Birmingham remembers hosting soccer for the 1996 Olympics

Opening ceremony for the 1996 Olympics
Opening ceremony for soccer for the 1996 Olympics at Legion Field. Photo from Shawn Wright

25 years ago, one of the biggest events in history transpired in America: the Olympics. The 1996 Olympics showcased our southern hospitality. There are many remnants of this event everywhere in the south. Keep reading to see the role Birmingham played!

1996 was a year of many landmark events: Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls set a record for the most wins in a single season, Bill Clinton was elected for a second term, and the Olympics were held in Atlanta. Yes, it’s been 25 years since the Olympics were here. I wasn’t even born yet!

Although the Olympics were in Atlanta, Birmingham was able to take part in the party because it was one of the satellite locations for Olympic soccer.

A crowd of 83,183 fans packed Legion Field for the opening ceremonies and the first game featuring the USA v. Argentina. While I realize many fans attended just to be at the Olympics, at the time, this was the largest crowd east of the Mississippi River to attend a soccer game. The record would be broken by the Gold medal game a short time later, but we have to give the people of Birmingham credit. “The Football Capital of the South” took on a whole new meaning that day.

Shawn Wright

USA v. Argentina

Legion Field packed during 1996 Olympics
Legion Field during the 1996 Olympics. Photo from Shawn Wright

Legion Field was packed to the brim with fans excited to see the Olympics take place in their country. Exactly 25 years ago, USA played Argentina on opening day. Claudio Reyna scored the first goal in the game within the first minute for the US. The stands erupted with cheers. “USA! USA! USA!” could be heard for miles. Nothing like being the home team of an Olympic game.

“It was electric. The game started, and within a minute the US 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.

Gene Hallman, CEO of Bruno Event team and organizer of the Birmingham Olympic soccer venue

Unfortunately, the US did not celebrate for long. Gustavo Lopez scored for Argentina in the 26th minute. Hernán Crespo scored in the 55th minute and Diego Simeone scored in the 90th minute. The US lost 3-1.

If you follow soccer, you may know these names well. Hernán Crespo is currently a head coach in Brazil for São Paulo FC. Diego Simeone is head coach of one of my favorite teams, Atlético Madrid.

The impact on the city

Legion Field Birmingham
Legion Field

An event as big as the Olympics is sure to create a buzz around the city. Legion Field broke the record for audience attendance to a soccer game east of the Mississippi River. Everyone was excited to have the Olympics in the Magic City.

If you travel around Birmingham, there are remnants of the Olympics that can still be found throughout Birmingham.

“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.

Gene Hallman, CEO of Bruno Event Team and organizer of the Birmingham Olympic soccer venue

Do you remember Olympic soccer in Birmingham? Let us know on our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn!

Josh Pleasants
Josh Pleasants
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