55 Pitches And 4 Million Visitors
The National Sports Center in Blaine, Minnesota is the world’s biggest football complex. FIFA magazine paid it a visit.
Football in the USA has undergone tremendous growth in the last 20 years and that success is partly due to the facilities available. The state of Minnesota is known as the “Land of the 10,000 Lakes”, where you can swim in the summer and skate in the winter. Located in the Midwest, Minnesota stands out for its considerable investment in education, culture and recreation. With 79,000 boys and girls registered as youth players, football occupies an important place in every family.
Twenty minutes north of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul is Blaine, where hundreds of youngsters enjoy playing football in a complex covering an enormous area. A plaque from the Guinness Book of Records certifies that the National Sports Center (NSC), with its 55 football pitches, is the world’s biggest football complex. The premises of this amateur sports centre stretch for an impressive 2.5 square kilometres (more than 600 acres). It was inaugurated in 1990 and received four million visitors in 2007.
In January, when temperatures drop to minus 25° C, the pitches are covered with snow and only the goals are visible. However, football carries on unabated inside the NSC. After playing an indoor tournament on artificial turf, the youngsters wrap up warmly before leaving the hall. The NSC’s offices are located in the same building and it is there that the preparations for the new season, which begins in April, are made. NSC Chief Communications Officer Barclay Kruse is enthusiastic about the buzz of activity at the centre: “At the moment we have 46 pitches available due to the construction of the new buildings, but we will be adding another stretch of land on the north side, so the number will top 50 again.”
The winter is a good time for training. In the main hall at the Schwan Center, 100 referees are attending a seminar. Veterans and teenagers of both sexes listen to instructors Steve Olsen and Holly Hollingsworth with interest. FIFA’s videos contain footage of 50 incidents which genetate a passionate debate. Director of Instruction Dean Barton reminds everyone of the importance of being professional and trying to develop, as well as of being responsible, reasonable and respectful. The day ends with the participants taking their certification exams.
“We are proud of the Schwan’s USA Cup because it is more than a footballing experience, it is a complete programme of activities for young people. On each of those days 25,000 people visit us and they are all present at the opening ceremony, like at the Olympic Games.” More than 1,000 teams from 21 countries take part in this tournament, which is held in July. Two thousand fixtures are played over nine days, with games broadcast over the internet. The players are boys and girls aged between 9 and 19 who are put up by host families, board at the NSC or stay at one of 40 hotels in the area. There are also 500 referees, who find this unique occasion to exchange knowledge highly rewarding, and 1,000 volunteers to help with organisation.
During these competitions, all of the pitches are in use simultaneously. To make this possible, the number of NSC staff, which is usually 65, is doubled in the summer, principally for maintenance work. The NSC also hosts the NSC Cup and the Wal*Mart All American Cup, which includes an all-American girls’ competition. On top of that, the Minnesota state tournaments are played there, as well as the Liga Azteca, featuring teams of local Latin Americans.
Kruse explains the reason why the pitches are in use non-stop: “NSC was created through a contribution of USD 20.3 million from the state of Minnesota and is a non¬profit-making entity that must finance itself. It is therefore necessary to raise funds through the tournaments and contributions from sponsors. Last year, the NSC generated USD 11 million in revenue.”
The indoor competitions end in February such is the desire to be in the open air after the harsh winter. Natural turf pitches are then used from April to October.
Alan Merrick is a former West Bromwich Albion defender who moved to Minnesota in 1976 to play for the Minnesota Kicks in the North American Soccer League. He is now the director of the NSC academy, where individual and group skills are developed through camps, practical courses and personalised training, both at competitive and recreational level. These activities continue indoors throughout the winter.
Unlike in many other countries, where identification with a particular team or player inspires children to take up football, most people in the USA do not have these reference points. Nevertheless, the 1994 FIFA World Cup™ marked a turning point and the NSC received visits from guests who made a real impression on young players such as Pele, who has attended the USA Cup on two occasions. In 2004 George Weah was in attendance and last year Italian national team head coach Roberto Donadoni took part in sessions with coaches and players. Local stars Alexi Lalas and Landon Donovan have also visited Blaine.
During the big tournaments, high-profile matches are held in the stadium, such as games featuring the US women’s team, whose roll of honour includes an Olympic gold medal and the FIFA Women’s World Cup title, which are always a special occasion. The youngsters are unable to conceal their pride at seeing heroines such as Mia Hamm, Michele Akers, Julie Foudy, Briana Scurry and Brandi Chastain in the flesh. The same venue witnessed a 14-year-old Freddy Adu as he dazzled onlookers.
Other sports are also flourishing at the NSC. The initial project to build 30 pitches has now expanded to include a cycling track and the latest construction, the Schwan Super Rink, houses eight ice hockey rinks. The youth golf centre also attracts a considerable number of visitors. The latest project is Sports Town USA, a sports-oriented commercial development. Youngsters are a very attractive market for sponsors and from a very young age, thousands of them are bringing the incomparable values of football into their lives thanks to the vast number of pitches on which they are able to play.