Six years ago, Chivas de Guadalajara defeated FC Barcelona 4–1 in front of a sold-out crowd at Sun Life Stadium in Miami. On its own, that result sounds memorable. A Liga MX side that finished eighth in the Clausura tournament soundly defeated a team full of worldwide stars that just won the UEFA Champions League title.
Do you remember that game? It’s O.K. if you don’t. After all, it was a preseason friendly, played as part of the World Football Challenge, a tournament of such friendlies. Other than preparations for the teams’ upcoming seasons, it meant nothing.
But to Stephen Ross, who at the time was on the cusp of buying the Miami Dolphins, it meant quite a bit.
“Knowing how hard it was to sell Dolphins tickets, it showed me the interest there was in soccer in this country,” he told SI.com.
So, being a businessman, Ross capitalized on that interest, despite never being involved in soccer at any level before.
“He literally saw the changing face of Miami,” said soccer promoter Charlie Stillitano of that 2011 game at Sun Life, which drew 70,080. “He wasn’t getting that for the Dolphins!”
We’re six years removed from that first game, and now Ross has helped to bring Barcelona back to Miami, but this time to play its bitter rival, Real Madrid. The fixture is significant enough on its own–it’s the first edition of El Clásico to take place outside of Europe in 35 years–but it’s also part of a much larger event that was created entirely under Ross’s watch.
The International Champions Cup is now in its fifth year of bringing high-profile teams from around the world to play games in front of big crowds in locations across the United States.
"Probably because he was not entrenched in our crazy world of soccer, he was able to bring things to the table that are not normal," says Stillitano, who Ross hired shortly after that first game to build what is now known as the ICC. "He said 'I want a tournament, I want it to be a real tournament."
That meant doing away with one of the sport’s most commonly-used terms.
“I found interest in soccer in this country, but the games were all being called friendlies. We wanted to create a tournament and not a friendly.” Ross said. “It’s not an American term. People want to see a games being played where they’re actually playing for something.
“[American] Football is still my first love. I’ve grown to really enjoy soccer, but my passion is really to service the fans and make it a great experience. You just have to know the differences in how you make it a great event.”
That, in a nutshell, is the reasoning for the marketing and structure the ICC. You won’t find the words “friendly” or “exhibition” mentioned anywhere in official materials. It’s why teams in the first edition were put into a convoluted, triple-elimination bracket, with a championship match at one end (and a seventh-place match at the other). It’s why there are still group standings in this year’s edition, despite it not being a round-robin tournament, and why all matches that end in a tie after 90 minutes go straight to penalties.
“I thought what America wanted, with the growth of soccer, was to see the best players in the world,” Ross said. “Soccer is the only major sport where if you win in the United States, you’re not the world’s champion. That can never be the case with soccer. I really felt that bringing these players and these teams here for the fans was better than what currently existed.”
Still, the fact of the matter is that the ICC is, in function if not form, not appreciably different from the World Football Challenge. Or, really, any number of other preseason tournaments for big clubs. The results in these tournaments don’t count in domestic or continental leagues. Unlimited subs are allowed. Yes, the team’s stars are contractually required to play meaningful minutes. But teams also play second-choice, third-choice, or even youth team lineups for halves at a time.
Still, there are a couple things that make the ICC different. One of them is Ross himself.
"The first ICC was done in six months. Then the next one we decided to expand to Asia. These are not things for the faint of heart!," Stillitano says. "He took the trust that we have with the teams, and with his vision and financial clout, we were able to sustain for the first few years of investment in the sport. It seems easy, but remember that guys like him are rich and successful for a reason. They don’t just throw money at stuff. He had the wherewithal to stick with his investment."
How best to augment that, though, on the field? Bring real, fierce rivalries into play. This year’s edition has already featured a Manchester Derby in Houston. Now, this weekend, it moves on to El Clásico–a rivalry that Ross without hesitation describes as “the biggest rivalry in the world, in any sport.”
It will take place at Hard Rock Stadium, the new name for that same Miami stadium where Chivas and Barcelona played six years ago. A lot has changed in that time. The ICC, which lost money in its first years of operation, is now profitable, according to Ross. Hard Rock Stadium itself had been renovated, with a roof and seating arrangement that is more than a little reminiscent of European soccer cathedrals. Tickets have been bought from over 50 countries outside the United States, and ESPN is going all-out with its coverage for the game.
And it might not have happened if not for Sergio Ramos.
Back in December of last year, Ross and Stillitano flew to Barcelona to meet with the presidents of both clubs ahead of the first Clasico of the season at Camp Nou. They were not the first to ask the clubs to take their marquee matchup on the road. But they were the first in a generation to actually make it happen.
"[Ross] sits down with Florentino Perez and Josep Bartomeu, he says 'You guys have a great product here,' which, no sh—, right?," Stillitano recalls. "But then he says 'I’m going to make this like the Super Bowl. Charlie’s going to make sure that we respect the game and respect your team. This will not be a circus, we’re not going to ruin this special thing you have, and I’m going to pay you fairly for doing this.'
"The guy just has this incredible touch. They’ve said no to me and hundreds of other people that have asked them the same question. They look Steve Ross in the eye and said yes.”
The tentative agreements were made, but as the Clásico they were there to see it soon became evident that "tentative" was the operative word.
“I said ‘What we don’t want is for one team to win this game 4–0,’” Stillitano said. “This deal will collapse.”
After watching a few minutes of his first Clásico, Ross understood why.
“When they play each other, they don’t want to lose to each other,” he said. “That’s why they don’t go around playing each other usually. If you don’t play often one can’t say they’re definitely better than the other.”
Barcelona took a 1–0 lead into the 90th minute, as Ross and Stillitano watched from the president's box. Then, in a dramatic moment, Ramos scored a last-minute equalizer. Camp Nou fell silent except for the visiting Madrid fans. The first Clasico of the season ended in a tie.
“He just looked at me and said “That’s good isn’t it?,” Stillitano says through a laugh. “I said ‘Yeah, that’s really good.’’
The end result is this Saturday's game, where the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar will suit up against the two-time reigning Champions League winner (though Cristiano Ronaldo's presence remains a mystery), events throughout the week hosted by the tournament's various sponsors and a sold-out crowd in South Florida.
"People have accused this of being just an exhibition. But you see in the period of time that the stars play, you’ll find that they’re really playing to win," Ross says. "I think fans are seeing the game played at a level that they’ve never seen before and can’t see anywhere else in this country."