Technically, it is just a summer exhibition soccer match.
In fact, El Clasico Miami, the Saturday night clash between Spanish archrivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid (minus Ronaldo) is the biggest soccer game ever played in South Florida — and one of the most-hyped ever on U.S. soil. It is the first Clasico outside Europe in 35 years and second in the 235 times they have met since 1929.
That explains why fans in FC Barcelona jerseys were perched high in the trees and atop pickup trucks and vans, trying to get a better view of global superstars Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez as they practiced behind fences at Barry University on Thursday night.
And why 35,728 fans paid $20 to $30 (plus parking) to watch their favorite players stretch, dribble around cones and scrimmage at the teams’ open training sessions at Hard Rock Stadium on Friday night.
It is why soccer fans worldwide were so curious as to whether Ronaldo was going to show up. Turns out, he is not. He told event organizers Friday afternoon that he deeply regretted it but could not squeeze the trip into his busy summer schedule.
And it explains why an expected-sellout crowd of 64,767 paid between $240 and $3,500 per ticket to witness the latest edition of the Spanish grudge match, including fans from all across the United States and more than 50 countries.
“There is no such thing as a friendly Clasico,” FC Barcelona midfielder Sergi Roberto said Friday afternoon, sitting on the 38th floor of the East Hotel, admiring a waterfront view that included the Mandarin Oriental, where Real Madrid is staying just across Brickell Avenue.
“Even though this is not for points or a Cup, every time there’s a Clasico, both teams want to win very badly,” Roberto said. “We are going into this game to win, and the players will give 100 percent. It’s very important for us and to our fans. This rivalry has a lot of history and emotion, and we take it seriously.”
It is a rivalry that transcends sports, with Real Madrid a symbol of Spain’s capital and establishment, and FC Barcelona representing the Catalonia region, which has its own culture, language and has sought independence for many years.
According to the Forbes 2017 list of world’s most valuable sports teams, Barcelona ($3.64 billion) and Real Madrid ($3.58 billion) rank No. 4 and 5 behind the Dallas Cowboys ($4.2 billion), New York Yankees ($3.7 billion), and Manchester United ($3.69 billion).
The TV audience for the most recent El Clasico matches was 400 million. The Super Bowl draws 160 million viewers.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the best players in the world in person,” said FC Barcelona fan Carlos Monroy, 18, who flew in from Chicago, paid $500 for a ticket and attended practice. “I watch them on TV every week. This is as close as I can get to Lionel Messi, the GOAT, greatest of all time. It’s an incredible experience for a soccer lover like me.”
Louis Desrouches, a Real Madrid fan from Parkland, agreed. He paid $1,000 for three game tickets and drove to Miami Shores on Thursday night for the Barcelona practice. “It’s amazing to see such big stars so closeup,” he said. “Even though it’s just an exhibition, it’s our only chance to see them in person.”
Real Madrid is coming off one of its most successful seasons in its 116-year history. Los Blancos won La Liga, beat Italian giant Juventus in the Champions League final and became the first club to win consecutive Champions League trophies since A.C. Milan in 1989-90.
Barcelona was La Liga runners-up, won its third Copa del Rey in a row and lost to Juventus in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Coaches and players from both teams said they will take Saturday’s game seriously, even though it is just a preseason match.
When a reporter mentioned the word “friendly” in a question to Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane on Friday, Zidane smiled, leaned into the microphone and said, “It’s not friendly. It’s a Clasico.” He went on to say his team wants to put on a good show for the audience, and they can expect to see full effort.
“A Clasico is a Clasico,” Barcelona said midfielder Ivan Rakitic. “It’s officially a friendly, but for us, it’s an important game. It’s a chance for us to prepare for the season against one of our biggest rivals, to test ourselves against some of the best players in the world.”
ESPN analyst Alejandro Moreno is among the 25 reporters the network sent to Miami to cover the match.
“Even if you don’t know anything about soccer, you know Messi and Ronaldo, Barcelona and Real Madrid,” Moreno said. “Those are names that transcend sports, names that get into pop culture. For people who don’t follow soccer, it may seem like an irrational decision to spend that chunk of money for these tickets; but for people in Miami, who idolize these teams, and others flying in, it’s worth more than the face value.”
Barcelona is edgy and hip
Barcelona has La Rambla
Barcelona has Catalan language
Barcelona’s artists include Picasso, Miro, Dali, Gaudi
Barcelona has beaches
Barcelona hosted the 1992 Summer Olympics
Barcelona has Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique
FC Barcelona fans include Justin Bieber, Shakira (she dates player Gerard Pique), Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson
Madrid is cosmopolitan and classic.
Madrid has Gran Via
Madrid has Castellano Spanish
Madrid artists include the masters Goya and Velasquez
Madrid has the lake at Parque del Retiro
Madrid did not
Madrid has Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale
Real Madrid fans include Rafael Nadal, Jennifer Lopez, Placido Domingo, Sergio Garcia, Penelope Cruz, Enrique Iglesias, Russell Crowe