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AC Milan, Liverpool bring soccer traditions to Charlotte

Kevin Sephton will shake out his Liverpool FC jersey Saturday and head to Bank of America stadium ready to belt out the club’s anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone”

“When they come out and the crowd starts singing, you get goose pimples all over you,” said Sephton, a Charlotte United youth soccer club coach. “It gets you emotionally involved in the game.”

And Sephton won’t walk alone to the 6:30 p.m. match that pits Liverpool against AC Milan. More than 66,000 tickets have been sold to the game in uptown Charlotte.

As European soccer makes its debut in Charlotte, fans like Sephton have a chance to wear their team’s colors again. For others, including AC Milan fan Steven Land, it will offer the first opportunity to see the teams in person.

Land, 40, grew up reading translated Italian newspapers to get the scores of AC Milan matches. His mother, who was born in a small town outside of Milan, asked relatives to mail newspapers to the family in Charlotte because no U.S. television stations routinely aired European matches.

In the last couple of years, Land has had no problem finding soccer matches.

Charlotte’s match follows a World Cup that claimed record-high ratings for ESPN. Fox has started showing European champions League matches and English Premier League’s U.S. viewership increases yearly.

This match pits two of Europe’s most formidable teams. There is some rivalry between Liverpool and Milan. Liverpool upset Milan in penalty shootout in the 2005 UEFA Champions League final, a game that became known as the “Miracle of Istanbul.” Two years later, Milan snagged a 2-1 win against Liverpool in the same tournament final.

On Friday night, fans milled around uptown Charlotte, populating the bars and talking soccer.

A fan from Charleston, John Lotterhos, 35, remembered the 2005 “Miracle of Istanbul,” which included a huge comeback.

"Never give up in life," he said. "We're (Liverpool) going to beat them again."

The match is part of the International Champions Cup, an unofficial tournament. Friendlies featuring famous teams from Europe have become popular during the summer in the United States.

Saturday’s Real Madrid-Manchester United game in 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich., sold out within 30 minutes of going on sale in April.

Bank of America Stadium also hosted two games in soccer’s Gold Cup – a biennial tournament to determine the champion of FIFA’s CONCACAF group – in 2011, and a friendly between Mexico and Iceland in 2010.

Charlotte city tourism and sports boosters are confident they can land more as the sport’s popularity grows in the city.

Sephton said interest in youth soccer has increased in Charlotte since he arrived in the country 16 years ago, and always peaks right after the World Cup.

The game has attracted young people to Charlotte from all around the country. Beecher Lewis, 12, came up with his family from Tallahassee, Fla., to see Liverpool play.

“The best team, the best players,” he said.

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