Thousands of fervent fans will converge in Charlotte, North Carolina today for two games of the much anticipated CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer tournament, which gives national teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean an early chance to further their World Cup ambitions. Although Charlotte is not widely known as a Hispanic soccer hub and the city has never hosted such an important tournament, millions of viewers from across the hemisphere will tune in tonight as Costa Rica battles El Salvador, and Cuba takes on the Mexico’s national team.
Charlotte first attracted the attention of Gold Cup organizers in 2010 when nearly 65,000 fans packed Bank of America Stadium to watch an exhibition match between Mexico and Iceland. Although soccer has struggled to take hold in much of the United States, support for the sport in Charlotte has been buoyed by Latino immigrants. North Carolina is home to an estimated 410,000 Mexicans, and more than 50,000 Cubans, Costa Ricans and Salvadorans, according to the 2010 census.
Charlotte residents are optimistic that the Gold Cup will boost the local economy. According to the Charlotte Regional Visitor’s Authority, last year’s exhibition brought in $11.6 million, largely from tourists travelling from other states. For today’s games, local Spanish-language radio stations La Voz de Charlotte and La Raza have helped generate hype by giving away free tickets and jerseys and by taking countless calls from soccer enthusiasts.
Since the Gold Cup’s creation in 1991, Mexico has won the tournament five times and the United States, four. But history doesn’t temper the support of fans for underdogs like Costa Rica, El Salvador and Cuba, who have never won. This year’s champion will earn a place in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, a crucial stop on the long road to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2014.