The World Cup kicks off in 11 days, and it is safe to say that outside of Brazil, the best place in the world for soccer fans to be right now is South Florida.
Five of the 32 World Cup teams are in Miami this week preparing for the World Cup — England, Honduras, Ecuador, Ghana and South Korea. Read that again and let it soak in. Five World Cup teams will be here, in our town, and Sun Life Stadium will host England-Ecuador on Wednesday, England-Honduras on Saturday and Ghana-South Korea on June 9.
Is there anywhere else in the world you can watch three World Cup tuneups in the span of six days? I think not.
Further proof this is Soccer Central? Have you been to Miami International Airport lately? Everywhere you look, there are kiosks loaded with official Brazil World Cup merchandise. Want a Spain jersey? A Netherlands scarf? They’re on sale at the airport.
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The airport book store features a giant World Cup display with dozens of soccer books in English and Spanish.
All over Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, bars and restaurants are gearing up for World Cup watch parties. Many are installing extra TVs and jumbo screens on sidewalks. Meanwhile, Panini World Cup trading stickers are flying off the shelves. Miami leads the nation in sticker sales, and local distributors project they will sell 12 million stickers before the World Cup is over.
All of this begs the question: How does a city this crazy about soccer not have a Major League Soccer team?
I covered the Miami Fusion in its heyday, when a respectable 11,400 fans trekked to Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale every week to watch Ray Hudson’s exciting team make a deep playoff run. Fans created ambiance where there was none.
After the matches, fans, media and players gathered at the Tudor Inn, a British pub a few blocks from the stadium that was the only gathering place within miles of the stadium. For those few hours, soccer fans could down a few pints and pretend they were in Europe.
With every passing day, I am more and more convinced that David Beckham’s plan for a stadium and waterfront park in the heart of downtown Miami is a great idea. (I will put on my helmet now and let all the detractors pelt me with their politically correct — and dare I say politically biased — arguments.)
Spare me the talk about how the plan is environmentally unsound and will spoil an open waterfront area. The FEC slip is not a nature preserve. It is man-made. There are no egrets, flamingos or alligators. No lush green marshes. It is an unused waterfront space, and the only thing to do there now is watch garbage bob up and down in the water.
Nobody goes there because there is no reason to go there. The only spots in that area where people can enjoy the waterfront are Bayside and the new Perez Art Museum, and the Beckham plan would join those two areas with a wide open green waterfront park and promenade to go along with a 20,000-seat stadium that could become the hottest ticket in MLS if Beckham makes good on his promise to lure world-class European and South American players.
Last weekend I visited relatives in Long Island City, New York, just across the East River from midtown Manhattan. I fell in love with Gantry Plaza State Park, a 12-acre man-made riverside oasis that replaced warehouses and parking lots in 1998. That, too, was an underutilized waterfront. Now, against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, the park features picnic areas, playgrounds, soccer fields, basketball courts, a fishing pier, dog park, outdoor concerts and a ferry you can ride to the city.
The entire neighborhood is oriented around the park. Young couples go with baby strollers, kids play pickup soccer. I can envision the same thing along Biscayne Blvd., a park filled with downtown condo dwellers and suburbanites who want to enjoy our gorgeous but mostly hidden waterfront. A ferry to South Beach? How cool would that be?
I say this as a near-lifelong resident of Miami and a longtime soccer writer. I learned the game watching my brother play sweeper at K-Land in Kendall and I fell in love with it covering my first World Cup in 1994. I am about to cover my sixth in Brazil. There is nothing like the energy around a soccer stadium on match day, especially when the stadium is smack-dab in downtown.
I have felt it in Cape Town, South Africa. In Frankfurt, Germany. In Madrid, Spain. And it’s happening in Seattle, where more than 40,000 fans gather in downtown pubs and eating spots and then “March to the match” in matching team scarves to watch the Sounders.
The Fusion was fun. Marcelo Claure’s attempt to team with Barcelona FC to bring a team in 2009 was intriguing. But this is the best idea yet.
Beckham, among the most recognized athletes on the planet, comes to town, tells us he loves our city and wants to plunk $250 million of private money into our downtown. He believes his Miami team and our sexy city, marketed globally, would sell jerseys in South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Maybe it’s just World Cup fever setting in, but the idea sounds good to me.