Miami likes its parties late, so a 9:20 start on a weeknight for the Guinness International Champions Cup final made perfect sense.
South Florida’s soccer fans are so passionate they wake up at ungodly hours on a regular basis to catch their favorite teams on TV. And a crowd of 67,273 — second-largest ever for soccer in South Florida — showed up at Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday night to see European giants Real Madrid and Chelsea go at it.
Yes, the match — which Real Madrid won 3-1 — was just for a preseason trophy but two of the most storied clubs in the world were in town, and neither their players nor their fans treated it like a friendly. There was drama on the field, including a melee, yellow card and a young fan in a Cristiano Ronaldo shirt breaching security and winding up hugging his hero. There was also Champions League-like electricity in the stands.
When Brazilian Marcelo struck first for Madrid, fans of the Spanish club roared, and chanted “Hala! Hala!” tugging proudly on their new 2013 replica jerseys, emblazoned with “Fly Emirates” across the front. Three minutes later, it was the Chelsea fans’ turn to wave their blue-and-white checkered flags when their Brazilian, Ramires, chipped the equalizer over Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
But the biggest roars were for Ronaldo, who scored on a stunning free kick over the Chelsea wall in the 31st minute and then again on a perfectly timed header off a cross from Isco as he found a hole amidst five Chelsea defenders in the 57th minute.
“We did a fantastic job,” Ronaldo said. “We won the tournament and I did my job, which is to score goals and help the team.”
A.C. Milan’s 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in the earlier third-place match was still going on when a video of the Real Madrid team motorcade — stuck in traffic — flashed on the stadium’s jumbo scoreboard. The crowd went berserk. When Ronaldo eventually stepped off the Madrid team bus outside Gate H, thousands of fans gathered outside squealed and tried to capture the moment on their cellphone cameras.
By the time the pregame fireworks and elaborate light show were over, the place was nearly full and rocking. The scene was reminiscent of that summer August night in 2011, when a South Florida record crowd of 70,080 showed up at Sun Life Stadium for a friendly between FC Barcelona and Chivas Guadalajara.
Chelsea’s new coach, the outspoken Jose Mourinho, went face-to-face with his former employer just three months after their nasty divorce. Mourinho and Ronaldo ended on bad terms, which seemed to make Ronaldo relish his goals Wednesday night even more. He celebrated both by preening even more than usual and pointing to the Real Madrid logo on his chest.
Mourinho, when asked about the feud with Ronaldo, replied: “That’s your movie, not my movie. I was just here to analyze my team, not to look at the reactions of a player.”
The match featured some of the best-known players in the game. Ronaldo, Casillas, Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzena, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos. For Chelsea: Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Juan Mata, David Luiz, Eden Hazard, Fernando Torres, Branislav Ivanovic. And they delivered.
In the earlier match, A.C. Milan beat the Galaxy 2-0. Los Angeles was the only non-European club in the eight-team tournament. The Galaxy, featuring U.S. star Landon Donovan and Irish national team captain Robbie Keane, had beaten Italian club Juventus 3-1 in the previous round to reach Wednesday’s game.
Milan plays at 80,000-seat San Siro Stadium, the largest stadium in Italy, so the “ Rosseneri” (Red and Blacks) were accustomed to big crowds. They surely welcomed the wave that made its way around Sun Life Stadium several times during their match.
Forward Mario Balotelli, known to change his hairstyles almost as often as he scores goals, gave A.C. Milan the lead in the 17th minute. Keane lost control of the ball and Milan midfielder Andrea Poli took advantage, stealing it and slipping it behind the Galaxy back line, where speedy Balotelli then got his shot past L.A. keeper Carlo Cudicini.
Eighteen-year-old French phenom Mbaye Niang scored the second goal in the 40th minute when he beat a pair of L.A. defenders and nailed a left-footed low shot.
“Niang is a young player with a lot of room to grow,” Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “He scored a really nice goal. You have to be patient with young players and give them a chance to grow and develop. [Wednesday’s] attack featured three 20-year-old players. Even with Balotelli, who has a lot of international experience, they are a young group.”
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena was impressed with the tournament and attendance. “In the United States it has been demonstrated for more than 20 years now that we have fans of European football, no question about it. They want to see these great teams and players, and they come out in great numbers.”