It seemed David Beckham had personally met and mesmerized just about every resident of Miami by Wednesday afternoon (and I include my 14-year-old daughter in that statement, as she had a photo taken with the British soccer icon at a function last month, a photo that was immediately broadcast to the entire teenage world on Instagram).
Politicians and local media have been hyperventilating about Beckham since last June, when he first appeared courtside at a Heat playoff game with local billionaire Marcelo Claure and the two partnered in the quest to bring professional soccer back to South Florida.
On Tuesday, Beckham took his brilliantly-orchestrated public relations campaign to Tallahassee, where he had female legislative aides giggling like schoolgirls and Gov. Rick Scott tweeting the selfie he took with the soccer star.
The Beckham love-fest returned to Miami on Wednesday, as he visited with young patients at Miami Children’s Hospital, and traveled across town to Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens and Oak Grove Park in North Miami. Beckham is very wisely making it a point to not just meet the city’s power brokers, but also its regular people, its soccer fans.
The one person Beckham had not met was Yours Truly, and as the longtime Herald soccer writer and a proud Miamian, I had a few serious questions for Mr. Beckham. His people managed to squeeze me into his incredibly tight schedule on Wednesday for an interview. We met at the hospital, after he visited with the kids.
I have been in this business for 28 years, interviewed the most famous of the famous, so, I was not going to be bamboozled by Beckham. He was going to have to convince me that he truly understands this passionate but complicated soccer market.
Like many long-suffering South Florida soccer fans, I have lived through several incarnations of local pro soccer, and covered all the false alarms since the Fusion folded in 2001.
And, despite Beckham’s star power, and his very sharp management group, I had my doubts about how well he has really thought this project through.
All the talk has been about the stadium, the stadium, the stadium. Yes, the location of the stadium is a huge issue. I happen to love the idea of a downtown waterfront stadium. Our waterfront and skyline are stunning. I still take pictures of our city from Rickenbacker Causeway because I never get tired of that view.
But the bigger question, in my mind, is will Miami’s sophisticated soccer-savvy fans, who lead the nation in T.V. ratings for World Cups and European league matches, ever care as much about Real Salt Lake as they do Real Madrid? FC Barcelona drew 71,000 at Sun Life Stadium for an exhibition match against Chivas Guadalajara last summer. Will a quarter of those fans show up to watch a Miami MLS team play the Columbus Crew?
Beckham says yes, very confidently.
“I’ve always seen the importance of having your home team,’’ he said. “Obviously, I come from Europe, where everyone has their team. And I think, one of the reasons I wanted it in Miami, is that I know the culture of soccer here is huge. It might not be for MLS, but it’s huge … when Real Madrid and Barcelona come here to play, a 75,000-seat stadium sells out. So, there must be something there. I know we’re talking about Real Madrid and Barca, but there’s something there that I believe we can transfer to our MLS team.”
He knows South Florida fans will demand top-caliber players, and he is more than ready to deliver. He talks of signing three or maybe four internationally known stars, and suspects South American players will be on the list. He wouldn’t mention names, but when asked about Colombian star Falcao, he gushed, and there have been rumors that he’d love Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Does he truly believe those stars would leave Europe to play in MLS?
“I do,” he said, “because I know the number of phone calls I’ve had already from players that are playing, players I’ve played with, players that want to live here and play here. Miami is so popular with a lot of big soccer players, so I know that they love the idea of coming here.”
Beckham envisions not just a Miami team, but a global team, with fans all over the world.
“We are going to have a winning team, and not just the eyes of America will be on this team, but the eyes of the world. That’s one of the reasons I want the stadium where we want it, because I want them to see how Miami is, its best view. And that’s the water and the skyline. That is the image I want beamed across the world.”
Beckham has grown to truly love our city. He speaks about this team and the stadium with passion. This is not just a vanity project. He has given it a great deal of thought, and this jaded longtime sportswriter is feeling optimistic about Miami soccer for the first time in a long time.