Time was when soccer in North America felt like a secret shared only by the initiated — a time long gone now. Indeed, for a brief moment in New York on Tuesday night, just as it will for many more moments all over North America this summer, it felt like the U.S. was the center of the footballing world.
The match-ups for the fifth edition of the International Champions Cup presented by Heineken were being revealed at New York’s Hudson Yards, and from the moment the guests arrived — including ambassadors and club legends from eight of Europe’s top clubs — they were greeted with a view of the city skyline and a banner proclaiming “All eyes on U.S.”
And they will be this summer. As Charlie Stillitano, Chairman of Relevent Sports, and Max Bretos, the ESPN prsenter, revealed the match ups to an invited audience of club officials and press, the sense of expectation grew with each new game listed on screen.
Nemanja Vidic, the former Manchester United captain joked from the stage that he would have to come back to the U.S. and watch all the games, while Juliano Belletti who scored the goal that won Barcelona the 2006 Champions League went a step further, in saying “I want to come back and play.”
No wonder Belletti was keen. Each game in this year’s International Champions Cup is a standalone event in its own right, but it’s hard not to be particularly excited by the prospect of the first Real Madrid vs Barcelona game to be played outside of Spain since 1982, which takes place at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami on July 29th.
Though as Stillitano revealed from the stage, it’s a game that had been 17 years in the making and still almost didn’t happen — he and Stephen M.Ross, whose RSE Ventures own and created the very concept of the International Champions Cup, had traveled to Spain to negotiate the game with both Barcelona and Madrid’s presidents on the eve of El Clásico. By the end of a day’s delicate meetings Ross had secured verbal commitments from both teams — only to realize that a big result in the following day’s game could ruin everything, given the depth of feeling and sensitivities between the two teams.
So both men were truly relieved when a late Sergio Ramos goal ensured that the game finished in a 2-2 draw to keep both camps happy and willing to take this game from what Stillitano called “holy ground” and bring it to the U.S. for the first time.
“I think the two happiest guys in the stadium when that goal went in were myself and Mr Ross, because a draw was perfect — the game was still on!”
It suggests a recurring theme of all of these matches — they matter. As Emilio Butragueño, the former Real Madrid striker, and now Director of Institutional Relations for the club noted from the stage when asked about these games as showpieces for the clubs: “I don’t want to talk about marketing, I want to talk about passion for the game.”
Nemanja Vidic knows a thing or two about passion. The Serb was one of the toughest defenders to play the game, and had a particularly devilish grin when he discussed the prospect of the Manchester derby coming to North America:
“Oh, it’s special. It’s always been special and in recent years it’s become even bigger, since we’re competing against each other for titles. We’re playing a “friendly” match here, but I know, because I was a player, it’s not going to be a really friendly match! It’s not going to be a fight, but it’s going to be competitive.”
And that was a common mantra for the evening. For all that there was a party atmosphere among all the attendees, there was also a real understanding that the ICC represents a critical contribution to top team’s preparations for their domestic seasons, and that the key to that is a built in competitiveness that comes with seeing any of these names on opposite sides of the scoresheet.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of why all true football fans’ eyes will be on the U.S. this summer came from the two ICC Special Ambassadors, Paolo Maldini and Sir Alex Ferguson. Both spoke about the importance of deliberately putting their teams, and young players in particular, under the type of pressure they could expect to experience in league games. After all, as Sir Alex once told Stephen M. Ross:
“Big versus big. You’ll never get a friendly match if you do that…”
They won’t come bigger than this summer’s ICC.