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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Good move to enhance Al Lang Stadium for soccer

We are once again into that quadrennial ritual in which Americans pretend to like the sport of soccer as much as the rest of the planet. I’m talking of course about the World Cup.

Sports bars were at or above capacity for Monday’s match between the United States and Ghana. The TV shot of people at Ferg’s Sports Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg looked larger than some of the crowds I’ve seen at Rays games at The Trop down the street, but that’s a subject for another column.

So every four years I make a serious effort to like what is considered the most popular sport in the world. I tried again this year, but I still can’t get into soccer. Call me whatever you want, but the football I still like is the one with an egg-shaped ball.

I will admit that soccer players are great athletes. It’s a grueling sport that takes a lifetime of practice and talent to excel. I’ve also observed that up to a certain age boys and girls can play it on equal footing. And you have to stay in great condition to do all that running and cutting.

Still, I can’t get into it as a spectator sport. From what I observed Monday, and from snippets I’ve seen of other games, nothing really happens outside of penalty kicks and corner kicks. The rules of the game only encourage this.

If you brush up against a player in the “box,” that results in a penalty kick, which is essentially a free goal. Then there’s the offside rule, which seems to always be called when a player has a clear shot on the goal. Although I would never say this to any soccer player face-to-face (I might get head-butted), the constant diving, whining and crying in an attempt to draw fouls gets tiresome.

And for all the talk about how “global” soccer is, Europe and South America are the only continents to produce World Cup winners since the first tournament in 1930.

All of this hasn’t stopped St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and the City Council from enhancing the soccer experience in the city currently played by the Tampa Bay Rowdies. They’ve agreed to spend $250,000 to make venerable Al Lang Stadium, where the team plays, more soccer friendly. Regardless of my feelings about the sport, I think it’s a good move.

As I have written in this space, I pine for the days when a place like Al Lang was more than suitable for minor league baseball, or even a Class A team. I’ve come to the conclusion, however, those days are long gone and that the old ballpark will have to reinvent itself to play a meaningful role as the city plans future development on the waterfront.

The Rowdies’ owner, Bill Edwards, wants new turf and a new scoreboard for starters. Additionally, the Florida Legislature passed a bill last session that would give sales tax rebates to sports entities hoping to build new stadiums or upgrade current facilities. The World Cup may give the sport enough of a bump to make the investment in Al Lang pay off for everyone involved.

Even with stadium improvements, I probably won’t be showing up there unless I miraculously become a convert in the next week or so. That’s not meant to disparage those who do find soccer enjoyable. It’s just that the football I like most is still the one that’s kicked on kickoffs, field goals and punts.

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