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Culture of competition: Following soccer not easy for area fans

POSTED: August 2, 2009 12:11 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Gainesville State College student Martin Bennett keeps up to date on the Audi Cup reports on his laptop inside the school's student center Friday afternoon. Fortunately for soccer fans like Bennett, he can read plenty about his favorite sport online even if news isn't available from American media outlets.

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As if being a soccer fan in the United States weren’t hard enough, being one in Northeast Georgia is even harder.

While other parts of the world see soccer as the hub for all things entertainment, the sport hasn’t had the same effect in nearby areas, overshadowed by the large success of other, more native sports.

As a result, Northeast Georgia residents that declare themselves true soccer fans don’t get many chances to delve into the sport, aside from the occassional game on national sports networks, or news stories on the internet. Live games in the area rarely stray far from the youth clubs and high school teams.

""Not a lot of people have access to soccer," said Martin Bennett, a soccer fan from Mount Airy. "So it’s hard to find other people who like it."

Bennett, who is a strong supporter of the American and German national teams and Munich-based club team Bayern Munchen, is an example of a local fan who picked up the sport simply by seeing it on television. He began watching World Cup matches in 2006, and has been attached to the sport ever since.

Bennett believes that lack of media exposure the game receives hinders the sport’s growth in Northeast Georgia. Because the fan base is dwarfed football, baseball and basketball in the area, games other than the World Cup are rarely aired on television.

This exposure gap leaves fans like Bennett left to find streaming broadcasts online, or miss the game completely and read results in news releases from other parts of the world. He uses the internet to get his daily soccer news, but rarely from American publications. His sources are typically based overseas, such as the The London Times, Yahoo.com’s British site, ESPN’s Soccernet and The Manchester Guardian.

"It’s almost impossible to find anything here," Bennett said.

But like many local soccer fans, Bennett hasn’t given up hope of finding more soccer fans in Northeast Georgia. With more foreign-born residents playing in area schools and clubs, along with the recent success of the U.S. national team, soccer may have potential to reach out to more fans in the area.

Some local high schools may have already done so. This year, the West Hall High boys team and the North Hall girls team each played in the Class AAA state finals, further proving the existence of a soccer following in Hall County.

"At a lot of these high schools, soccer is very popular," Bennett said. "A lot of people have stepped up."

The recent success of the U.S. at the international level has also saved local fans the trouble of going on an online scavenger hunt to find international games.

In June, the U.S. men’s national team upset Spain, one of the world’s top teams, 2-0 in the Confederation Cup semifinals. In the finals, they held a 2-0 lead over Brazil, another powerhouse, before a late rally ended the Cinderella story.

The Confederations Cup was nationally televised by ESPN, giving local fans like Bennett a chance to finally see the U.S. national team, typically belittled by European forces, play along the world’s best.

"America has stepped up its game," Bennett said.

Many of those U.S. national team’s players are members of Major League Soccer teams, meaning that the U.S. can still boast that some of the best soccer players in the world were from, and still playing on, American soil.

"The MLS is a faster-paced, low-possession game," Bennett said. "It still has a few years to go, but it’s just going to keep getting bigger and better."

As the game’s prominence continues to grow, more fans are likely turn out for big matches in U.S. cities. As a result, many European clubs have turned to playing international "friendly" games, or exhibitions, in football stadiums, attracting thousands of fans. On July 22, a match between Italian club AC Milan and Mexican club American at the Georgia Dome attracted more than 50,000 fans.

"To see more prominent clubs come here is kind of big," Bennett. "It’s indicative of what could be come of soccer here. The MLS is adopting that model."

But until soccer gets the attention in Northeast Georgia that it sees elsewhere, local fans will continue to search hard to find the sources they need to enjoy the sport at a national, and international level.

Bennett, however, believes the foundations for a local fan base are beginning to take shape.

"Most other countries, soccer dominates other sports," Bennett said. "Lots of people played it as kids, but don’t stick with it. If more people keep playing, there will be more fans around here."



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