LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

This Friday, a big crowd is expected for Bosnia’s World Cup warm-up fixture with Ivory Coast. The match takes place in St Louis, not only home to Bosnia’s largest expat community, but also America’s first soccer capital. Local expert Dave Lange tells the story of the game in St Louis, provider of half the US side that beat England at the last World Cup in Brazil, in 1950.

 

Bosnia will enjoy home-field advantage when they play Ivory Coast in a World Cup warm-up on May 30.

No, the match will not be staged in Zenica. The game will be in St Louis. That’s St Louis, Missouri, USA.

If you’re scratching your head, there are two reasons for this match taking place in St Louis.

First, the Gateway to the West is home to about 70,000 Bosnians, the largest concentration outside of Bosnia itself. Most settled here in the 1990s.

Secondly, St Louis was the football capital of the USA for most of the 20th century. For decades, this was the only American city to develop generation after generation of international-calibre talent. Today, St Louis is represented by Brad Davis, a midfielder in USA’s World Cup squad, and Becky Sauerbrunn, a centre back in the US women’s national team, currently ranked world No.1.

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St Louis can also lay claim to Vedad Ibisevic, whose goal qualified Bosnia for their first-ever World Cup, and who lived in St Louis as a teen and played high-school and college soccer here.

Bosnia’s imprint on soccer in St Louis is the latest in a line of immigrant groups reaching back to the 1870s that nurtured the sport.

The game was introduced by the British, who numbered more than 36,000 in St Louis by 1890. It’s a familiar story. But here, the sport flourished. The expat Catholic clergy had incorporated soccer as a major activity in the city’s numerous Catholic schools starting in the 1880s. In the 130 years since, many a St Louis boy has grown up playing primarily two sports: baseball in spring and summer, soccer in autumn and winter. Organised soccer for girls began here in the late 1960s.

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A look around the St Louis Soccer Hall of Fame – yes, the city has had its own dedicated museum since 1971 – reveals the impact of this youth programme throughout the annals of US soccer. The grandest achievement came in 1950, when five players from St Louis were in the starting 11 that famously defeated England 1-0 in Belo Horizonte.

St Louis teams have won 89 national championships, and 39 members of the national US Soccer Hall of Fame are from St Louis or spent parts of their careers here. Every US team to enter the World Cup team, save one, has had at least one player with a St Louis connection.

St Louis has also led the way when it comes to top foreign teams visiting. Liverpool first played here in 1946 and it was 50 years ago this month that the recently crowned champions of England, Ian St John, Ian Callaghan, Tommy Smith and all, had to scramble to rescue a late draw against a local all-star team. More recent showcase friendlies have attracted large crowds in St Louis: 48,000 for Manchester City against Chelsea in 2013, and a state record 54,000 for Real Madrid against Internazionale that same summer.

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Many US cities have since caught up with St Louis, largely by copying its youth football programme. Nevertheless, soccer still thrives here. About 50,000 local kids play the game, and a professional club for St Louis was recently unveiled, to start in the third flight 2015. Under MLS guidelines, all clubs in America’s top league are required to affiliate with, or own outright, a team in the USL PRO League, or third division, where St Louis will be playing.

Still without a name or an affiliate club – Chicago Fire are the favourites – St Louis offer hope that a pro team will open a path to the MLS at some point in the future. Serious investment would be required to build a soccer-specific stadium for such a team.

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As for attendances, the three international friendlies played in St Louis in 2013 attracted a combined crowd of 130,000. This included a healthy (if shivering) 30,000 for Bosnia-Herzegovina against Argentina last November, a mostly Bosnian crowd on a frigid, windy Monday night.

Another bumper gate can be expected this Friday.

Dave Lange is author of ‘Soccer Made in St Louis’, a history of the game in America’s first soccer capital. More details can be found on his website, soccermadeinstlouis.com.