There’s a reason they call soccer the beautiful game.
The skill on the pitch, the passion in the stands, the drama in the technical area, all of which are singular to this one sport. This is what drives photographer Matthew Stith to capture the emotional depth of soccer.
Matthew Stith has photographed soccer at all levels, from shooting Messi, Suarez, and Neymar at the Nou Camp to documenting the domestic game in America, Stith’s shots encapsulate the unique emotional dynamism of soccer. I recently spoke with Stith about soccer, photography, Arsenal, and pursuing your passions.
Stith has played soccer all his life and fell in love with the sport at a young age. He played goalkeeper at Syracuse University before graduation left him at a fork in the road.
He had dedicated his life to the game of soccer and now after graduating from ‘Cuse with a major in Public Health that didn’t really feel right to him, Stith had a decision to make.
Stith described this post-college feeling, the void that no longer being on the pitch left, and how he ended up picking up the camera,
“I’ve always loved soccer, and I picked up film photography in college. Once school was over, I moved back home and was stuck. I didn’t want to work in Public Health, and I had this love for soccer that I couldn’t drop.”
But there’s a lot of work to be done between a love for soccer and being able to photograph the sport professionally.
Stith used his connections within the game to gain access,
“On my college team, a lot of my friends turned pro. So in October of 2016 I rang one up and asked if he could talk to the marketing team to try to get me into shooting one of his games. With access, I instantly fell in love, and knew this was what I really wanted to do. I got to shoot and interact with my favorite players and capture them in a unique way.”
Sports photography is a pretty crowded field, especially in a sport that’s beloved by so much of the globe. But Stith is able to capture the game in such a dynamic and compelling way. A glimpse through his Instagram page reveals photographs of players, fans, and soccer environments through an exceptional perspective.
Stith explains that his past as a player allows him to understand the game in a way that some other photographers might miss,
“As a photographer, I’m in a really unique position. I have a huge interest and knowledge of the game so I know what will look good on camera where a lot of other photographers don’t. I try to get as close as possible to the action to give the viewer some emotion… I always want to viewer to feel exactly how I felt when I took the shot.”
The only American sport that compares to the emotion and passion of world soccer is maybe SEC Football. The pageantry, obsession, and life or death nature of every game heightens the intensity to ridiculous levels. And unlike other sports, especially American sports, soccer players aren’t encouraged to hide emotions or become automatons of THE TEAM.
This makes soccer a specifically interesting sport to watch and capture. When I asked Stith about this, he explained why soccer is just so damn photogenic,
“Most soccer players are very expressive. If something goes right, they laugh and smile, and if something goes wrong they frown or put their hands on their head. Unlike football or lacrosse, soccer is one of the few sports where there are no [helmets]. You can see everything.”
The diversity of styles and techniques in different countries also makes the beautiful game beautiful,
“Soccer is played all around the world, and it’s really interesting to see how all the cultures come together for club and country. The Brazilians dance when they score, the English knee slide, and the South Africans have super diski.”
Stith is interested by soccer culture in America and beyond, repeatedly telling me, “I’m all about the scenes.” This interest has led him to the famous Nou Camp in Barcelona, an experience he described as “like a Church,” but Stith has also snapped some of the most provocative pictures of soccer in America.
The MLS is growing massively, and not just in terms of ratings or reputation, but most importantly in terms of the “scene” as Stith describes it. Personally, as someone who was there when the MLS began, going to games in massive football stadiums with maybe 1,000 spectators in attendance, it’s amazing to see the growth of soccer in this country.
Stith is equally encouraged by how the soccer culture in America is changing,
“Growing up, soccer was always brushed aside, or taken for granted and it always annoyed me. Thank god that’s starting to change. Kids growing up are getting better and better and the fan culture continues to evolve. Smoke bombs and flares are common place in MLS Stadiums now, and so is singing and standing the whole game. It’s so funny taking people to their first game, or showing them pictures, because for the most part, they aren’t expecting that it at all.”
I asked him who has the best fans in the MLS, “Toronto FC. Those fans are wild.”
As encouraging as it is to see the game grow in America, the biggest scenes are in Europe. On that trip to the Camp Nou, Stith captured Leo Messi up close and personal. He told me about the experience and how the now-departed Neymar compares to Barcelona’s #10,
“Messi is the goat. That’s all that needs to be said. He was God-like. It was incredible. He wasn’t the coolest footballer I’ve ever photographed though. Neymar will easily will easily take that crown.”
But for all of Neymar’s coolness, Stith’s allegiance lies with a team in North London. A team I also support. A team that often defies logic in the ways it tortures its supporters. The Arsenal Football Club.
Stith’s passion for The Arsenal is such that he’s tattooed the club’s crest onto his chest. He quotes Arsenal and Holland legend Dennis Bergkamp (the reason I support Arsenal) in explaining his fandom,
“Dennis Bergkamp summed it up best ‘When you start supporting a football club, you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history, you support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.’”
It’s a beautiful statement about soccer fandom from one of the most graceful players ever.
So what’s next for Matthew Stith, who has been able to capture the growing scene in America, the most famous team in the world, and seen his own favorite team play?
He wants to photograph some of the biggest rivalries, the greatest ‘scenes’ in the game, and not those in England, Spain or Italy. Stith tells me passionately,
“I want to shoot world football rivalries. I want to go to games that are dangerous, games that are scary, and games that really mean something.”
So which games are these? Fenerbahce vs. Galatasaray in Turkey where fans are constantly on “the brink of a massive brawl” is one. There’s also Rangers vs. Celtic in Glasgow, Scotland, a match that goes far beyond fans just not liking each other as the teams are divided along religious lines.
But the ultimate match that Stith would like to shoot? Boca Juniors vs. River Plate, the “Superclásico” of the two biggest teams in Buenos Aires. Stith explains,
“Buenos Aires explodes with so much passion and fandom during that game, it’s a game that should be on the list of any football fan in the world.”
Attending these matches is the ultimate dream for any soccer fan and anyone who, like Stith, is all about the scenes.