David Beckham’s admission at the glitzy launch in February of his proposed Miami football franchise that “there are going to be a few bumps... there’ll be criticism” has proved as accurate as one of the trademark free-kicks into the top corner that defined his playing career.
It was one of the conditions of his ground-breaking transfer from Real Madrid to LA Galaxy in 2007 that he should be entitled to buy a Major League Soccer franchise for $25 million (£15m), and this vibrant city of two million people – two-thirds of them Hispanic – is the one he has chosen.
The early public-relations campaign, including a follow-up open letter to residents signed “Warmly, David Beckham”, may have been praised by the Miami Herald newspaper as “masterful”, but even in a sport-mad city there are powerful commercial interests to be considered as well as the whole question of whether Florida wants and can support another soccer club.
Barely had Team Beckham announced plans for a 25,000-seater stadium with restaurants, a nightclub and a spectacular waterfront view in the heart of the city’s port district, than objections began. The self-styled “world’s busiest cruise port” made it clear, through the Seaport Alliance and companies like Royal Caribbean Cruises, that there are other plans for development on the lucrative site encompassing offices, hotels and condos but not a football ground. As the Alliance put it: “There are plenty of locations for a stadium. But we only have one port.”
Then there was the political dimension. Mayor Carlos Gimenez came to power partly because of his opposition to the Miami Marlins baseball stadium, opened in 2012 at a cost to the taxpayer of £382 million. Beckham’s open letter made it clear no public funds would be required by his consortium, which includes the Bolivian billionaire Marcelo Claure and long-term associate Simon Fuller of Pop Idol fame. Mayor Gimenez was present at the official launch to confer his blessing but within three months he had perceived the way the wind was blowing and started urging a different venue, just before the County Commissioners voted 11-1 against the port location last week.
Readers aware that England play friendlies against Ecuador and Honduras here this week, at the stadium where 70,000 watched Chelsea against Real Madrid last summer, may be wondering what all the fuss is about. Why the need for a new ground at all? Unfortunately the Sun-Life Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins NFL team, is too big and too far from the “iconic downtown location” that Beckham has demanded from the start. When the city last had a football team, the Fusion’s base was 40 miles north in Fort Lauderdale and so effectively not a Miami team at all.
The latest option is still in the centre of town as required; “no stadium downtown, no team in Miami” Claure says. It would be right next to the American Airlines Arena, home of the national basketball champions for the past two years, Miami Heat, and the city’s real sporting superstars like LeBron James (salary £220,000 per week) whose faces dominate billboards.
The site is currently based round a dock that would need to be drained and filled, adding up to £10m to the cost. It would, however, form a hub with the Heat, adding extra parkland to a central area with parking space, and it is well served by public transport (there is an impressive free monorail system). The nimby objectors are environmentalists concerned about wildlife and making the same point as the port authorities: “there are plenty of other sites.”
If Team Beckham win that one – and it will require a public ballot later this year – what of the prospects for establishing a team here? This is not Manchester, Madrid or Milan, where clubs have thrived for decades. Ivan Gazidis, who worked for MLS for 14 years before joining Arsenal as chief executive, says: “Miami has historically been quite an unpredictable soccer market. When we put on games there we never quite knew whether 60,000 or 15,000 would turn up. You have a lot of Latin people, for whom it is their sport, and it has a real international feel that South America looks to. But soccer has never quite taken hold. I think it’s necessary for MLS and very positive to have a team in Miami, but it’ll have challenges to meet.”
Claure, confident of doing so, says: “What kills me is that the most dynamic, cosmopolitan city in the United States doesn’t have a soccer team. Now all the stars are aligned.” Of course, no “stars” other than Beckham – who can hardly be contemplating a comeback at 42 in 2017 – have yet been signed. Having played with and against so many leading players in a 21-year career, however, and needing a new focus in his life, it is not difficult to see him as a pretty useful recruiting officer. “Cristiano, it’s David...”
“We want to bring very big players,” Beckham has said. “We have to.” First they need a stadium to play in.
Beckham: global success story
Joining his boyhood heroes Manchester United as a trainee in 1991, Beckham goes on to play almost 400 times for them, winning six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League.
After falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson in 2003, he joins Real Madrid’s galacticos but wins only one League title in four seasons.
Family life is initially more enjoyable than the football but after a period dogged by injury he leads LA Galaxy to championships in 2011 and 2012.
In the United States’ close seasons of 2009 and 2010, he plays in Italy with Milan, under Carlo Ancelotti and then Fabio Capello.
Last stop as a player is Paris Saint-Germain, where he wins yet another title, becoming the first Englishman to do so in four countries.
American football, NFL. Formed: 1966
Super Bowls: 1972, 1973
AFC Championships: 1971, 1972, 1973, 1982, 1984
Basketball. Formed: 1988
NBA Championships: 2006, 2012, 2013
NBA Conference Championships: 2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014
Baseball, MLB. Formed: 1993
World Series: 1997, 2003
National League: 1997, 2003
Ice hockey, NHL. Formed: 1993
Conference Championships: 1995-96
Division Championships: 2011-12
Defunct Franchises: Miami Seahawks (American football) 1946-47; Miami Floridians (basketball) 1967-72; Miami Matadors (ice hockey) 1998-99; Miami Manatees (ice hockey) 2002-04; Miami Toros (football) 1972-76 – North American Soccer League Eastern Division, 1974; Miami Fusion (football) 1997-2001 – Major League Soccer Eastern Conference 2001; MLS Supporters Shield 2001.