New England Soccer Today

Menino Gave Soccer Proper Due

Photo credit: New England Revolution

Photo credit: New England Revolution

Yesterday, I wrote a story about the Revolution’s memorable come-from-behind victory over the Metrostars in the 2005 playoffs, a match I dubbed “the greatest Boston game of all time.” It was written in part to remember a great moment in the region’s sports lore, and also a reminder on how the local sports media at large often cast soccer to the side.

One day later, the people of Boston are wrestling with the loss of their beloved mayor of over 20 years, Thomas Menino, who died of cancer on Thursday. He was 71.

The former mayor was a champion for many just and noble causes, and also recognized the value that sports within the community. Though the success of Boston’s sports team were very much a side-show to a public service career spent expanding the city’s neighborhoods, infrastructure, health care, and social programs, he was a true believer in sports’ abilities to unite people.

He wasn’t one of the Bostonians that chastised or forgot about soccer.

Yes, his interactions with the sport weren’t as publicized as what he’d done for our local baseball, football, basketball, and hockey teams. And who’s to say whether there would’ve been a parade, duckboats and all, for the Revolution had they lifted the MLS Cup trophy just once out of the four tries afforded to them? We’ll never know.

But when it came time to allow soccer to have some of the spotlight, he didn’t trash it, nor feed into the anti-soccer rhetoric regurgitated by city’s old and crusty talk show hosts during World Cup years.

Menino, a first-generation Italian-American, was often spotted in Boston’s North End, the iconic neighborhood of Paul Revere, with its narrow, cobble stone streets and many eclectic Italian eateries. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Mayor not taking notice of Serie A games whenever he’d stop at Caffe dello Sport or Caffe Paradiso.

But for me, the best soccer-related memory I have of the mayor came during the 2006 World Cup. Ahead of the final, Italy-France, Menino announced that a giant, large-screen television would be set up at City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston so that the city could watch the game.

He announced this at a press conference with former Revolution midfielder and U.S. Men’s National Team captain Clint Dempsey at his side. He didn’t do it to win votes or push an agenda. Rather, it was an opportunity to bring a neighborhood together. The world’s game had the power to bring complete strangers together, and Menino understood and appreciated the value in that.

Italy won that World Cup, of course, defeating France in penalty kicks, much to the delight of many residents. The crowd that filled City Hall Plaza for the match’s viewing was featured many times throughout ESPN’s live broadcast. Each time the network cut the game feed and ran a live shot of the crowd in Boston, the people would go nuts and yell and scream and cheer.

It was a sort of punch back to all talking heads and tired voices who’ve dismissed soccer from the Boston sports scene over the years. You know who they are. Imagine—or think back, if you were there that afternoon — thousands of people donned in jerseys and face paint, competing in their Allez les Bleus and Forza Azzuri chants, with their eyes glued to the biggest soccer game of the year.

A soccer game. A soccer game being showcased in Boston, where people supposedly didn’t care for the sport.

The many that attended took photos with and got autographs from the entire Revolution team, which went straight to City Hall Plaza from Logan Airport after arriving from Chicago, where they played a league match the night before. It wasn’t a masterful political move worthy of a full-page op-ed in the New York Times, by any means. But it validated Menino’s belief that all sports, including  soccer, could be used to unite the masses.

Today, Mayor Menino isn’t remembered for his politics as much his record as being a man of the people. Many marvel that the man may have personally met half the City of Boston, if local lore holds true. Seeing the mayor regularly wasn’t rare for residents. City Hall may look like a fortress from the outside, but the mayor didn’t keep himself locked inside its confines. He liked to do things for the people.

On that early-summer day in 2006, with World Cup frenzy swelling, he gave priority to the people who called themselves soccer fans. I was in the crowd that day to see Italy win the World Cup, and I really did say thank you to Mayor Menino in my head for making that possible.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Mayor. Thank you for all that you did for the City you loved — both with and without a soccer ball.

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