Move over football, here comes futbol!
The transformation has taken place at Lucas Oil Stadium; the artificial turf that supports the action of every Colts home game is packed up and the field is now laid with a lush layer of sod — 120 yards from goal to goal and 70 yards across.
For Hoosiers infected with the gripping condition known in the U.S. as "soccer mania," Thursday's match between Chelsea and F.C. Internazionale Milano marks a pinnacle for the sport in Indiana — the internationally televised match will be the highest-profile soccer game ever played in the state.
The event will also offer Indiana a taste of the sport's diverse and passionate fan base.
Take, for instance, Indy Eleven President Peter Wilt. A professional ambassador for the sport, Wilt's diplomatic tenor changes when asked if he — as part of the team charged with local promotions for the game — is allowed to play favorites.
"Oh, yeah. I hate Chelsea! I'm a Fulham supporter," Wilt said. "They're one of our geographic rivals (in the English Premiere League), so I'm supporting Inter in this match. Not that I love Inter, but being a Fulham supporter, I can't support Chelsea. What is it? My enemy's enemy is my friend."
Still, as much as it pains him to say it, Wilt admits that Mark Schwarzer — a goalkeeper, who, at 40 years old, just transferred from Fulham to Chelsea — is the one player on the tour whom he would most like to meet.
Wilt's vocal derision of Chelsea will probably be drowned out by an army of "Blue" supporters due to descend Downtown this week. The team has the largest stateside supporters' club of any of the European teams. At chelseainamerica.com, they have mapped out the distance from the club's two official hotels, not to the stadium, but to Claddagh Irish Pub, which, the post assures, "has owners and management with Chelsea FC connections."
@IndyBlues, Indy's official Chelsea's supporter's club, made the week's plans clear in a Monday night post: "We'll be partying from lunchtime Wednesday until we fall over Thursday post-match."
Inter may not have the fan base of Chelsea, but they do have NBA star Steve Nash's support.
Nash, who has an ownership stake MLS franchise Vancouver Whitecaps, joined Inter for a pre-game workout training session in Newark on Tuesday. In an exchange posted on Inter's website, he said that by arranging the club's off-season "friendly" matches into a tournament format, Guinness has taken the exhibition game concept to another level. "There's stakes involved," Nash said.
As a pre-season game, there is more on the line than a trophy — this is the time when players are jockeying for positions, aiming to prove they deserve regular season playing time.
"These are among the best practitioners of their art in the world," Wilt said. "To see players of this caliber that can do amazing things with soccer ball, but also make runs and plays that they themselves can only dream of, will be really enjoyable to those who are close to the ball — that live the game."
One Inter fan summed up his reasoning for purchasing tickets in a recent posting at NUVO.net.
"These are some great teams that, unless you live in Europe, you would have to pay in the thousands to go and watch (round-trip airfare is anywhere between $600 to $2000)," InterInKS wrote. "The teams É will be trying out different players and strategies, especially Inter with all the injuries they had last season and the new coach. We would be lucky to see Cassano and Palacio play, but I bought tickets anyways to show support for my team and support the rising interest in soccer here in the US."
Rodrigo Sebasti n Palacio, a star striker for Argentina's national team, is on the roster for the match. However, striker Antonio Parma left Inter earlier this month after a dispute with Coach Walter Mazzarri.
Coach JosŽ Mourinho's return to Chelsea also adds an additional element of drama to Thursday's match. Originally hired to coach the club in 2004, Mourinho left in 2007 after butting heads with the team's board of directors. He went to on to coach Inter before moving on to Real Madrid. Chelsea re-hired him in June on a four-year contract estimated to be worth $61 million.
So, one of his first games back at Chelsea will be against a team he used to coach.
Mourinho has a winning percentage of 67 in his professional career compared to Mazzarri's 41.12 percent.
Between 40,000 and 50,000 spectators are expected to attend the game — and tickets are still available, ranging from around $30-$250. To sell out the game, sales would need to hit 60,000. Visit IndyEleven.com or LivingSocial.com for ticket information.