FROM STEVE BRENNER IN MIAMI
As Manchester footballing royalty arrive in Miami for pre-season matches, spare a thought for one of the city’s most famous sporting sons.
David Beckham’s legacy at Old Trafford is of course long since secure, but the former England captain must be pulling out his hair in frustration as he tries to bring the beautiful game permanently to the Magic City.
Back in January it all looked so different. MLS commissioner Don Garber finally gave a beaming Beckham the green light and confirmed the League’s 25th franchise.
Hollywood’s great and the good pledged messages of support. Will Smith, NFL superstar Tom Brady and Neymar all wished their friend ‘Becks’ good luck in video messages.
But on the other side of the argument have been ordinary folk, many living in poverty, opposed to where Beckham wants to build his as yet unnamed team’s stadium. They are mounting a fearsome rearguard action.
Two weeks ago, Beckham was at a public meeting in Miami City Hall for eight hours, leaving at 10.30pm, with Jorge Mas, one of his investors, fighting to convince planners to allow his proposals to develop the latest mooted site, near the city’s airport. It is – incredibly – the fifth so far suggested.
Bruce Matheson, a wealthy local activist who launched a lawsuit last year against plans to build a stadium in downtown Miami, told The Daily Telegraph: “It hasn’t gone well for Beckham and each situation seems more convoluted than the last. It’s been five years so who knows where it’s going to end. He’s sticking in there but each site brings up new problems.”
Soccer is hugely popular in one of the USA’s most culturally diverse cities. The sunshine glitz of South Beach would be a big pull for leading players in the twilight of their careers.
Beckham’s side still has no official name, though his ownership group have trademarked the name Miami Freedom. There is no badge, no shirt, no coach and no players. And, while MLS stress the Miami franchise will begin playing in 2020 at a temporary location, he has no stadium either.
The former England captain could never have imagined it like this. Even before he arrived at this month’s commission hearing at City Hall, there was a four hour procession of dissenters who mostly spoke against the latest plans to turn the Melreese Country Club into a complex which will include a 25,000-seat soccer stadium with restaurants, shops, bars, a 700 room hotel, 400,000 square feet of office space and 110 acres of green, open land. The site is currently home to First Tee, a popular youth golf scheme.
Beckham cleared that hurdle, though one lawsuit contesting the result has been filed. Critics are furious over plans to turn the public land into a for-profit private project valued at $1 billion, even though investors stress First Tee will remain on the leased site though the future remains terribly uncertain.
Miami has had its fingers burned before. Nearly ten years ago, a deal was struck to build a new stadium for the Miami Marlins baseball team. It resulted in the taxpayer facing a bill that has risen to $3 billion. And the admittedly excellent stadium has one key element missing – fans.
Sharing Marlins Stadium, with its retractable roof, would seem the perfect option though when the 43-year-old was allowed to purchase a franchise for just $25 million as part of his contract when he signing for the LA Galaxy in 2007, it was stipulated that a soccer-specific stadium must be built. It has to be centrally located, too.
Miami is a difficult city to navigate, and relative proximity to South Beach is key. The Miami Fusion, the last attempt to stage MLS in South Florida, were based in Fort Lauderdale. They folded in 2001.
Beckham is adamant this is a privately funded project. His investors include local construction magnates Jorge and Jose Mas, Japanese businessman Masayoshi Son, long-time associate Simon Fuller and wireless service provider Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure.
Melreese is his latest attempt to find a suitable site though last year when the remaining plot of land was purchased in Overtown, a downtrodden area, celebrations followed. The joy was short lived.
Residents – many in poverty while suffering a myriad of social and economic problems – were furious. Affordable housing – not a soccer stadium which would also host music events – was what they wanted, so Matheson, who owns land in the area, took legal action.
Matheson accused Dade County of operating a closed bidding process for a key plot of land, and claimed no one but Beckham and his team was allowed to participate. Furthermore, they were bidding for the County-owned land using an appraisal which was 18 months-old – it should be reappraised every year. The value had increased, but wasn’t reflected in the sale price of $9 million, yet to be paid in full.
Matheson’s lawsuit was rejected, but the tenacious millionaire appealed. How could building start while legal action was pending? And if that isn’t enough, the Melreese land is affected by toxic waste which could cost millions to clean up.
Arguments have also begun about what slice of the revenue will go back into the City of Miami coffers and what opportunities will arise for those seeking employment.
As things stand, Beckham is a long way away from seeing building commence let alone watching his own team take to the field. He is desperate to make it happen, but after so many setbacks, how many more can he take?