Cover Story: Charlotte hosts Gold Cup

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The world's most popular sport comes back to Charlotte.

International soccer. This week at Bank of America Stadium.  Two huge matches and 65,000-plus screaming fans.

We're looking at how the city prepares for a crowd that big and that raucous.

The Gold Cup is coming to Bank of America Stadium Thursday night.

First at 7:00 pm, Costa Rica versus El Salvador.  Then the big one. The one the fans come to see. Mexico versus Cuba at 9:00 o'clock.

The Gold Cup is the championship of FIFA's North America, Central America, and Caribbean region. It's a big deal.

Remember, last year's exhibition between Mexico and Iceland went off without a problem.

But the recent chaos and violence Uptown has sparked concern.

In the hours after Speed Street two people were shot, one person was killed.  Seventy people were arrested.

The police department Monday night released a video of the pandemonium.  Police said there were about 35,000 kids out that night. That's a little over half the number of people that will file out of the stadium after the soccer matches.

Is the city ready for the soccer crowd?

A city official told us that the organizers of this event are top-notch and they don't expect anything like what we saw last week.  That said, police are ready.

And so is the city - for international soccer.

It blew organizers away - the turnout and the excitement 15 months ago when Charlotte hosted - for the first time - the Mexican national soccer team and the national team from Iceland.

That was what they called a "friendly match" for the World Cup, a game that didn't count.

Thursday night's doubleheader here at B of A Stadium does count.  It is huge.  It's a moment fans want to capture in time.

"It makes me feel excited. I never been to a game in my life.. this is going to be my first time," said soccer fan Jorge Martinez.

What makes this so important the four teams facing off are four of 12 vying for the Gold Cup.

The winner of the Gold Cup earns an automatic berth to the 2013 Confederations Cup, which is an important tune up to the granddaddy of them all the 2014 World Cup.

At Best Buy Soccer, a sports store that caters to a Latin-American crowd inside Plaza Fiesta off Carowinds Boulevard, fans have been coming in since January looking for tickets to the games.

This store got its allotment of 500 tickets just three weeks ago and they've nearly sold out.

"It's a very passionate game and especially the Mexican team.  We really like our national team. It's really nice that they can come here and we can support the players," said Karina Loaiza, who works at the store.

Mexico is the defending champion of the Gold Cup.

Its star player is a young man known as"Chicharito," Javier Hernandez, a player many people are anxious to see in person.

Officially 63,227 showed up at the "friendly" game Mexico played in last year against Iceland, an event that was as much a show outside the stadium as inside.

"I thought Mexico was going to win cause they were playing better than Iceland.. they did got. It was a 0-0 game.. I remember but it was exciting because everybody was having fun that day," said Jorge Martinez.

And for Charlotte it means millions of dollars for the economy and another feather in its cap.

Charlotte Regional Sports Commission's Jeff Beaver says, "It's another great example of the feel good quality of sports around here. Something that people never would have been able to do years ago.. they never would have been able to do this and now they can."

They're looking for a sell-out crowd.

Last year, the Mexican national team drew fans from across the southeast.

Organizers have put together a street festival.  They'll close down Mint Street next to the Stadium three hours before the first game starts.  The street party runs from 4:00-9:00 Thursday night.

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