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Jun 6, 2014

Miami divided on David Beckham's MLS team hopes

Despite David Beckham's worldwide popularity, his dream of having an MLS franchise in Miami has seen a lot of opposition.

MIAMI -- Sixteen years ago, Miami resident Felipe Ramirez hated David Beckham, but now his livelihood depends on the former England captain.

When Beckham clipped the ball over the wall and past Faryd Mondragon from 30 yards in Lens, raucous celebrations ensued over the English Channel.

Around 5,000 miles away, a 12-year-old Ramirez cursed out loud as Beckham's first England goal beat the Colombian goalkeeper's outstretched right hand in 1998.

"I hated him," he says. "But now I love Beckham."

There are two reasons why Ramirez has buried the hatchet with Beckham.

Firstly, he respects him for the way he carved out a stellar career "despite not being among the best in the world." And secondly, Ramirez is now a fan of Beckham because he could be about to make him a lot of money.

Four years after Beckham announced his arrival on the world stage, Ramirez left his native Colombia for Miami, where he now manages a shop called Mad About Soccer in the Bayside shopping mall.

He says business is good, but it will be a lot better if Beckham's plan to build a football stadium for his new Major League Soccer franchise 100 yards away is given the green light.

After he retired, Beckham activated a clause that was written into his L.A. Galaxy contract that allowed him to set up an MLS franchise. The 39-year-old chose Miami, the Florida city packed with football-mad Latinos, as the host for his as yet unnamed franchise.

Beckham, backed by multi-millionaire pop mogul Simon Fuller and wealthy Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure, picked a site for the team's stadium and promised big stars would flock to the Sunshine State to play soccer.

A man of Beckham's global appeal and wealth usually gets what he wants, so getting approval for his plans would surely be a formality, right? Not in Miami.

"If he walked into Kansas City, Cleveland, and said we want 'X', and we will pay for everything, they would just say: 'Yes, yes, where is the pen? We will sign.' Not here," explains Michelle Kaufman, soccer writer for the Miami Herald.

"I like the idea but a lot of people don't."

Beckham's initial plan for a stadium by the port were rejected by county mayor Carlos Jimenez and Miami mayor Tomas Regalado after protestors launched an aggressive advertising campaign, warning Miamians their city's skyline would be ruined by "out of towners."

The two mayors are now backing Beckham's plan B, which involves building a 25,000-seater stadium in between the Miami Heat's American Airlines Arena and a park that is currently nearing completion. But once again opposition has sprung up, mainly from residents worried about increased traffic.

"I don't think we need that kind of density in the downtown area," said David Pina of the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance.

Two protest signs sit in the windows of separate apartments opposite the strip of water where Beckham plans to fill in and use as his base for the stadium, which would be roughly the same distance away to the Heat Arena as that goal he scored against Colombia in France '98.

Unfortunately for the Beckham camp, Miami has a chequered history when it comes to sports stadia.

"Stadium is a four-letter word in Miami," Kaufman says. "Some people are going to vote no even if they don't know anything about the stadium.

"They have already decided we don't want another stadium because of what happened with the Marlins."

The Marlins are Miami's baseball team, who are currently second in the National League East division.

Spirits may be up after a recent winning streak, but you could not tell as much judging by the number of empty seats at Marlins Park for last Sunday's game against the Atlanta Braves.

The construction of Marlins Park still rankles with the Miami residents who had to pay $509 million toward the construction of the stadium. Beckham insists he, Fuller and Claure will fund the entire soccer franchise -- the building of the stadium on the waterfront, the regeneration of the park and any other costs, but some residents still fear they will be left with a white elephant they have to dispose of if the team is not popular and has to fold just like Miami's previous MLS franchise, the Fusion.

And there are those who fear Miami politics will drive Beckham away.

"Some people don't want him here, it's crazy. I think he could take the team somewhere else like Vegas," says Jorge Castro, a 65-year-old taxi driver from Cuba who has lived in the Sunshine State since 1961.

But if anyone can win over the population then it is Beckham.

David Beckham has been steadfast in his attempts to drum up local support.

He is everywhere in Miami. His face adorns billboards, his wife and children are the talk of celebrity magazines on stalls along Ocean Drive. "If Beckham is ever going to be a success anywhere it will be here in Miami," says Mark Newman, a 30-year-old IT worker from Edgware, London, who now lives in Brickell, the financial district of Miami.

"People here love celebrities. Beckham and his family are a perfect match for Miami."

Beckham's publicity machine will kick into overdrive this weekend if, as expected, England's most-capped outfield player comes to town to watch the Three Lions' final World Cup warm-up game against Honduras.

Beckham is also thought to be spending the weekend discussing future plans for his franchise with local businessmen, politicians and local football groups.

The battle for hearts and minds will enter another phase if the public vote yes in November's referendum. 'Soccer' is popular here, thanks to the five million Latinos who live in Florida. But when fans pack the bars at weekends, they do so to watch the Barclays Premier League or the Primera Division. Beckham needs to convince residents that American soccer is worth watching.

Miami's only current soccer team, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, used to employ Gordon Banks and George Best. Now they have only 200 season-ticket holders, although some of the 'Ultras' among them "jump up and down" and are "cute", according to Jessica Pena, who was attempting to drum up interest in her club at a promotional event before England's game against Ecuador.

Sources close to Beckham say they have a long list of Europe-based stars in the prime of their careers who are ready to play for his franchise, which is set to join the MLS in either 2015 or 2016.

If Beckham has time to visit his Bayside shop in the future, Ramirez will advise him who his first signing should be. "Sign (Radamel) Falcao," Ramirez says. "He's the best."