Soccer mania scores big time as pros put on a show
By Lucas Mann
It looked like the mob scene outside of a European Cup soccer game. Three drunken men in German national team jerseys were waving a flag on the street and singing. A supporter of the Chelsea club team, from London, was climbing a 20-foot-high fence and mugging for the cameras. Mobs of children, pushing to get in, were screaming that they were sure they had caught a sight of international soccer star Thierry Henry. The only difference was that this game was a charity event held, not in the enormous Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna, but on the FieldTurf artificial grass of Sara Roosevelt Park on Chrystie St.
The “Showdown in Chinatown” Celebrity Soccer Match hosted by pro basketball superstar and soccer devotee Steve Nash and U.S. soccer legend Claudio Reyna not only raised money for each man’s charity, but also assembled one of the strangest, most high-profile collections of athletes one is likely ever to see close up. Early-bird fans got to squeeze into Roosevelt Park, standing just feet away from N.B.A. players Jason Kidd, Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and the show-stealing Baron Davis, who claimed to have not played soccer since the seventh grade, but, while wearing a baseball cap and glasses, somehow headed home a goal while laughing.
The fans at the June 25 event were also treated to the tricks of world-class soccer stars, like Henry, Chelsea’s Solomon Kalou, Liverpool’s Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler, and the New York Red Bulls’ own Josie Altidore. The New York fans were very aware that these were literally “soccer gods” and expressed their awe all evening long.
“What I believe within, I engrave within my skin,” said Gabriel Luber, a Queens native who had rushed to the park to get a spot on the field right next to the goal. He held out his forearm and displayed a tattoo of a cannon, the logo for London’s Arsenal soccer club.
“Henry was our captain, and I watched him leave for Barcelona,” Luber said. “It was a trying experience. Now, to see him in the flesh is amazing. For great soccer players to come to New York like this is a real treat.”
Luber and his friend Choagie regularly watch international soccer at Nevada Smith’s bar in the East Village and said that they’ve seen the game grow exponentially in popularity in America during their decade as fans. Sitting next to Luber, behind the goal, were three of the youngest soccer aficionados in attendance. Armed with pens and posters to be signed, these children, no older than 6 or 7, knew all of the stars. As they left the field, one small girl pointed to a red mark on her forehead and said with a big smile, “Thierry Henry’s goal hit me in the face!”
The pro athletes, basketball and soccer alike, came away from the game with the same attitude as their bruised little admirer.
“This couldn’t be any better,” said Altidore. “To play here is a dream. We should do stuff like this every year. It would make soccer more popular.”
Nash, who has played many times on Pier 40, also focused on the New York setting as a key to the energy generated by the event.
“I just love this city,” he said. “I live here in the off-season.”
His Phoenix Suns teammate Bell looked around at the masses of screaming New Yorkers and said, with an awed smile, “I have never experienced anything like this. This is a good time.”
The “Showdown” was organized by The Promotion Factory, a marketing company whose president, Venanzio Ciampa, plays pickup soccer with Nash, sometimes at Sara Roosevelt Park.
“The idea for the event came from Steve and Simone Sandri, an Italian journalist,” Ciampa explained. “They asked me if we could put this together. We wanted a cool spot. Chinatown is very urban it’s diverse, it’s interesting. It shows the melting pot aspect of New York that Steve and I love.”
Ciampa also played in the “Showdown” and was very pleased with the atmosphere.
“You saw it,” he said. “Three or four thousand people screaming. It was great. It raised the profile for soccer and for two very valuable charities.”
After the soccer game, an invitation-only party with a live auction was held at the Replay jeans store, at 109 Prince St., in Soho. Ciampa said that he did not have the exact total of the money raised yet, but that they were happy with the outcome and that the auction brought in “at least several thousands of dollars.”
“And now we are discussing putting some of the money into helping restore soccer fields here in the city,” Ciampa added happily. “If you’re a soccer guy, that’s a big deal to have a nice field to play on.”
Ken Podziba, commissioner of the New York City Sports Commission, was at the event, as well.
“I thought it was magical,” he said. “It showed the passion that New Yorkers have for soccer. With that small venue, it really lent itself to a certain amount of intimacy, and it was the fans that made it so special. I think some of the people came out more to see the N.B.A. players, but they left bigger soccer fans.”
Podziba didn’t know whether another “Showdown” was in Chinatown’s future, but he sounded rather open to the idea.
“This is certainly something that I’d like to see again,” he said. “This is exactly the kind of event we should be bringing to New York City.”