Los Angeles (AFP) – The cream of European football will be on display in the United States this month as the International Champions Cup aims to cash in on the growing popularity of the world’s most popular sport amongst American fans.
In the space of little more than a decade, the event has evolved from a haphazard collection of meaningless friendlies to becoming the most prominent pre-season tournament in the world, what organiser Charlie Stillitano describes as the “perfect marriage of football and commerce.”
Manchester United, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Roma and Tottenham Hotspur are all competing in the tournament which comprises 12 matches across 11 US cities.
The biggest coup for organisers has been securing a rare edition of the “Clasico” between Real Madrid and Barcelona in Miami on July 29, where tickets are on sale for between $250 and $4,500.
It is the first meeting of the two giants of La Liga outside of Spain since 1982, when they played a largely forgotten fixture in Venezuela.
Stillitano told AFP the stateside “Clasico”, which will take place at the home of the Miami Dolphins, is being marketed with the same kind of razzmatazz surrounding the NFL’s annual Super Bowl party.
“It is very unique, we are creating a village, we are having concerts, parties, legends games, sponsors activation,” Stillitano said.
“It will be much more like the Super Bowl. We are spending two million dollars just making the event, to enjoy a whole week of football.”
Stillitano declined to go into the details of the sums necessary to attract such high-profile participants to the tournament, which also includes fixtures in Asia and Australia.
“It varies from team to team,” he said. “The teams are paid very well, I can’t say how much … in some cases, we are sharing some revenues with the teams, I can’t go into details.”
Financing for the tournament is generated through ticketing and a network of commercial partners, notably Dutch brewer Heineken, which also sponsors the UEFA Champions League.
– ‘Mr Zero Mistakes’ –
The tournament begins on July 19, when Paris Saint-Germain take on Roma in Detroit with the final US fixture playing out on July 30 with an all-Italian derby between Roma and Juventus in Foxborough, outside of Boston.
“Soccer as a business has really grown, these teams are able to exploit their brand here in the US, which maybe 20 years ago they couldn’t do,” Stillitano said. “They all have robust marketing departments. Soccer is actually now very popular here.”
Since the first friendly match he organised in 2002 — a meeting between Real Madrid and Roma — Stillitano says he has seen a definite shift in the way the event is perceived.
He cites the support of Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez as being instrumental in the event’s maturing.
Mourinho, who has brought Chelsea, Real Madrid and now United to the US for pre-season training camps, calls Stillitano “Mr Zero Mistakes”.
“Because everything he did for me: Zero mistakes,” Mourinho told Sports Illustrated. “The clubs I bring to the US with Charlie, when I leave, the clubs keep the relation.”
Stillitano added: “In 2003 and 2004, teams really didn’t want to do it. In their minds it was not a tournament, just a series of games to show off the team. It’s very, very different with what is is now.”
“Now everything has changed: now the players are serious, the commercial departments are serious and even just importantly, the owners, presidents and managers take it very seriously. That’s the real difference since 2002.”
In future Stillitano is eyeing other lucrative markets for fixtures, with India, South America and the Middle East under consideration.
Stillitano meanwhile remains coy about the suggestion that the International Champions Cup might offer a glimpse of what a breakaway European Super League might look like.
A meeting last year in London involving top clubs and Relevent Sports, which is owned by US billionaire Stephen Ross, fuelled speculation that a breakaway competition was the ultimate goal.
“We want to create the best pre-season tournament in the world, we see where this goes into the future,” Stillitano said. “We have talked about different options for the future. Mr Ross, at this moment, wants to create the best pre-season tournament he can.”