LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

First Beckham, now England. Four months after the former England captain and US soccer figurehead David Beckham exercised his option on an MLS franchise in Miami, his former team-mates have just flown into town to play two warm-up friendlies before the World Cup in Brazil. Long-term resident and soccer expert Simon Evans looks at how the game is taking over Miami – plus picks his choice of the city’s soccer bars.

 

This week, Miami is England’s destination of choice to warm up for the World Cup. Two afternoon friendlies – against Ecuador on Wednesday and Honduras on Saturday at the 70,000-capacity, unroofed Sun Life Stadium – will be the final preparation before Roy Hodgson’s men face Italy in the tropical temperatures of the Amazon rain forest.

Apart from the stormy heat and humidity, Miami shares something else with Manaus: it doesn’t have a top-flight soccer team. Yet.

Miami is a soccer paradox. Walk around the city and you are more likely to see kids kicking a ball than playing baseball in the park. You’ll see more locals wearing Barcelona shirts than NFL team jerseys and you won’t need to ask the bartender to switch over for the Champions League game.

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Brazil and Honduras, Chelsea and Real Madrid, have brought more fans to the Sun Life NFL stadium than the Miami Dolphins have managed in years. LeBron James may be the star of the city’s most successful sports team – the Miami Heat, just through to the NBA Finals and looking for a third straight win – owns shares in Liverpool. His team-mate Dwyane Wade talks about spending his afternoons watching soccer with his kids.

Miami was built by Cuban-Americans, whose traditional sporting passion is baseball, but the past 20 years has seen an influx of Colombians, Brazilians, Argentines and Hondurans who have all brought their love of soccer with them. Younger Cubans have also caught the bug. Then there’s the growing European population of South Florida, packing into expat pubs and cafés early on a Saturday or Sunday morning to watch the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A.

Yet unlike, say, Salt Lake or Columbus, Miami has no professional football team, no presence in Major League Soccer. Instead, the big dates in the local soccer calendar are gatherings at friends’ houses to watch El Clásico or the Champions League Final.

main_Miami Beckham United Rendering- Park Aerial May 2014

Enter David Beckham. With a remarkably astute piece of business, the former England captain gained a cut-price option on a new MLS franchise as part of his deal with LA Galaxy. Equally astutely, he decided to exercise that option in Miami.

‘What kills me is that the most dynamic and cosmopolitan city in the US doesn’t have a soccer team,’ said Marcelo Claure, Beckham’s partner in the venture and owner of Bolivian club Bolivar. ‘Now all the stars are aligned.’

The aim is for a 25,000-capacity waterfront stadium downtown, next door to the Heat’s American Airlines Arena. The team has the potential to both transform the sporting scene in Miami and challenge the established order in MLS. Beckham is already talking about the need to raise the restrictive salary cap to allow for European players who, not surprisingly, might fancy ending their careers in the South Florida sun and be part of Beckham’s ambitious project.

Operation Miami will take another three years to come to fruition. Given Miami’s Machiavellian politics, there’ll be plenty of obstacles between then and now. Once overcome, Miami will at last have a team – once more.

In the early years of the MLS, there was a Miami team – of sorts. The Miami Fusion though, ended up playing out in Fort Lauderdale, over an hour’s drive north of downtown Miami, at Lockhart Stadium. For four seasons, from 1998, the Fusion played some exciting football, with flamboyant Colombian playmaker Carlos Valderrama (and frizinio) grabbing the attention of the Latin community.

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But the Fusion were the victims of a struggling league. Fearing for their future and seeking to cut costs, the MLS closed down the two teams in Florida and the Fusion, along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny, joined the long list of defunct teams in North American soccer.

Lockhart, despite being too far away from Miami to be seriously considered for a new MLS team, is the historic home of the sport in South Florida. This soccer-specific venue was where, in the days of Pelé and the Cosmos, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers played before 20,000-plus crowds, drawn by names such as George Best, Gordon Banks, Gerd Müller and Peruvian World Cup star Teófilo Cubillas, who still lives in the area.

The Strikers died with the NASL, although in recent years the name has resurfaced for a team playing in the American second division (also branded as ‘NASL’). Today’s Strikers also play at Lockhart in the red and yellow hoops of their predecessors – but this team