I couldn’t miss the opportunity…On queuing up at the box office at the T G Waterhouse center in Orlando I noticed that on Tuesday Columbia were playing Mexico at the Citrus Bowl. A chance to see an international in one of the biggest stadiums in North America seemed too good an opportunity to miss…..So armed with this info I tried to find out more details. FIFA did not list any such game, the Citrus Bowl’s own website had no game, and the local media weren’t covering anything…..Being National Hispanic Heritage week I assumed that there was some mistake, but in the small print of page 17 of the Sports section of USA Today I saw that indeed a game was being played kicking off at 8pm… For anyone who has never been to the Citrus Bowl, let me explain its location. Downtown Orlando is actually 26 miles from Disneyland – not really a short hop in a taxi. Add the freeway gridlock at Rush hour and you are talking about an hour drive. The stadium is in a part of town that is not mentioned in any guide books for the simple reason that the local police do not want the hassle of rising crime figures that would result from tourists being in that area. To put it into movie terms, the nearest main road is Orange Blossom Trail which resembles scenes from Mean Streets or On The Waterfront. Anyway, I took the risk, locked the doors and with my Texas licence plates at least meaning I didn’t looked like a total tourist, put my foot down and parked up outside the stadium.
Lesson Number 1 – When going to sport in the US, NO ONE does “street parking”…Its parking lots or nothing.
On leaving the car, and paying the customary tip (why don’t they just pay people more and not get them to rely on tips) I walked up to the stadium. I was confused…Columbia play in Yellow and Blue, Mexico in Green and White but I was seeing a mass of Yellow and Red shirts, and a few Green and White ones – hardly international fayre…But crowds there were – especially at the ticket booths. It soon became apparent that this was not an “international” but a friendly between two club sides who didn’t actually have any games to play at home (imagine a game pitched as England v Spain and having Southend and Getafe turning up). To this day I couldn’t tell you who they were, and confusingly the Columbians paid in Green, and the Mexicans in Yellow. After negotiating a crowd of 99% Hispanic’s and buying my ticket, trying to explain what a Neutral area was, I entered the stadium.
Most US Stadiums are huge concrete monuments to their teams. Anyone who has been to Tampa and seen the Ray James Stadium where the Glaziers have spent millions on one of the biggest supported teams in the NFL will testify it is quite palatial for spectators. Likewise, the Giants Stadium in New Jersey (I will not be lulled into calling it New York Giants Stadium as the locals do – its in a different state to New York for christ sake!) is good for spectators. The Citrus Bowl hosted the classic games between Ireland and Mexico, and then Holland in June 1994 – just over 12 years ago…It actually looks as if the stadium hasn’t hosted a game since. Outside of the “bowl” there were little facilities, and where there was a refreshments stand, the queue was huge. Now in the US they love their Sport and they love their Food. Nobody was in the least bit worried about missing a bit of the game just as long as they had their Jumbo Texan Chili Dog. Five minutes went by and the queue didn’t move. Then ten minutes and then I simply gave up as it was kick off time.
Lesson Number 2 – In the US, a kick off time simply means the time that all players will be on the pitch, not when the game will actually start.
It was as if someone had sent a message to the referee to say “hang on a minute mate, Scottie hasn’t got his gallon of Dr Pepper and his Florida Corn Dog on a stick yet”….Eventually at 8.42pm the game started. Both teams went at each other at dogs possessed. The crowd were colourful and it took all of 90 seconds before the first firework was launched. Note I said firework – not flare. This was a fully fledged repeated bangs and bright lights in the air variety. The fireworks went off at regular intervals – I waited with anticipation to see who was going to hold up the Catherine Wheel but nobody seemed that keen. On the pitch the Columbian goalkeeper was doing a fantastic impression of a Floridian Manatee and both Mexican goals were his fault.
I noticed another things that was strange – thinking that the game was part of some new trial by FIFA to make the life of the Linesman easier there were vertical lines across the pitch at regular intervals – ideal for spotting those marginal decisions…However I then noticed these were simply lines left over from an American Football game the previous weekend and they had simply not bothered to paint them out as we do in this country (Marketing tip for Dulux/Crown – develop a paint that is actually made of grass extract and will therefor blend in better for use by clubs like Wycombe, Reading and Watford who share their grounds with Rugby Union teams instead of the strange off green they use now).
That was not the only strange thing – the whole end of the stadium was missing – it was as if a huge crane had come along in the night and removed the two tier structure, and replaced it with a puny scoreboard.
Couldn’t tell you who won it in the end. I got board and decided to go home.
Lesson number 3 – When you park in the parking lots at major events/theme parks in the US, make a note of your parking lot AND your car number plate. Sneaking out early to avoid the traffic then spending 40 minutes looking for your car is not the best use of time.
The Stadium – The Florida Citrus Bowl
1610 West Church Street, Orlando FL32805
Capacity: 65,438 All Seater
The Florida Citrus Bowl is the main stadium used by the University of Florida for their home matches in the American Football College league. The stadium was opened in 1936 with a 10,000 capacity, and has been expanded over the course of time – especially for the 1994 World Cup finals when it held over 70,000 spectators. The stadium is currently being redeveloped as part of a $1bn programme which will see the capacity raised again to over 70,000. The two side stands are triple tier with floodlights sitting atop. The seats are of the cheap bench variety. Behind the goal (one end is open) the stand is single tier. All three stands are open air.
How to get to the Citrus Bowl
The stadium sits around a mile or so west of Downtown Orlando – which is 20 miles north of the tourist area refered to as Kissimmee / Lake Buena Vista or Disney World Resort. The only real option is driving. You can exit the I-4 Interstate at junction 82A, B or C and just follow Church Street westwards, or you can take the East-West Expressway and exit at Lake Lorna. Parking is plentiful around the stadium and costs $8.