Flashback: How Olympic Soccer in 1996 changed sports in Birmingham

After 24 years Legion Field is still proud of the Olympic Soccer matches. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

“Say it Ain’t So!” 

That was the screaming headline that appeared in the  Atlanta Journal Constitution  about a year before Birmingham was scheduled to host the 1996 Olympic soccer tournament, recalled Gene Hallman, CEO of the Bruno Event Team and organizer of the Birmingham Olympic soccer venue.

“The AJC article went on to say that Legion Field was Football Capital of the South – but it was the wrong kind of football and it was not going to work in Birmingham,” chuckled Hallman.

Remnants of the 1996 Olympic Soccer tournament. Soccer balls at the south entrance. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

A year later, Hallman and Birmingham proved all the skeptics from the ATL wrong.

How much so? 

  1. Four satellite cities hosted Olympic Soccer – Birmingham, Orlando, Washington and Miami. Birmingham sold more tickets than the other three sites combined.
  2. The first game of the tournament was played on July 20, 1996 in Birmingham between soccer powerhouse Argentina against the U.S. The crowd numbered – 83,810 – shattering all previous Legion Field attendance records.  Yes, more than any Iron Bowl.
Olympic Soccer in Birmingham poster. Photo courtesy of Shawn Wright

By the way, another fun fact.  Many say the first minute of the Argentina/U.S. game was the loudest crowd noise ever heard inside of Legion Field.  

“It was electric,” described Hallman. The game started, and within a minute the U.S scored. That was far and away the loudest cheer I ever heard in a stadium. It jarred me. The hairs on my arms stood up. It was shocking. We lost 3-1, but it was a much closer game.”

Here are the highlights from that historic day.

More Than a One Sport Town

Mural on the side of Boutwell Auditorium with soccer ball and Olympic Rings. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Hallman credits Olympic Soccer for putting Birmingham on the international sports map. We are no longer a one sport town.  

“These sports federations talk. Birmingham is a great event town,” said Hallman.

U.S Soccer became a big fan of the Magic City. Over the years they chose to play numerous international friendlies and even a World Cup qualifier at “Gray Lady.” 

Several times, they picked Birmingham over Nashville, Atlanta and Charlotte.  Birmingham’s attendance and atmosphere always exceeded expectations. In fact, in 2015, when the U.S. Women’s World Cup Victory Tour came to town, the city drew the 2nd largest crowd out of ten  games played, even though the match was against lowly Haiti, a last minute substitution for World Cup rival Australia.

Beyond soccer, in 2009,  the Davis Cup came to Birmingham drawing sell out crowds at the BJCC. We also have the annual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the Barber Motorsports Park and on tap the much anticipated 2022 World Games.

Legacy of the 1996 Olympic Soccer

Legion Soccer
Photo of the American Outlaws section at the U.S. vs Haiti Women’s friendly 2015 at Legion Field

But there is always a first, and for Hallman Olympic Soccer in Birmingham was special.

“It was the most special event I’ve ever worked on and I’ve worked  literally around the country in a wide variety of sports, even overseas. I always go back to that one as the most special.  It was the Centennial Olympic games. Birmingham did so well.” 

Do you remember the Olympic Soccer in Birmingham? Send us your stories at hello@bhamnow.com

  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.