Miami has hosted more Super Bowls than any city. World Series, NBA Finals and Stanley Cup games have been played here. College football national championships, NASCAR season finales and major tennis, golf and horse racing all have graced our backyard.
Just this month we hosted our first MLB All-Star Game. From Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston on Miami Beach in 1964 to now, the place once called the “Magic City” always has attracted and embraced big sporting events.
This might be the biggest we have hosted. Ever.
Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, El Clasico, this coming Saturday night at a jammed and rockin’ Hard Rock Stadium.
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It is the grandest, most famous rivalry, by a lot, in the most popular sport on earth — Yankees vs. Red Sox times a ton. And this will be these teams’ historic first game ever played in the United States, and the only other one not on Spanish soil since one was played in Venezuela 35 years ago.
To call Barca-Real an event of Super Bowl-sized magnitude might flatter the Super Bowl, if only because, globally, futbol dwarfs American football in interest and reach.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are bigger stars, across the continents, than Tom Brady and LeBron James. When the two Spanish giants played a La Liga match this past December the global TV audience was estimated at 400 million, more than double the number for the most recent Super Bowl.
What a week ahead for Stephen Ross, who owns the Dolphins and the stadium.
On Wednesday, Italian power Juventus plays France’s best, Paris Saint-Germain, in the first of two International Champions Cup games here, a matchup that would top most any other marquee.
On Thursday, Ross’ NFL Dolphins open training camp with their first practice.
Then Saturday, El Clasico.
The two soccer matches are expected to draw triple and perhaps quadruple the attendance for the recent All-Star Game and Home Run Derby at Marlins Park.
The only man more excited for this coming week than South Florida soccer fans and Ross might be Ray Hudson, the former Fort Lauderdale Strikers star who now is a soccer commentator for beIN Sports and also talks soccer on SiriusXM radio. Inviting Ray Hudson to discuss Barcelona-Real Madrid is like asking an art scholar about Da Vinci and Van Gogh.
“It’s an absolutely astounding week of soccer, a stardust occasion,” the effervescent Englishman said. “To have this wonderful, gargantuan occasion decorated by the world’s greatest footballers in Miami, in our area, in our town, it’s beyond exciting.”
Hudson came to America, to Fort Lauderdale, in 1977, when soccer still was largely a foreign sport.
“If you’d told me then that Barcelona and Real Madrid would be playing at the stadium Joe [Robbie] built, it would be inconceivable,” he said. “The lead-up to this has been long and arduous for the sport, but now it’s arrived like a bottle rocket. This country has been baptized with soccer.”
Biggest soccer game ever played in the United States?
“On a lot of levels it absolutely is,” Hudson said.
For me it certainly is the biggest since the World Cup final between Brazil and Italy played on July 17, 1994, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are 1-2 in the latest club world rankings, and when they meet it’s the biggest thing short of a World Cup final. Juventus is fifth in those rankings and Paris Saint-Germain, top-ranked in France, is 33rd overall.
The fifth annual International Champions Cup is hosting eight teams, all major powers, in the United States, and it’s no surprise Miami scored two great games including the biggest of all. Ross, after all, created the ICC. He owns the tournament.
“I saw the opportunity there, reading and hearing and seeing the growth of this sport in this country,” Ross told us. “Americans want to see the best. My first love is American football and trying to make the Miami Dolphins the best team. But as much as we love our American football, this is a major event, having the two greatest teams. There’s a huge buzz with El Clasico. We’re trying to create this Super Bowl experience and feeling this week every year. South Florida is such an event place, and we want July [and the ICC] to be what Art Basel [the international art fair] is in December for Miami.”
These are glorified exhibition games, “friendlies,” yes, but they also are tuneup games for the coming league seasons. That and the stature of the teams helps assure top-level rosters and high intensity.
“Yes, these are exhibition games. The ‘friendly’ part of it, I’m not so sure about,” Hudson said. “Manchester City and Man U [who played an ICC game Thursday night in Houston] — the tackles were going like Godzilla against King Kong, hammer and tongs. It’ll be the same when Barcelona plays Real Madrid. These are meaningful, big dress rehearsals for the season.”
The storied Barca-Real rivalry is huge partly for its socio-political underpinning. Real Madrid bears the royal emblem and stands for the unity of Spain, while Barcelona represents Catalonia, a region in Spain that speaks its own language and salutes its own flag. (We were in Barcelona on vacation earlier this year and witnessed a demonstration, thousands strong, protesting for independence.) “The eternal enemies, not the eternal rivalry,” Hudson calls the teams.
