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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Diverse group of thousands converges on MetLife Stadium

Supporters of Chile cheer for their team the

Supporters of Chile cheer for their team the start of the Copa America Centenario final between Argentina and Chile in East Rutherford, New Jersey, United States, on June 26, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / DON EMMERTDON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / DON EMMERT

There had not been a bigger men’s soccer match at the Meadowlands since 1994, when Italy beat Bulgaria in a World Cup semifinal at Giants Stadium, part of what was a hugely successful event in its time.

But that was a different era, when soccer’s most important event mostly was a novelty in these parts.

When the world — or at least this side of the Atlantic — reconvened Sunday night in what used to be Giants Stadium’s parking lot, it encountered a far more sophisticated soccer nation, hosting a world-class celebration of the sport.

The Copa America Centenario final at MetLife Stadium attracted many thousands of raucous Argentina fans and a smaller contingent of equally raucous Chile fans, who in the end got to celebrate a 4-2 victory on penalty kicks.

Also, and just as importantly, the crowd featured a diverse array of fans from the United States and dozens of other soccer-playing nations, mostly in a seemingly good-natured party atmosphere.

On a packed train from Secaucus, fans dressed in Argentina’s colors gently ribbed several in Chile’s. A fellow from Germany chatted with an American who was with his father, who made the trip for the game from Georgia.

Not THAT Georgia. The one that used to be in the Soviet Union.

Alas, the positive vibe before the game did not extend to the field. The match featured a contentious first half in which five yellow cards and two red cards were issued, multiple Chilean players sprawled on the turf and both teams screamed at referee Heber Lopes of Brazil.

Things settled down in the second half, and the extra periods featured good scoring chances for both sides before ending scoreless and forcing penalty kicks.

The decades-old debate over soccer’s attempts to capture American interest grew stale decades ago, but now it is less relevant than ever.

It doesn’t matter that futbol will not reach the popularity of American football in most of our lifetimes. It already has achieved critical mass as a mainstream attraction — one that skews toward a younger, more diverse, more affluent, more educated fan base than most.

In other words: advertising and marketing gold.

Eric Shanks, the president of Fox Sports and therefore the American TV executive with the most at stake when it comes to soccer’s ongoing rise, attended the game and marveled at the tailgating scene in the parking lots.

Fox televised last year’s women’s World Cup and this year’s Copa America and has rights to the next three men’s World Cups — with the United States among the presumed contenders to host in 2026.

Shanks said before the game that the event had “exceeded expectations,” particularly for viewership of games that did not involve the U.S. team.

Absent the United States, he said, a rematch of last year’s Copa final, one featuring Lionel Messi of Argentina, was not bad at all, especially given Argentina’s 23-year quest for a major championship, and a first for Messi.

The fact that Argentina failed yet again — undermined in part by Messi missing in the first round of PKs — added to the drama and heartache in a way even non-soccer fans could grasp.

The announced attendance was 82,026, the largest for a soccer match in New Jersey, including those big crowds for the seven World Cup games at Giants Stadium 22 years ago.

Not everything has changed since 1994. In the second half, the wave broke out in the crowd.

Shanks said that in the past, Fox underestimated the passion and knowledge of American soccer viewers, a mistake never to be repeated — in part to avoid insulting their intelligence, in part because it no longer is necessary.

“Now there’s not one time during this tournament or last summer [for the women’s World Cup] where you say, ‘You’re really going to need to explain that because people aren’t going to understand that,’ ” he said.

“That’s not the case anymore. This is a soccer country now.’’

New York Sports