When he entered the Croatian coliseum, Aaron Dolores did not know what to expect. He didn’t know flares would fly. He didn’t know fans would freak. But this was the opening match of the 2014 World Cup, one between Brazil and Croatia, and this was different.
So it made him wonder: “What’s black people’s role in soccer? Where do we fit into this?”
At the time, Dolores had fallen out of touch with the sport. The Oakland native, who is black, played soccer in high school, but only recreationally. Still, when friends asked if Dolores was interested in going to Croatia, Germany, Italy and Switzerland that year to watch World Cup games in different countries, he accepted — mostly to party, he now admits.
Dolores, 38, was not expecting the trip to fuel a passion. But it did. It inspired him years later to create Black Arrow FC, a platform focused on the intersection of the sport and black culture.
Described as a “lifestyle brand,” the platform has created content revolving around soccer’s black history since its 2017 inception. It has also put together trips across the globe, where soccer fans (a majority of them black) visit other soccer cultures.
“There’s a lot of potential with this platform,” Dolores said, referencing its 60,000 Facebook followers. “[It’s] a platform to highlight some of the positive things within soccer’s black culture.”
Ryan Austin, a woman who has taken part in numerous Black Arrow FC events, is thankful for what the brand has built.
“There is something to having a black American presence at these games and in the industry,” she said. “My involvement in Black Arrow FC is casual, but being engaged with the group has allowed me to walk confidently into a bar, and to feel like I know what I’m doing there.
“I look forward to utilizing my chops during this World Cup.”
America is not participating in the 2018 World Cup, meaning black Americans like Gyasi Zardes and Tim Weah won’t star on the biggest stage. Still, Dolores hopes black soccer fans take inspiration from players like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and France’s Paul Pogba — two guys he was fairly unfamiliar with back in 2017.
That year, after visiting Europe, mulling the two aforementioned questions and seeing Major League Soccer expand to cities like Atlanta, Dolores saw an opportunity to create a hub for soccer fans — specifically, black soccer fans. But first, he had to pick a name.
Dolores is fan of American poet Gil Scott-Heron, whose father, Gil Heron, was the first black player for Scotland’s Celtic FC.
Heron’s nickname? Black Arrow.
Racism in soccer is an issue that dates back more than a century. In the 1930s, Dixie Dean, a black Everton forward, received racist comments about his appearance. Until the 1990s, South African soccer leagues were largely segregated. And even as recently as March of this year, FIFA was asked to probe monkey chants directed toward French players during a World Cup tuneup match in Russia.
That, as well as African American communities’ general lack of participation in youth soccer, has often contributed to the negative aura surrounding soccer’s black culture, Dolores admitted. He hopes the platform can shed light and bring context to those subjects.
“Soccer has this whole world that exists off the field,” Dolores said, referencing fashion, music and fan culture. In recent years, artists like Jay-Z have been seen at games. Not to mention, LeBron James is a part-owner of Liverpool FC, and Kobe Bryant is an avid soccer fan.
Dolores set out to show the culture to black soccer fans last year, so he assembled events in San Jose and New York, where people gathered to party and then attended MLS games. More than 150 people were involved.
Ryan Austin — whose 4-year-old Onyx is the first member of her family to start playing soccer as a youth — was one of them.
Then, ahead of Atlanta United’s home opener this past year, Dolores scheduled a weekend full of events: a Friday night party, a Saturday street soccer tournament and the team’s home opener on Sunday. Nearly 100 soccer fans attended.
Next week, Dolores and more than 30 others involved with Black Arrow FC will travel to Colombia to watch the 2018 World Cup. Along with the party, of course, he hopes the trip will inform people about the black history within South American soccer culture.
In a sense, for the man who has found his passion, the trip will bring everything full circle.
“When I started this, I realized there were a lot of black people into soccer,” Dolores said, “but we didn’t have a hub or magnet to connect them.
“That’s our goal, and it will continue to be.”
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