The rivalry of course grew bigger than ever because Barca vs. Real is also Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo — the two top players in the world, though the order is seldom agreed upon. Messi will be here for El Clasico Miami. Tournament officials (and Real Madrid fans) remain hopeful Ronaldo will be, too, although there is serious doubt about that because he is vacationing after the recent FIFA Confederations Cup and faces a court date in Spain two days after Saturday’s game related to tax-fraud charges. Ronaldo’s absence would be a serious blow, but one an epic rivalry 135 years in the making would withstand.
“The two suns in the universe,” Hudson calls Messi and Ronaldo. “There’s usually one great player a generation that lights it up. Now there are two — and with the two greatest clubs in the world. Which is better, that argument will never, ever go away. But it isn’t losing any luster [if Ronaldo does not travel to Miami]. It’s still Real Madrid and Barcelona, an absolute starburst of a game.”
El Clasico Fans’ guide
▪ Juventus vs. Paris Saint-Grermain game, Hard Rock Stadium, 8:30 p.m. France’s favorite team takes on Champions League finalist Juventus of Italy in the International Champions Cup.
▪ National anthem by five-time Grammy winner CeeLo Green; halftime performance by Grammy-nominated Flo Rida.
▪ Parking Gates Open 4:30 p.m. Stadium Gates open 6:30 p.m.
▪ Tickets $50-$220 at www.elclasicomiami.com and TicketMaster
▪ Juventus vs. PSG Watch Party at the W South Beach Hotel (2201 Collins Ave.) Open to the public.
▪ Real Madrid vs. Manchester City International Champions Cup Watch Party (match in Los Angeles), 11 p.m., sponsored by the Real Madrid Fan Club of South Florida (Peña Madridista Sur de Florida). Bru’s Room sports grill (8318 SW 40 St., Miami).
▪ Official PSG vs. Juventus After Party at WALL Lounge at the W South Beach Hotel, featuring special guests and surprises. Flo Rida scheduled to perform. (Open to the public)
▪ Real Madrid and Barcelona teams arrive in Miami.
▪ Casa Clasico (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.) Fan Festival at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Free Admission. Player and legend meet-and-greets, ESPN SportsCenter set, live music/entertainment (11 a.m. DJ Nice Guy Erwin, 2:15 p.m. Siempre Flamenco Showcase, 3:30 p.m. Spanish cooking with Chef Alan Bergman, 4:45 p.m. Freestyle Soccer Showdown, 6:45 p.m. Questlove DJ, 8 p.m. DJ Affect, 9:15 p.m. DJ Nice Guy Erwin). Prize giveaways, skills contests, Heineken Beer Garden, art exhibits, three soccer fields. Entrance on Biscayne Blvd. (Prohibited items include weapons, coolers, wagons, large bags, outside food-beverage, remote control flying toys, lawn chairs).
▪ El Clasico Miami Open Practices. Hard Rock Stadium. Barcelona 6-7:30 p.m., Real Madrid 8-9:30 p.m. See your favorite Real Madrid and Barca players as they hold their final training session before Saturday’s match. Parking Gates open 2 p.m. Stadium Gates open 4:30 p.m. Tickets $20-$30. www.elclasicomiami.com
▪ Casa Clasico (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.). A tented Fan Festival at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. Free Admission. Player and legend meet-and-greets, ESPN SportsCenter set, Live music (11 a.m. DJ Nice Guy Erwin, 12:45 p.m. Renoir Rodriguez & Band play Latin salsa, jazz, Merengue, 2:30 p.m. Spanish cooking with Chef Alan Bergman, 3:45 p.m. DJ Erwin, 5:45 p.m. Reggaeton group Alexi y Fido, 7 p.m., DJ Nice Guy Erwin). 7:30 p.m. Watch Party FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, prize giveaways, skills contests, Heineken Beer Garden, art exhibits, three soccer fields. Entrance on Biscayne Blvd. (Prohibited items include weapons, coolers, wagons, outside food-beverage, remote control flying toys, lawn chairs).
▪ Real Madrid Tailgate Party, sponsored by the Real Madrid Fan Club of South Florida. 2 p.m. Hard Rock Stadium parking lot. $20 ticket includes food, a beer or soda, water and pre-game festivities. More information at www.rmsurdeflorida.com
▪ El Clasico Miami: Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, 7:30 p.m. Hard Rock Stadium.
▪ National anthem by Latin superstar Prince Royce; halftime performance by five-time Grammy winner Marc Anthony.
▪ Parking Gates open 3:30 p.m. Stadium Gates open 5:30 p.m.
▪ Tickets www.elclasicomiami.com and TicketMaster.
▪ Official El Clasico Miami After Party presented by Beats by Dre at Rockwell Miami.