Alabama is the heart of football country. With the state boasting four out of the last five college football national championships, an unrivaled fervor possesses Alabama from September through at least November. But there appears to be a new fever sweeping over the Deep South.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Jonathan Vaziri said over the boisterous crowd at Iron City during Thursday’s World Cup match between Germany and the United States. Vaziri was one of the hundreds of people who packed the music venue for the game.
“I remember four years ago, when I was working at a sports bar, there wasn’t this kind of turnout at all. It’s just crazy to see now,” Vaziri said.
The rowdy afternoon crowd consisted of people wrapped in American flags, a few dressed as Uncle Sam and even men in suits with ties around their heads — 9-to-5 rebels who cut out of the office early to watch the game.
“I think people just want something to cheer for that’s not Alabama or Auburn. It’s something that we can all be pulling for together,” Vaziri said, the crowd still chanting and hollering behind him.
John Killian, founder of the Birmingham Hammers, a grassroots organization whose goal is to bring professional soccer to Birmingham, suggests that there is a correlation between the rise of soccer in Birmingham and the city’s recent urban resurgence.
“What Birmingham has, in my estimation, no other city has. Not only is there a fantastic industrial heritage, but there is also folk culture. And it’s a city that for so many years was isolated culturally. Not just the city, or the state, but the South as a whole. In a lot of ways, it is its own country, culturally. The South has kind of owned that identity, but I think that is changing,” Killian said.
As for why there has been such an interest in this year’s World Cup, Killian thinks it’s because America loves an underdog and that this year’s United States Men’s National Team captures the essence of what it means to be an American.
“These guys are easy to get behind. They come from all different backgrounds, from all over the world. They embody the American spirit of people with diverse backgrounds uniting for a cause and working hard to get there. They’ve made it easier to be a soccer fan than ever before,” Killian said.
Cory Bolton, who was attending the World Cup watch-party at Iron City, offered the opinion that “Birmingham is a counterculture city, and soccer, at least around here, is a counterculture sport. Hipsters love soccer.” The crowd at Iron City lent some credence to Bolton’s assertions.
Killian, a Birmingham native, said that he recently overheard someone describe Birmingham as a West Coast city located in the Heart of Dixie. “I heard someone refer to [it as] the Portland of the South, and I think a lot of people do aspire to give Birmingham that image. There’s a lot of DIY culture, a lot of upstarts,” Killian said.
But, he added, “If we aspire to be like the next Portland, I think that would be aiming a little low.”
Killian strongly believes that Birmingham is the prime location for a professional soccer team and that a blossoming downtown district could support a franchise.
“When we first started out, we aimed kind of low as far as leagues. We thought maybe we wouldn’t have enough interest to pack out a Major League Soccer game. But the watch-parties we’ve hosted have been some of the biggest in the country,” Killian said.
His organization, the Birmingham Hammers, were co-sponsors of the event at Iron City. Another soccer organization, the American Outlaws, hosted the crowded watch-parties at Good People.
“They had people lined up around the block at Good People,” Killian said. “If we were able to bring all these crowds together, I imagine it would have been thousands of people.”
Killian admits that several years ago, he didn’t believe that Birmingham could support a big soccer franchise. “But now, there is a fervor like never before,” he added.
At Iron City, the packed room was buzzing with excitement, occasionally erupting with cheers or jeers.
When all was said and done, Germany won the match 1-0. As one patron observed, “It’s strange to see a room full of football fans applauding for a loss, or even a tie, for that matter.”
Therein lies one of the big differences between soccer and American football — watching a game that can end in a tie. It may seem strange in this football-oriented community to see an auditorium full of people able to stomach a loss with grace, but that was on display at Iron City last Thursday.
“I think with Birmingham, we’re a huge sports town in general,” Brian Fikes said. Fikes was one of the fans in attendance at Iron city, clad in a sleeveless American flag shirt. “Any time something big in sports is going on, Birmingham is going to be involved,” Fikes said, adding that he grew up playing soccer.
“I actually have a German neighbor, and me and another neighbor decorated his yard last night with American flags, so when he got up to go work at Mercedes this morning, he was surrounded by the red, white and blue,” Fikes said.
Antics like this are not uncommon in Alabama, where “Roll Tide” and “War Eagle” rivalries run deep, but having this kind of enthusiasm to surround a soccer match seems to be a relatively new development in the South. Which raises the question: Should a huge sports town like Birmingham have its own professional soccer team? Killian certainly thinks so.
“I think we’re 10 years away from a Birmingham we’ve never seen before,” Killian said. “Bringing a team to Birmingham is going to take a lot of hard work. It may not even be the perfect team that we want. It certainly won’t be like a Manchester United or a Real Madrid, but it will be our team that we can support.”
Killian thinks that the development that Birmingham has seen lately will be a huge factor when it comes to attracting MLS teams. “We need to be Birmingham — a generally working class [town] that is growing sustainably, not on the whim of some tech boom, but growing industries that can be around for 15 years when industrial needs change. These factors will help the city to keep growing until it becomes what we already know it is: the best city in the country.”