hurt either.
However, it’s not a unilateral fleecing. Increasing TV exposure and soccer interest in the U.S. means people are forming real connections with European teams. Chances to see your favorite team play don’t materialize often when you’re in Denver and they’re in Rome. Tickets are not priced outrageously to capitalize on the exclusivity of the games either, with most costing about the same on tour as they do at home stadiums. The matchups can be fascinating when MLS teams are involved and American clubs tend to try their best to tee off on their European opponents. Stoke City bought Geoff Cameron from the Houston Dynamo two years ago, and the two sides have played a friendly each summer since. Whether or not the games matter in any technical sense (they don’t) isn’t even relevant, because fans love it and sell out most games anyway. European touring teams pull back the curtain for fans abroad and get some coin in the process, but it’s more complicated than either fan service or sinister business operation.
Usually you can’t get beers at Memorial Stadium, but past the Chevrolet booth, next to the “More Than A Game. More Than A Beer” sign, you could enjoy a Guinness for a cool $14. If you filled out a survey, you could pick between red or blue Chevy sunglasses. The pair I got are already broken. Between regulation and penalties, Guinness brought out a couple fans, awarded them branded jerseys, and urged them to “Wear them with pride when you pursue excellence.” The same type of laughably ambitious corporate babble accompanying the giveaway was everywhere. $30 got you an ass cushion emblazoned with “EXPERIENCE GREATNESS.” The pervasiveness of brands and florid marketing language aren’t unique to soccer exhibition games, or any part of life really, but the absurdity shines when a loud business blitz accompanies an expensive SOCCER EVENT full of C-teamers that nobody wants to play in. The sports of it all were ancillary. Inter and Real felt like two more brands on center stage.
Real Madrid were comfortably the more popular of the two. Innumerable iterations of Real jerseys were on display, from mid-90's Teka sponsored kits to more than a few knockoff James ones. I saw the “Galacticos,” a group of Korean students who won last year’s intramural championships in full custom Real kits, which they wore to the game. Everyone loves a winner, and Real just won the Champions League, finished signing two of the biggest standouts of the World Cup, and are populated with global superstars at every position. No club has been as successful or gaudy as Real has. It makes sense that their brand would be popular in the Bay Area, but Real jerseys were almost outnumbered by the bulk sum of other, nonaffiliated jerseys. There was a healthy crop of USA tops as expected, but I saw Guatemala, Ethiopia, New York Cosmos, Universidad de Guadalajara, Borussia Dortmund, Santos, and more represented. A diverse crowd obviously has varied rooting interests, but wearing a Bayern Munich or Liverpool jersey to a Real—Inter game is all about fashion. Endorsing or signalling awareness of some team that’s not there isn’t anything besides a personal branding mechanism, a way to project awareness of soccer culture. It isn’t about the teams on the field, but rather, it’s a way to feign at some nebulously articulated global sporting lifestyle bottled and sold by Big Clubs. This boutique fandom is the vein that clubs are trying to tap on their tours.
The Inter and Real squads on the field knew exactly how irrelevant the game was and they Kabuki theatered their way to a 1-1 draw. Only three of Real’s starters are likely to play significant roles in their club campaign. Inter fielded only a slightly more competitive lineup, and they were rewarded with a win on penalties. Nemanja Vidic and Dodo, both new to Inter, each intermittently seem up for the game, and Gareth Bale hit a rocket into the top corner early on, but the game, as most of these games tend to be, was bland. Defenders jogged, crosses sailed overhead, supporting fullbacks lagged, but it didn’t really matter. People didn’t go to watch soccer. People went to watch Real Madrid and Inter Milan, or more accurately, the idea of them.
Promotional materials for the game starred Ronaldo, advertising the game as a chance to see him play. He didn’t play, because when you’re one of the biggest superstars in the sport, normal soccer bylaws warp to your gravity. While most other starters followed suit, Gareth Bale joined the squad and started alongside young players and fringe squad members. They all warmed up on my side of the field and I couldn’t help but think of Bale’s transfer fee as I watched him pass and move. His preferred starting position is the same as Ronaldo, and despite some high profile goals, he struggled at times to fit into the team dynamic last season. The redundancy of his employ coupled with the planet-sized transfer fee Madrid paid Tottenham both served to objectify him. Bale only seemed real for the first time when he was right in front of me. I’d read his name thousands of times and had watched him play plenty, but I thought about him as him as more parable than person. This shorthand way of looking at teams quickly lends itself to extrapolation. For teams in Real’s income bracket, granularities like identity and history are streamlined away in favor of modularity. Huge clubs are in a nonstop arms race with each other for talent, money to buy and scout talent talent, and fans to give them money. Touring and participating in SOCCER EVENT is a way to grow the brand, simulate the Big Club experience, and cash some checks. Guinness went out of its way to remind us attendees that we were “Experiencing Greatness,” but the game was a cheap facsimile of narrowly-branded greatness.
You can’t blame the players. The ICC is a bridge too far. What soccer reasons does Yuto Nagatomo have to show his ass in Berkeley, California? He just played in a World Cup on another continent, a continent that’s neither the one he’s from nor the one where he’s employed. Guinness’s fake tournament isn’t something that will “revolutionize the international soccer landscape.” Everyone wants a piece, but these global sports brands are made up of people, not machine parts. Madrid, Inter, and the rest of their cohort are trying to defy some basic logics and function increasingly like businesses. They are businesses, and they have to make money to sustain themselves. But there are limits, and the ICC’s hubris sure feels like the border of a limit. Players, even stars, aren’t inexhaustible resources.
For all that was wrong with SOCCER EVENT—the slur that everyone yelled during goal kicks, Guinness’ lofty copywriting, the family of three where each person wore a different EPL jersey—it was damn fun. Bale’s golazo was the best I’ve seen in person, even if it was the product of the Inter defense gifting him a Midwest state-sized space to dribble through. Dodo paired his great mononame with a tendency to squabble with any white shirt near him. Pepe was consistently funny, waving his hand to call for the ball almost the whole time Madrid had possession. In the second half, a kid ran onto the field to raucous applause from a stadium fuller than any Cal game I’ve been to. It wasn’t top class soccer, but that was OK. There is a sinister aspect that’s important to consider, and the trajectory of teams behaving more and more like corporations is scary, but we’ll always have that Bale goal.
Patrick Redford lives and writes in Oakland, Calif. Bug him on Twitter: @patrickredford.
Photo credit: Getty