EL CLASICO COMES TO MIAMI

STEVE BRENNER

MIAMI — An excitable, well-heeled crowd gathered in the Brickell City Centre shopping complex, camera phones poised.

Paolo Maldini, the legendary Italian soccer player, smiled back. He was in good company: a handful of current stars of the world game — Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrés Iniesta and Luis Suárez — were there, too.

Well, at least their faces were. Faces made out of moss.

“Soccer is the most powerful sport in the world,” said Paloma Teppa, the founder of the botanical art gallery Plant the Future, who had created the works with the local muralist Andrew Antonaccio. “So combining it with Mother Nature is a wonderful thing.”

Teppa, an Argentine, said she was unsure if any of the Barcelona and Real Madrid players in town for a match this weekend had seen the portraits, but it hardly seemed to matter.

The seeds of soccer fascination had been sown wide here for the past few weeks as everyone, it seems — artists and performers, reporters and marketers, small shops and big brands — tried to attach themselves to Saturday night’s big show: a highly priced matchup between Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona at Hard Rock Stadium. A total of 66,014 people were said to attend, some of them paying $500— or much, much more — for the chance to watch Barcelona’s 3-2 win from the stadium’s upper reaches.

The uniqueness of it all is palpable. It was the first time this storied matchup between Spain’s two most prominent soccer teams, the rivalry known as El Clásico, has been played on American soil. Indeed, it was only the second occasion the rivals have met outside Spain. The last was in 1982, during a postseason tournament in Venezuela that was, bizarrely, shoehorned in before that summer’s World Cup back in Spain.

That encounter, though, did not reach television screens in Europe. It did not sell sponsorships or pricey insider-access packages like the one being offered by 1 Hotel on South Beach that promised “amazing experiences at the hotel and also sideline seats at the game” — all yours, for just $750 a night (two-night minimum, please).

All week, anywhere you stepped in Miami last week, it was impossible to be unaware of what was coming.

The marketing people had done a fine job. Reminders were everywhere, from highway billboards to colorful flags that blew in the breeze. The faces of Messi, the brilliant Barcelona and Argentina forward, and Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid’s matinee idol and the reigning world player of the year, were never hard to find.

There was a somewhat subliminal feeling to it all. The circus was in town.

So, too, was ESPN, which gleefully took advantage of a rare sense of calm in the sports calendar to give its coverage of the match the full Super Bowl treatment. That this was, essentially, just another game to ensure sharpness is maintained during La Liga’s preseason did not prevent the network from having its flagship news show, “SportsCenter,” decamp to South Florida for a few days to join the party.

A crew of 25 reporters and analysts — aided by producers and camera operators and executives and various helpers — flew in to provide as much content, in English and in Spanish, as the network could handle.

“From an overall ESPN perspective, it’s two storied teams in the world game who have the financial powers to retain the best players, and they are playing out a storied rivalry here in the U.S.,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN’s senior vice president for programming. “And, for us, that is a unique opportunity to tell the story, to cover it live, to stage events in the city, and to tell that narrative and amplify it.”

Freddy Rolon, the vice president and general manager of ESPN Deportes, said the clamor accompanying the game justified the investment.

“We brought Messi to the U.S. in 2007, and took him to Disney World,” Rolon recalled. “He was able to wander around, go on rides and enjoy himself.”

The experience, he said, would be quite different if they tried that again today.

“He would be mobbed if he did that now,” Rolon said.

Still, with Messi and Neymar, Barcelona’s star Brazilian forward, involved in the narrative, and persistent hopes — dashed Friday afternoon — that Ronaldo might make an appearance, there was plenty for organizers to promote, for TV networks to talk about, and for fans to consume.

The match itself is merely the exclamation point of this summer’s International Champions Cup, the brainchild of the Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and organized by his Relevent Sports company that is now a permanent fixture in European soccer’s off-season. To fill this year’s field, Relevent brought England’s Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, Italy’s Roma and Juventus and the French champions Paris St.-Germain to crisscross the country, playing to (mostly) packed houses.

But this year, Ross and Relevent’s chairman, Charlie Stillitano, wanted to raise the bar, so after a trip to Barcelona last December for a bona fide Clásico, they persuaded both clubs to bring the show across the Atlantic.

Ross and Stillitano knew it would sell. They were not wrong, even if the prices were eye-wateringly unaffordable for most fans.

“I wanted to take my family, but four tickets at $900 each is too much,” said Edward Miller, a Miami resident who had hoped to take his 7-year-old son, Matteo, to see his heroes. “I can go to the real El Clásico in Spain for that money.”

For the ticketless, events like the Casa Clásico in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami offered a chance to sample the atmosphere of a rivalry that dates to 1902. On Friday, live music filled the air while Barcelona legends like Patrick Kluivert and Carles Puyol competed in a small exhibition game and local chefs prepared authentic Spanish cuisine. On Thursday, in a mixed martial arts event — called Combate Clasico — a fighter from Barcelona challenged a rival from Madrid.

For others, though, only the real thing would suffice. Never has such a meaningless game felt so meaningful.

“There was no way I was not going to go to this match,” said Mickey Marrero, decked out in the famous white of Madrid while his son Anthony, 10, stood alongside in Barcelona colors, still smiling after having his picture taken with Neymar at a Nike event earlier in the day.

“I paid $384 a ticket, went to the Juventus-P.S.G. match on Wednesday and also to Orlando to see Tottenham. We have taken full advantage.”

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