Greg Cote

What led to El Clasico Miami began with Joe Robbie’s unlikely, accidental love of soccer

Everything is linear, with dots to connect, and what led to Miami being the soccer capital of the world this week happened in the ’70s when began one man’s unlikely, accidental love of soccer. His name was Joe Robbie.
Everything is linear, with dots to connect, and what led to Miami being the soccer capital of the world this week happened in the ’70s when began one man’s unlikely, accidental love of soccer. His name was Joe Robbie. Battle Vaughan/Herald Staff

This happened long before we were watching the way we watch now. It was before ESPN and “SportsCenter.” Before Facebook and Twitter and other social media magnified celebrity, stripped away privacy, made everything instantly known.

The long car glided through a hard nighttime storm, and the man of the car directed his driver to pull up to the corner of a small stadium and idle to a stop, headlights cutting through the torrential rain. After a moment, a security gate slid open on its track, and the long car rolled in toward the soccer field, pulling up catty-corner between the end-zone and sideline bleachers — just feet from where the ball would be set for a corner kick.

The place: Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.

The year: around 1979.

Inside the long car, watching the game through the sheets of rain: The man who put South Florida on the national sports map, the founder and owner of the Miami Dolphins.

The game played on despite the weather, but before long paused as a stadium worker sprinted through the deluge, motioning toward the car.

“They wanted my Dad to turn the headlights turned off,” Tim Robbie remembers it, smiling all of these years later. “It was bothering the players.”

Joe Robbie wasn’t dumb. He wasn’t going to leave his car and get soaked. But neither was he going to miss watching his beloved Fort Lauderdale Strikers, a North American Soccer League team then owned by his wife, Elizabeth.

Everything in life is linear. There are dots to be connected.

So you fast-forward almost 40 years from that distant night, and you wonder.

How did Miami get to this magical week?

How did we become the soccer capital of the world for at least this week?

Why are we hosting El Clasico — Barcelona versus Real Madrid on Saturday night — a club team matchup so famed and glorious that it might take a World Cup final to top it on a marquee?

Why are we a host of the International Champions Cup tournament that also includes a heavyweight Juventus versus Paris-Saint Germain match on Wednesday — top-billing quality if not for the greatest rivalry in international soccer playing out three nights later?

The seed of the answers traces to the ’70s, to the Robbies, to one family’s unlikely and thoroughly accidental infatuation with soccer.

Joseph Robbie, who died in 1990 and would have turned 100 last summer, was a South Dakota lawyer invited by Joe Foss, a former South Dakota governor and then commissioner of the old American Football League, to be the money man behind an AFL expansion franchise in Miami. Robbie said yes, and the Dolphins were born in 1966.

Not quite 10 years later, after his Dolphins had merged into the NFL, the NASL commissioner, Phil Woosnam, begged Robbie to take over the failing Miami Toros (nee Gatos) — a harder sell. To say the cantankerous Robbie was not a soccer guy understates it. But, after much cajoling, he said yes. He moved the team to Fort Lauderdale in 1977 and everything took off. Soccer bloomed. The appetite for it was piqued. The Strikers imported aging international stars such as Irishman George Best, Germany’s Gerd Muller and Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas of Peru. The team began to fill Lockhart, its 18,000-seat bandbox of a stadium.

And Joe and Liz Robbie fell in love with this foreign game that the locals soon adopted.

“The Strikers were the impetus, and they fell into that totally by accident, when the Toros were struggling,” says Tim Robbie, now 61, the Strikers’ chief executive for years. “They were approached to become part of a big group of new owners, but when that group was falling apart, the commissioner came to [my parents] on his knees. Having the Strikers during the heyday of the NASL hooked them. He really enjoyed those days. The Strikers felt like more of a family atmosphere compared to the more corporate feel of the NFL. That’s one thing he really enjoyed.”

The Robbies fell so hard for the beautiful game that, in the mid-1980s, when Joe Robbie conceived his dream to move the Dolphins from the dilapidated Orange Bowl and build a new stadium, he did so with soccer prominently in mind. A visionary, Robbie would privately fund that stadium — christened in 1987 as Joe Robbie Stadium at his children’s insistence — and give it the specifications required to accommodate international soccer.

Eight name changes and 30 years later, the original “JRS” now does business at Hard Rock Stadium, after a massive modernization and refurbishing privately funded by the current Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross.

Ross took the handoff from Robbie on soccer and did not fumble. He has taken full advantage that the stadium he bought in 2008 had been designed multipurpose with an emphasis on futbol as well as football, “And we kept it that way when we renovated,” Ross said.

That would lead Ross to found the annual International Champions Cup soccer tournament in 2013.

The 2017 edition is taking place in three countries, with eight teams — all major, top-line clubs — playing in the United States, including these two mega-matches in Miami.

So how did Hard Rock Stadium luck to get the top-of-the-marquee Barcelona-Real Madrid match?

Wasn’t luck. You can see Ross smiling over the phone.

“We own the tournament. I own the ICC,” he says. “It all started [with the idea] that Miami would be the capital of it.”

The seed of it all took root in the ’70s, with Joe and Liz Robbie’s unlikely, accidental infatuation with a sport that had been foreign to them.

The seed was planted by the man who sat in his long car that night, watching soccer through the pouring rain.

“This is the icing on the cake,” Tim Robbie says now, and he means the biggest rivalry in the world — Barcelona-Real Madrid — playing out this week in the stadium his father designed for such a dream. “It’s a validation of his vision.”

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