Grant Wahl tells the story of the ex-MLS general manager who became the most connected American in European soccer.
How do you go from being a washout as an MLS general manager to being the best-connected American in European soccer?
It’s a question worth pondering when you’re watching TV on a Saturday morning, and the camera shows Sir Alex Ferguson at a Manchester United game, and the guy sitting next to him is … wait … is that Charlie Stillitano?!? The guy from New Jersey? The old MetroStars GM?
So you look into doing a story, and suddenly unexpected things start happening. Out of the blue, Sir Alex calls you on the phone one day to talk about Charlie. (“Holy cow,” you say, scrambling for your notebook.)
“You earn trust by your behavior with people,” Sir Alex says. “We first met through Manchester United and he was doing the tours. I’ve got a million Charlie stories. He invites you over for dinner when he’s at home, and it’s a long day of humor, fun and good food. When Charlie goes into a room, he exudes that personality, and you say to yourself, ‘Christ almighty, that guy, he can talk!’ A lovely guy.”
A few days later it’s Chelsea manager José Mourinho on the line. “I call Charlie ‘Mr. Zero Mistakes,’” he says, “because everything he did for me: Zero mistakes. The clubs I bring to the U.S. with Charlie, when I leave, the clubs keep the relation. They don’t want to lose that fantastic connection to the U.S. through Charlie.”
“Now he’s my friend, he’s not just a guy who works with me in the preparation of preseason,” Mourinho continues. “But the friendship is the consequence of Mr. Zero Mistakes. It’s not the reverse.”
You could have these conversations with any number of A-list European soccer figures. Managers like Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. Superagents like Jorge Mendes. And executives like Florentino Pérez of Real Madrid, Nasser Al-Khelaifi of PSG and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of Bayern Munich.
How did this happen? The easy explanation is that Stillitano built a business organizing the U.S. summer tours of the world’s top clubs during their preseason, first under the name ChampionsWorld and these days the Guinness International Champions Cup.
But there’s a longer story here, and it’s about a guy who can be the biggest personality in a room that includes Sir Alex Ferguson. A guy who’s an American Soccer Original.
“When I was a kid in New Jersey, I saw the power of international soccer,” Stillitano says one day over a lunch that has extended past the three-hour mark. “My dad and his buddies started the Italian-American Soccer League. I played for Elizabeth Sport Club. It was a West German club. Later became Union Lancers. My dad had a relationship with Santos of Brazil. This was the early ‘70s, so I remember Santos against West Ham with Pelé and Bobby Moore at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City!”
“Another time Lazio came over to play Santos there. It was 1973. Santos had seven national team players from the 1970 world champions, arguably the greatest team ever. I was an Italy fan, still heartbroken about the loss in the World Cup final. They offered me Pelé’s jersey, and I said no. He broke my heart when I was 10 and they beat Italy.”
“So Lazio is playing Santos in Jersey City. Whenever Pelé would leave the field in those days, he had to leave unexpectedly and early. Otherwise, people would run onto the field. Santos was winning 3-0. There’s 30,000 people in the stadium. I’m a ball kid. So Lazio got a penalty, and then Pelé ran off the field! You’re talking Pelé in the early ‘70s. People are ripping his clothes off. I remember him in a jockstrap throwing his socks off for people.”
“So cops come out on horseback in Jersey City. It’s mayhem. And a cop tells me: ‘Get in the goal.’ There’s no goalkeeper for the penalty. So I’m in the goal, there’s horses and cops, and who’s at the penalty spot? Giorgio Chinaglia! So help me God. And he kicks it in the goal.”
“Years later, I’m on the radio with Giorgio [they had a regular show on SiriusXM before Chinaglia passed away in 2012] telling the story of how I met Pelé in the 3-0 game against Lazio. And Giorgio says, ‘It was 3-1. I scored.’ And I say: ‘You didn’t score against Santos! I was the goalie!’”
“But even then I could see the power of international soccer, mainly in the ethnic world I came from.”
Stillitano didn’t become the best-connected American in European soccer overnight. After graduating from Princeton, where he played on the soccer team with Bob Bradley, Stillitano went on to get a law degree and eventually was named the venue director for Giants Stadium at the 1994 World Cup.
With Major League Soccer starting in 1996, Stillitano became the general manager of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. And when the league decided to delay its start until 1996, Stillitano organized a club tournament in Giants Stadium in ’95 called the Parmalat Cup with Parma, Boca Juniors, Benfica and the U.S. men’s national team.
The Parmalat Cup was viewed as a success, foreshadowing what Stillitano would end up doing years later. And the MetroStars? Well, let’s just say they didn’t have anyone making comparisons to the old New York Cosmos—favorable ones, at least. The Metros had losing seasons in each of their first four years, finishing last twice.
That year, Sports Illustrated magazine assigned a young writer to produce a story about how bad the MetroStars really were. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to ask a team for interviews to write such a piece, but that’s exactly what I did.
