Our City is a weekly column devoted to a cultural look at Orlando City and Major League Soccer.
Tomorrow will mark one year since the Pulse nightclub tragedy. If you live in Orlando, if you love Orlando, you have felt that date looming since the calendar flipped to June. A steady stream of remembrances, memorials, and harrowing first-hand accounts have been filtering through our televisions, social media streams, and conversations. I highly encourage you to mark this anniversary as you see fit, but to also seek out and listen to the voices of the LGBTQ and Latino communities that were targeted by this darkest of moments in our city’s history.
I would like to take a moment to remember another event that happened during that week in June last year. The week after the Pulse shooting was a difficult one for the entire city of Orlando. We felt anger, sadness, disbelief, and hope. We gave blood, attended vigils, and watched news reports on endless repeat. We went on with lives, not sure how to handle ourselves but more thankful of the smiles of friends, coworkers, and strangers.
As life does go on after terror attacks, Orlando City decided to keep its June 18 appointment with the San Jose Earthquakes. The club took a muted and respectful tone in the lead-up to the game, while also acknowledging the emotional scar the tragedy had inflicted on the city. Rainbow balloons would mark 49 seats in the stadium, a precursor to a permanent memorial in the new Orlando City Stadium. The game itself would be stopped at the 49th minute mark, something unheard of in Major League Soccer games, and a truly unique gesture. In the run-up to the game, it was an idea started by a fan that helped make the game feel a bit different. Through a Facebook post that was shared and spread across the Orlando City support networks, it was suggested that fans leave their purple jerseys in the closet for this one game, but instead to wear the colors of the rainbow according to where they would be seated.
For this game, I’d agreed to take my mom to the game. Normally I’d have sat along the top row with friends, but for this one I sat in the front row handicapped seating section. This gave me a unique view of this very special game. The Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm were in the stadium early and in force, the multinational flags and banners replaced by rainbow pride flags. Banners along the touchline were full of civic pride and strength. Overall, 37,194 fans showed up on a rainy night in Orlando. The teams entered the field to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” while wearing purple Orlando United shirts.
At halftime, the club chose to honor first responders, the club’s owners, and the Orlando Gay Men’s Chorus. The first responders were obviously buoyed by the support. After a night and a week none of us could imagine, these police officers, EMS, doctors, surgeons, and nurses got a resounding applause. For jobs that can often go unsung, this was a chance for the community to show a moment of gratitude. I was struck as a number of the chorus members walked near my seat and off the field. There was an older gentleman whose emotions I can still picture. I remember everything about him, but for his privacy I won’t describe him. His face and his tears held the feelings of support from a community that had not always been so welcoming.
The game itself went along the same script followed by our Lions for the 2016 season, hopeful moments sprinkled onto a frustrating game. It was defender Seb Hines who headed home the first goal on a corner kick from Adrian Winter in the 66th minute. As the game inched towards conclusion, San Jose’s Chad Barrett took advantage of a lobbed pass to tie the score at 1-1 in the 85th minute. Barrett’s goal celebration, a hostile stomp seemed thoroughly thoughtless and out of place for a game that had until then sought to be a celebration of sport and community. Brazilian striker Julio Baptista looked like he would be playing the hero for the Orlando faithful, as he slotted away a Carlos Rivas cross and ran to celebrate shirtless with the supporters in the 91st minute. San Jose would not play along with the Orlando narrative, as Shea Salinas scored in the 94th minute to equalize.
In post-game interviews, Orlando players spoke of their disappointment in not getting a win for the community. While the final score line was disappointing, the game itself felt successful in its attempts at a moment of healing and catharsis.
While the Pulse nightclub attack was a direct assault on the LGTBQ and Latino communities in Orlando, it was also an attack on our city as a whole. These two groups fit into the cosmopolitan fabric of people who call Orlando home. The multitude and diversity of cultures and people who call Orlando home are part of why our soccer club has been so successful here.
Soccer games don’t really matter much in the grand scheme of things. When you think about 49 people losing their lives prematurely as they were enjoying a night out, soccer games don’t mean a thing. When you think about how the pain of those lost lives reverberates through friends, families, and loved ones, soccer games don’t mean a thing.
Sometimes, when your city has just gone through significant tragedy, when you’ve spent a week trying to find the right words for your LGBTQ friends, when you’ve spent a week with more questions than answers, maybe a soccer game isn’t a bad way to come together. Maybe when you need to be reminded that there are so many more good people in your community than bad, maybe a soccer game is the most important thing. Maybe there was something of a reminder in that familiar chorus to that Beatles song, “All you need is love, love is all you need.”
Love of soccer, of our city, and of each other.