In my opinion

Greg Cote: Real Madrid-Chelsea matchup marks fulfillment of Joe Robbie’s vision

 

gcote@MiamiHerald.com

There could be stubborn pride, wistful sentiment or even a touch of anger in how Tim Robbie refers to this place after all these years, and you’d forgive him any of those emotions. He didn’t even realize he had said it as we spoke Wednesday evening at the place his father built.

“JRS,” he still calls it.

Joe Robbie Stadium, though it hasn’t been that, at least not officially, in years.

“I guess it’s force of habit,” he said, smiling. “It’s ingrained in my brain.”

The stadium the Dolphins and Hurricanes call home bears the latest rented corporate names we’re supposed to use, of course, but it has seldom felt more like Joe Robbie’s name still fits — like it still deserves to be front and center — than on this night.

The place filled with soccer fans in near-record numbers to watch Spanish power Real Madrid impressively beat England’s Chelsea 3-1 on two gorgeous goals by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo in the title match of the first International Champions Cup.

Ronaldo bent one shot in and headed the other and in the 67th minute and earned a lengthy embrace from a young fan who darted onto the field wearing his jersey and left to an ovation by the second-largest crowd, 67,273, ever to watch soccer in South Florida.

The night was a reflection of the vibrant diversity of Miami, where sports means so much more to so many than the Heat, Dolphins or Hurricanes.

Mostly, this night was a fulfillment of one man’s vision.

“I don’t think he would be surprised,” Tim Robbie said of how his father might have viewed Wednesday night. “Dad loved the game. He could foresee that South Florida could be a Mecca for international soccer.”

He foresaw it 30 years ago, as he conceived the stadium that would open in 1987. Robbie’s legacy is as the Dolphins’ founding owner, and building this stadium through private funding, which makes him more heroic with every modern owner who begs for public money to build or renovate his playground. What also separates this place, though, is that Robbie built a major NFL stadium with soccer in mind at a time that was unheard of.

The private funding would bury Robbie’s heirs in estate taxes and force them to eventually sell the stadium and team. But the family’s loss has been Miami’s gain — in fútbol as well as football.

We know how to rise up for big events here, and this was one.

Thousands arrived hours before the doubleheader began (A.C. Milan beat L.A. Galaxy 2-0 in the third-place game) for a glimpse of their arriving heroes, forming a massive corridor through which players passed. Everywhere you looked, fans wore the No. 7 jersey of Ronaldo, or waved the blue-and-white-checked flags of Chelsea.

It is freeing to step out of what we think of as the mainstream once in a while and appreciate anew that sports in Miami is a broad and inclusive thing. There are legions among us whose first love is soccer, fans who can discern spellbinding action in even a 1-0 result because they see poetry in it.

Nights like Wednesday are part of what make Miami diverse and wonderful.

Nights like this are what I think of whenever I hear — as I do incessantly — what a lousy sports town Miami supposedly is. Why, because a run of mediocrity has whittled Dolphins attendance? Because Heat fans sometime show up late?

There is perspective in knowing Real Madrid is the most valuable sports team in the world, valued at $3.3 billion according to Forbes — 50 percent more than the Yankees.

There is perspective in looking out at a sea of fans in the midsection of South Florida and knowing many could not have cared less whether Johnny Manziel sold autographs or not. Or whether Ryan Tannehill had a good practice day.

They were here for soccer. Just like Joe dreamed it.

This same stadium had drawn a Miami-soccer-record 70,080 just two years earlier for a Barcelona-Chivas match. The Dolphins wish they could draw like that.

The world-class soccer pitch is why “JRS” will regularly be a player to host major regional tournaments such as the recent Gold Cup and international “friendlies” such as a 2012 Colombia-Mexico match that topped 50,000 fans.

When the United States next hosts a World Cup, Miami is all but assured of being a prominent involved city.

This stadium as the hub of Miami’s soccer interest is also why David Beckham is angling to bring Major League Soccer here, though in a newly built 25,000-seat facility.

Beckham knows the Greater Miami TV market led all U.S. cities in ratings for the past two World Cups.

That interest is quantifiable, now.

It was just one man’s vision, once.

Robbie had proved his love of soccer by owning the original Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the original NASL.

That league was fading by the early ’80s, but Robbie’s vision for the soccer here was just getting started.

The Dolphins’ patriarch died in 1990 at age 73.

“He would have loved this night,” his son said Wednesday.

Stephen Ross, the Dolphins’ current owner, wisely has parlayed Robbie’s vision by making it his business to capitalize on the stadium’s design by aggressively pursuing events like this one. With the Marlins gone now, there should be as many or more major soccer events here each year than Dolphin home games.

Meanwhile, Joe Robbie’s name is long gone from his stadium. There is a statue of him somewhere, if you look hard enough to find it.

Tim Robbie? He is 57 now, a former Dolphins president quietly still involved with the latter-day Strikers team that traces its lineage to his father’s original Strikers.

Tim goes to Dolphins games, usually with his son. He sits in the lower bowl, anonymous in his father’s stadium.

“I’m unrecognizable,” he said.

He sat with family and friends in Section 220 Wednesday for the Real Madrid-Chelsea match, unrecognizable again, “Just another guy at the game,” he said.

Tim Robbie was surrounded by revelers who would not be there without his father’s visionary dream.

So he still calls this place “JRS,” because it feels right.

He is not alone.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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