The embattled GM Stillitano, to his credit, sat down for an interview.
The resulting story was titled “Deriding the Metros: The Woeful Play of Its Flagship Franchise Raises Serious Questions About MLS.” The first sentence began: “Rooting for the worst pro team in America….” Another sentence: “At Metrofan.com, whose opening page proclaims WE SUCK, more than 650 supporters have signed an e-mail petition to jettison Stillitano.” Newly hired MLS commissioner Don Garber was quoted saying, rather ominously, “Some bold move is definitely necessary at this point.”
Within weeks, Stillitano was out as the GM. “You got me fired, and I’m still nice to you!” he cracks over lunch 16 years later. This is true. But it also gave Stillitano the chance to make use of the contacts he had made in Europe to stage friendlies in the U.S. on a more regular basis. He formed ChampionsWorld in 2000, and he quickly built relationships with some of the world’s biggest clubs—and the men who run them.
It’s a business built on relationships. And as Stillitano learned long ago, you keep those relationships by being Mr. Zero Mistakes. He likes to tell a story about the day Fabio Capello’s Roma squad refused to get off the bus one day in 2002 because their hotel was in the New Jersey Meadowlands and not in New York City.
“They’re saying, ‘Boss, we’re not getting out of the bus.’ They say their agreement was they brought everybody: Cafú, Totti and Batistuta are on that team. But we had to put them in New York City. Guys don’t want to stay in New Jersey. So we had a dispute. It really looked like a hostage situation.”
“I’m on the phone, and Capello’s outside the bus. He’s saying in Italian: ‘Let me be very clear. I brought you everybody. And the team is not coming off the bus until you put everyone in New York City.’ Now I’m confronted with this guy, Capello, who’s known as one of the hardest asses in the world. I start talking: ‘Fabio, I apologize, I know this isn’t what you bargained for. But it’s a good hotel. We’re close to the stadium….’”
“He looked at me as if to say: ‘Do you need my help here?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘I’m going to yell at you in front of everyone here outside the bus to show my players I’m trying to get it done, but we’ll stay here. O.K.? If you try to get us into New York City, that would be a real help tomorrow and the next day.’”
“So he’s going crazy outside the bus at me, and meanwhile he’s actually saying, ‘We’re good, right?’ Next thing, Totti, Cafú and Panucci are all walking off the bus into the Sheraton Meadowlands. And the next day I got ‘em into New York City.”
Making profits off those summer friendlies hasn’t always been easy, though. The U.S. Soccer federation gets a cut of every game Stillitano organizes, to the point that he says U.S. Soccer has made “$10 million minimum” off games that he has promoted over the years.
It’s true that not everyone in the U.S. soccer community has always appreciated the high-priced summer friendlies, which some see as meaningless money grabs. But Stillitano disagrees.
“I’ve been called a pirate, not a pioneer, but I really believe that I’ve helped soccer in this country grow,” he says. “I have a sense of responsibility, but I don’t apologize anymore. The people who do like it have benefited from it. And I’d like some recognition that I’m not an idiot.”
The cuts to U.S. Soccer helped lead to ChampionsWorld declaring bankruptcy in 2005 and Stillitano’s partners filing a lawsuit against the federation (U.S. Soccer won by summary judgment, and a settlement was reached after an appeal was filed). Yet Stillitano has shown a knack for finding investors to keep the games going. In 2007 he joined the heavyweight Creative Artists Agency, which promoted the summer games for five years as the World Football Challenge, and then in 2012 CAA sold the rights to Relevent Sports and Entertainment, founded by Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross and Matt Higgins.
Stillitano joined RSE, which now stages the Guinness International Champions Cup, a tournament that expanded this year to include games in Australia and China in addition to the United States. RSE promotes other games involving the Brazil, Argentina and Portugal national teams in the U.S., and Stillitano spends much of the year traveling to the big European clubs organizing the following summer’s events.
That’s why he’s so often spotted in the VIP section at big European club games. And it has allowed him to become even closer to people like Ferguson, who’s a regular at Stillitano’s New Jersey house for dinner.
“You go there, and there’s a roast and lasagna and all sorts of cakes and ice cream,” says Sir Alex. “He’s very giving of himself.”
“I really think they’re true friendships,” Stillitano says of Sir Alex, Mourinho and the others. “When a manager comes to my house for dinner, they don’t think twice of saying, ‘I want the lasagna Bolognese and the veal Milanese!’ I’m like: ‘Both?!? It’s 1 in the afternoon! We’ve gotta go shop and cook!’ Look, it’s much easier to order in or have a bit to eat in the City, but now they come to my house and they’re in my home, and it’s genuinely done with just friendship.”
“It’s not like since Sir Alex retired that I don’t want to see him anymore. It’s genuine. If I get fired today, I’m still friends with these guys.”