Marlins Park to host soccer tourney that will match top club teams

Organizers of the Miami Football Challenge know the first game will be Jan. 2 or 3, 2013, with more games planned for each July and January through 2015. They know where: Marlins Park. They know who: a top European club team and a top Central American or South American club team.

They just don’t know the soccer teams that will be playing .

With league schedules not set, Global Football Challenge president Stuart Webb said, teams haven’t made winter break plans. Webb said he expects an announcement in November.

“We’ll have the right mix to give the multicultural population of Miami its football fix,” Webb said Tuesday night.

The plan is to start with a single game in January, then blossom into four-team mini-tournaments each July and January. The Dubai version of this event, held since annually since 2007 except for the 2010 World Cup year, began as a four-team tournament involving national teams and club teams. After Hamburg won the first two years, it has been a single game won by AC Milan.

Sun Life Stadium has hosted several well-attended all-star games and club exhibitions during the past two years, including Chelsea against AC Milan last Saturday, making it obvious there’s an appetite for the most famed club teams in an era when the English Premier League can be followed as easily as the NBA.

Also, said former World Player of the Year Ruud Gullit, brought in as a Challenge “ambassador,” European club teams would use these games as scouting trips for talent.

“A lot of South Americans want to play in Europe. Europe’s the Valhalla of football,” Gullit said. “That’s why [European club teams] want to participate. It’s not only the money. It’s more the fact they can see in the backyard “What’s going on there?” There’s an exchange, and the South American clubs benefit because they need the [transfer fee] money as well.”

The Challenge has been in discussions with Bayern Munich and Hamburg from the German Bundesliga; Ajax and PSV Eindhoven from the Dutch League; Roma, AC Milan and Juventus from Italy’s Serie A; Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Valencia from Spain; Argentina’s Boca Juniors; Mexico’s Chivas; and Brazil’s Santos and Flamenco.

Wednesday’s news conference backdrop also included the logos of the English Premier League’s Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool; Brazil’s Vasco De Gama; Mexico’s Club America; and Colombia’s Athletica Nacional. Webb indicated one of those teams could be involved in the first game.

The attraction of Marlins Park, especially for the July games, is obvious: a roof, air conditioning and it was built with soccer in mind, too.

“We’ve built a facility to hold much more than 81 regular-season baseball games,” Marlins vice president of marketing Sean Flynn said, offering that others sports events, including boxing and MMA, might be announced in the near future.

“This is a beautiful stadium. This is a crown jewel for Little Havana and the City of Miami,” Miami mayor Tomas Regalado said. “I still say it was a bad deal [economically], and we’re seeing the consequences. But the fact is, we have to move on. We’re working with the Marlins trying to bring events here. We want to be partners with them because they are the Miami Marlins regardless of what happened to build the stadium.”

Flynn said the Marlins are working on plans that will let local teams use the soccer field in the days surrounding events such as the Soccer Challenge. Gullit’s itinerary included visits to several local parks for soccer clinics.

All the soccer talk led to the question of Miami’s chances of landing another MLS franchise. The Miami Fusion folded in 2001 after four seasons.

“I feel there will be a team locally sometime in the near future,” Miami-Dade Sports Commission chairman Jose Diaz said.