A billboard above the Southfield Freeway, one of the main arteries in the Detroit area, is more than just an advertisement for this Friday’s match between legendary Italian side AC Milan and Greek champions Panathinaikos, a.k.a. the Match of the Titans.
It’s a sign of progress—something the Motor City needs these days.
About a mile up the road from the billboard is George’s Soccer Supply. It’s a mom-and-pop soccer store that was the only one of its kind in the Detroit area two or three decades ago. Young soccer players from around the city would spend hours in George’s, poring over the colorful jerseys—Gullit's Holland orange, Platini's French blue, Socrates' Brazilian yellow—and ogling the glistening black-and-white adidas Copa Mundials on the wall.
Back then, top-level soccer was nonexistent in Detroit. The local indoor team, the Detroit Rockers, had a few good players, Andy Chapman and Sean Bowers, but, well, it was indoor. And there was a decent little team across the border in Canada called the Windsor Wheels.
But the youth ranks teemed with talent: US World Cup veterans Alexi Lalas and Brian Maisonneuve, former MLSers Mike Clark, Kerry Zavagnin, and Jeff Cassar (and me), and other pros like Mali Walton, Tim Hardy, and Mike Gentile. And we all remembered when the Detroit Express had ruled the day, drawing thousands of fans to the Silverdome to watch the brilliant Trevor Francis and Alan Brazil. They had provided plenty of inspiration for all the kids in the crowd in orange Express shirts.
Detroit has not been similarly inspired ever since. Until, possibly, now.
There is a movement afoot to bring an MLS team to Motown. The new owners of the Silverdome have an ambition plan for converting the former home of the Detroit Lions into a soccer-friendly venue, and they have met with the league about the possibility of a future expansion team.
But before MLS comes to town, they need to show there is the appetite for top-level soccer in Detroit again. That process begins with Friday’s “Match of the Titans.”
Milan are, of course, titans of world football, winners of countless trophies, including seven European titles and 17 Serie A championships. The roster is laden with superstars like Alexandre Pato, Andrea Pirlo, and US international Oguchi Onyewu.
Panathinaikos are, shall we say, less titanic. However, they are the current Greek champions. They will be in the UEFA Champions League this season, and they beat current Champions League winners Inter Milan on Tuesday night in a friendly in Toronto. (Plus, they are the club this author has supported since childhood.)
They have made several big acquisitions in recent years, including Brazilian World Cup star Gilberto Silva and French internationals Djibril Cisse and Sidney Govou. Plus, they have Greek living legend Giorgios Karagounis, the hard-nosed creative force behind the most successful decade in Greece’s history.
Panathinaikos may not be titans like Milan are, but they’re trying. Just like Detroit is.