“We are going to Brazil! We are going! We are going! We are going to Brazil!”
Chanting and singing songs is a commonplace occurrence at soccer stadiums all over the world. From London’s famed Wembley Arena to Rio de Janeiro’s legendary Maracana Stadium, fan singing is a way to support their team and to celebrate their achievements.
A less likely place to hear a large crowd of people chanting soccer songs is in the taproom of Good People Brewing Company in Birmingham, Alabama on a Tuesday night. And yet there they were, singing their lungs out, high-fiving and hugging strangers as the United States clenched a berth to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with a 2-0 victory over archrival Mexico.
The group assembled at Good People is the Birmingham chapter of the American Outlaws (AO), a national fan group dedicated to supporting the United States national soccer team. The organization was founded in 2007 by a group of fans in Lincoln, Nebraska, and now boasts more than 6,500 dues-paying members. In order to become an official chapter of American Outlaws, a city has to have 25 dues-paying members and a permanent place to have public “watch parties” for games.
David Van Landingham, Ballard Jones and Derek Johnson, the founders of the Birmingham chapter, crossed fan paths on social media.
A little more than a year ago, Jones sent a tweet from his personal Twitter account, saying that he wished there was an AO chapter in Birmingham. A friend in Nashville had seen a tweet that someone else was trying to start a chapter in Birmingham and put the two in touch. Van Landingham had already started the Twitter account @ao_bham in hopes of organizing local fans. Johnson was the next person to get in touch, and the three started watching games together and making plans to bring people together.
They kept hammering away on social media with Twitter and then started a Facebook page, all the while watching games together in public.
“Three quickly turned into six and then into nine and so on. Social media really helped move things along for us,” said Van Landingham.
The group bounced around a bit in the beginning for its watch parties due to the peculiarities of international soccer programming on TV. A game in Europe might kick off before a business opens, or a match in Central or South America might be on well after an establishment closes. The sport’s global nature made it difficult to find a public facility that would commit to being the Outlaws’ permanent Birmingham home.
Good People Brewing Company eventually answered the call.
The five-year-old local brewery supports various nonprofit and community endeavors, so the commitment to the American Outlaws made sense.
“Good People has been great about this,” Van Landingham said. “They didn’t have beIN Sport [a pay sports channel with the rights to many US games played in Central America and the Caribbean] when we came up here; they didn’t have an HD projector, but they made it all happen. They saw this perfect partnership because we bring in people.”
Jones echoed those sentiments. “Good People has been great. [Some of their staff] are AO members. They lent us space when no one else would. They’ve let us hang our signs up. They went [50/50] on T-shirt costs with us; they’ve opened during non-business hours if a game is on,” he said.
With the stability of a permanent home, AO membership has flourished in a short amount of time. Treasurer Derek Johnson says the group’s official local membership sits at 71. That number nearly triples what’s needed for official chapter status, something the group only obtained on May 28. That’s just the official membership. Many more non-dues paying soccer fans show up to enjoy the games (and cold beers).
“I haven’t been to but one or two watch parties here where there hasn’t been upwards of a hundred people. We had nearly 200 out for the Costa Rica game the other night,” said Jones.
Birmingham was a frequent host to US Soccer starting with the 1996 Olympics. Those games were so well attended that both the men’s and women’s national teams made repeated trips to town for games.
The height of Birmingham’s success as a soccer city was hosting a World Cup qualifying match against Guatemala in 2005. The large Wednesday night crowd made it look like Birmingham would be a regular destination for the national team, but that all came crashing to a halt shortly after that game against Guatemala when artificial turf was installed at Legion Field. From then on, the burgeoning Birmingham soccer scene entered a wilderness period in many ways, as games that would’ve been played in Birmingham migrated north to Nashville.
“A lot of people in Birmingham watched soccer at home by themselves and probably had no idea there were other people like them. This has helped people get together,” said Jones.
American Outlaws membership includes travel discounts on certain airlines and hotels that the national organization sets up for particular games, as well as discounted or waived processing and handling fees on tickets. The group throws in a T-shirt, encouraging members to wear it to games so the American Outlaws can personify their motto: “Unite and Strengthen.”
The Birmingham AO chapter sees their existence as positive for local soccer fans and the city as a whole.
“If you can do something positive in your city, even something kind of superficial like this, it brings people down here. It helps areas like [the area near Good People] redevelop,” said Van Landingham.
For more information on the American Outlaws, visit theamericanoutlaws.com.