It is 5 p.m. Sunday, and Yatsuney Perez is where he always is when Real Madrid plays a televised soccer match — at the Bru’s Room Sports Grill on Bird Road in Miami, wearing his beloved team’s white jersey and scarf, cheering alongside other members of the Peña Madridista Sur de Florida (the Official Real Madrid Fan Club of South Florida).
Perez, a 37-year-old truck driver and president of the 3-year-old club, never imagined it would grow to 1,000 members, that crowds of hundreds would show up for watch parties, or that one day the star-studded Madrid team would come to Hard Rock Stadium to face bitter rival FC Barcelona in El Clasico Miami — the teams’ first meeting on U.S. soil and second in history away from Spain.
Tens of thousands of fans will descend on Miami this week for Saturday’s clash of the Spanish powers and a Wednesday match between French team Paris Saint-Germain and Italian giant Juventus. They will be coming from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, Israel, China and Saudi Arabia. Perez is acting as host for the other 11 official U.S. Real Madrid peñas.
The fan clubs of New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Southern California, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. have members flying in. More than 1,200 of them are expected at a private pre-game party Friday night, and they’ll be tailgating together Saturday.
“I grew up in Cuba and was always a fan of Real Madrid but couldn’t get much information on them other than old magazines my relatives would bring me when they visited,” Perez said. “When I got to Miami in 2000, there was so much access to their games and information on the internet, and I became a diehard fan and started to love soccer even more.”
Meanwhile, across town at the Palapa Hondureña 2 on Northwest 36th Street and 38th Avenue, restaurant owner Jordany Nuñez, 37, tells a similar story. He, too, grew up a soccer fan in Cuba, idolizing FC Barcelona from afar. After emigrating to Miami in 2005, he became an even more passionate fan.
Once he opened his restaurant, which features a huge TV screen and FC Barcelona memorabilia on the walls, friends and relatives began gathering to watch Barca matches. They wound up becoming an official fan club — Penya (Catalan spelling) Barcelonista de Miami — with 200 members.
“This is our FC Barcelona home, where fans of Barca get together to celebrate the diversity of futbol,” Nuñez said. “We have members from Spain, Cuba, United States, Colombia, all over Central America.”
On Saturday, Nuñez will fulfill a boyhood dream. He’ll be at Hard Rock Stadium to watch his favorite team live for the first time. He splurged, paying $3,000 for two tickets, but says it’s worth it to him.
“When the tickets first came out, I said, ‘I’m going.’ If I have to sacrifice something to go, I will,” he said. “For me, this will be an unforgettable lifetime experience.”
The local fan clubs get together once a year to play their own “El Clasico.” Last year, they tied.
While the fans of the Spanish teams were gearing up for the week, fans of Paris Saint-Germain lined up in a ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to get autographs and photos from players of the popular French team. PSG plays Italian power Juventus on Wednesday night at Hard Rock Stadium. A crowd of 40,000-plus is expected.
Among the PSG fans getting autographs were 10 Florida State University students, members of the PSG Fan Club of Tallahassee. They attended PSG’s open practice in Miami last Friday, the game against Tottenham in Orlando on Saturday, and plan to be in the stands Wednesday for the Juventus match.
“I studied abroad in Paris two years ago, got to see the Parc de Princes (PSG’s home stadium) and fell in love with the team,” said Zach Pelham, who started the Tallahassee fan club. “I started watching soccer in college and really like the style PSG plays. It’s been a dream come true meeting these guys and seeing them up close.”
A sellout crowd of 64,767 is expected for Saturday’s El Clasico Miami, and big crowds are also expected at Bayfront Park Friday and Saturday for Casa Clasico, a free fan festival featuring live music, soccer interactive games and player appearances. Many of those fans will be tourists.
Only 30 percent of the tickets for El Clasico Miami were purchased by South Florida residents. The other 70 percent came from all over the United States, and more than 50 other countries and territories.
Eleven percent of the fans are coming from the New York/New Jersey area, four percent from Los Angeles, and the next-highest markets were West Palm Beach-Fort Pierce, Chicago, Tampa, Orlando, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas and Boston.
The most non-U.S. tickets were sold in Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Honduras. Ticket orders came from as far as Australia, China, Israel, Jordan, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea and United Arab Emirates.
There were tickets purchased in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, and all seven Central American countries. The going rate for rooms at high-end Miami Beach hotels this weekend ranges from $500 to $600.
“Even though it’s officially a soccer friendly, this event ranks right up near the top from a tourism standpoint, like a Super Bowl,” said Bill Talbert, CEO of the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We started the month with the MLB All-Star Game, and we end it with El Clasico. It’s a great summer for us. Our hotel rooms are 90 percent full this week, up significantly from last year, and El Clasico is the reason. ESPN is coming to town with 25 folks, there’s a big buzz, and the international media coverage we’re getting, in mid-summer, is priceless. I can’t buy that kind of publicity.”
Between them, the Twitter accounts of the four teams in town have more than 75 million followers, and on Instagram, Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo and FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi have 183 million followers between them. It remains uncertain whether Ronaldo will play because of his busy summer calendar. Event organizers said Monday that they remain “hopeful” he will show.
El Clasico organizers have been bombarded with ticket requests from NBA and Major League Baseball stars, musicians and actors. Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, a huge soccer fan, will be in Miami with some teammates. Carmelo Anthony, Mariano Rivera, Victor Cruz and John Wall are among the others expected to attend.
“All the big talent agencies have contacted us for tickets for their clients,” said Daniel Sillman, CEO of the International Champions Cup. “We’re expecting a lot of familiar faces in the crowd. Miami is the place to be this weekend.”
Soccer in South Florida
▪ Wednesday: Paris Saint-Germain v. Juventus; Hard Rock Stadium, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
▪ Friday: El Clasico practice; Hard Rock Stadium, 6 p.m.
▪ Saturday: El Clasico — Real Madrid v. FC Barcelona; Hard Rock Stadium, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)