Lionel Messi leads list of stars in World Masters Tour at Sun Life Stadium

Lionel Messi, the best and highest-paid soccer player in the world, “Shakespeare’s greatest sonnet in motion,” in the words of TV analyst Ray Hudson, is coming to Sun Life Stadium on Saturday night at 7 to play an exhibition match as part of the World Masters Tour.

The Argentine and FC Barcelona star is bringing along 31 other internationally known players, including 2010 World Cup Golden Ball winner Diego Forlan of Uruguay; Chelsea standout Didier Drogba; Colombian star Falcao; Italian legends Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro; Brazilian Dani Alvez, and U.S. World Cup veterans Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Carlos Bocanegra.

On July 28, English club Chelsea, fresh off a Champions League title, will face storied Italian club AC Milan at Sun Life Stadium. And a third match involving South American teams is in the works for August.

If Sun Life Stadium executives get their way, soccer matches of this caliber will be coming to town more often.

When the Marlins moved to their new home in Little Havana, the spring and summer calendar opened up at Sun Life Stadium. Officials have been working aggressively behind the scenes to fill those dates with world-class soccer, which makes sense (and cents).

Last August, a crowd of 71,000 showed up to watch Spanish giant Barcelona play Mexican club Chivas Guadalajara in an exhibition match. This past February, 51,615 were in the building for an exhibition between the national teams of Colombia and Mexico. Fans traveled from 27 countries and 39 states for the Barca-Chivas match, and from 10 countries and 31 states for the Colombia-Mexico match.

Miami had the highest American TV ratings for the 2010 and 2006 World Cups. Miami also drew the biggest TV audience in the nation for last month’s Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. And, through the first two weeks of the 2012 European Championship, Miami trailed only New York in TV viewership.

“Soccer is a natural fit and a priority for us now that the Marlins are gone,” stadium CEO Mike Dee said. “Our attendance for the Barca match was the largest of their U.S. tour, and that turned promoters’ eyes toward South Florida as a perfect summertime destination. We have the perfect geographic location and demographics with our prominent Hispanic community, South Americans with second homes here and European travelers.”

Todd Boyan, Sun Life Stadium’s vice president of operations, has been making and fielding more soccer calls than ever.

“That Barca match reached a lot of eyes and ears worldwide, and the number of inquiries we received from international promoters increased as a result,” Boyan said. “We are trying to bring games that appeal to South Americans, European travelers and the local soccer fans, who are very passionate and knowledgeable.”

Added Dee: “People here view the sport through a sophisticated lens, and we are trying to evaluate how we can fit into this soccer market with a strategic long-term platform. We need to find out how much soccer can the market support.”

Ticket sales for the Chelsea-AC Milan match one month away are selling ahead of pace of last summer’s Barcelona-Chivas match. Three of the top four price categories are sold out.

Former Dolphins owner Joe Robbie designed and built the stadium in 1987 with soccer in mind. The field meets FIFA specifications. The sightlines are soccer-friendly. It more closely resembles European soccer stadiums than most American stadiums. The Robbie family was a champion for soccer in the area and owned the Fort Lauderdale Strikers from 1977 to ’83.

Were it not for the Marlins calendar conflict, the stadium surely would have hosted matches — and maybe even the final — during the 1994 World Cup.

The stadium was modified to accommodate baseball in the early 1990s, but Dee expects them to “unwind” those changes to better facilitate soccer. He said additional seats should be added along the sidelines, and seats should be 18 feet closer than where they are now. A partial roof covering would also help for rainy days.

“That stadium gets filled with the most impassioned soccer lovers every time a high-profile international game comes here,” said Hudson, the former Fort Lauderdale Strikers star and Miami Fusion coach. “The Latin fervor for the game combined with being encapsulated by the fabulous stadium where all the sightlines are so wonderful, it’s a great fit for world-class soccer.”

Hudson added that the South Florida passion for the game predates the stadium. He recalls boisterous crowds for international friendlies at the Orange Bowl and spirited fans when the Strikers played Italian club Lazio at Lockhart Stadium in 1977.

On May 29, 1994, an Orange Bowl crowd of 57,724 witnessed the Colombian national team’s 2-1 win over Italian giant AC Milan.

“The heritage of those teams around the world is passed on through the generations, and people here will always have that connection to those teams,” he said. “They don’t have the same passion for a local basketball, football or baseball team as they do for their national [soccer] team or the glamour clubs from their countries. When they go watch those teams play, they are amongst their own, and that is a very special experience.

“To think that all these world-class players will be in our backyard is just amazing. We are lucky to live here.”