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Nov 9, 2008

Barca serious about MLS involvement

In mid-October, when an FC Barcelona delegation led by club president Joan Laporta disembarked in Miami for a surprise announcement of a Major League Soccer expansion bid, the waves rippled from New York to Barcelona. Since then, more details have been revealed, and Miami's joint bid between FC Barcelona and Bolivian cell phone magnate Marcelo Claure has started to take shape and gain strength.

Because Miami historically has been a fickle market for soccer despite its large Latino population, its diverse soccer groups were surprised and energized by news of the potential team, which would play in a new stadium (capacity 18,000) on the campus of Florida International University. Speculation is that Laporta, who has vacationed in Miami, would live in Florida once his term as Barcelona president expires in 2010. According to Laporta, hiring the front-office personnel would be Barcelona's responsibility. "That is our specialty," he said.

Miami has several advantages. It's home to knowledgeable soccer fans, and it's the production headquarters for networks such as Univision, Telemundo and Gol TV, and it's one of the closest American cities to South America and to Europe. It also already has a club, Miami FC, which competes in the USL First Division.

Barcelona's exact role in the venture is not yet clear. "It's a very serious initiative, the way we do things at Barça. We would have the sporting lead in this project. We have found the right partner [Claure], who shares our footballing philosophy and has soccer experience," said Laporta. "Also, we think Miami is the gateway to America and a cultural crossroads."

Miami also might be an attractive destination for European stars. Players such as Real Madrid's Raul and Barcelona forwards Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry have vacationed in Miami in the past year. Milan's Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Roma's Christian Panucci, among others, own apartments in Miami Beach, where Nesta rehabbed his knee.

Dario Brignole, Barcelona winger Lionel Messi's commercial agent, also is based in Miami. He says he hasn't spoken to Messi directly about a version of Barca in MLS but says it would make business sense and would be a good link for Messi down the line. (Messi just signed a deal to replace Henry in the Gillette ad with Roger Federer and Tiger Woods.) "The players talk to each other, and [the Messi] family travels here every so often."

Barcelona -- which has a joint marketing agreement with MLS -- and Claure are asking the league to modify its expansion strategy, which foresaw a new team in Seattle for 2009, one in Philadelphia for 2010 and two more in 2011.

Groups from St. Louis, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Atlanta and Portland presented expansion bids to MLS. Miami already has a club, Miami FC, which competed in the USL Division 1 in 2008. MLS is expected to make a decision later this year or in early 2009.

Claure and Laporta insisted their wish was to begin playing in MLS in 2010, and the initial $40 million expansion fee would come from Claure. The financial muscle of the 37-year-old Bolivian entrepreneur, a former goalie and president of the largest Hispanic-owned business in the U.S., is expected to smooth over any resistance at FC Barcelona, a nonprofit sports club. Claure, owner of privately held Brightstar Corp., which has assets of more than $4.8 billion, already is co-president of Bolivia's most successful club, FC Bolivar. He is also a friend of former D.C. United star Marco Etcheverry of Bolivia.

"We think we have all the ingredients in place," Claure said. "We're not very patient, and if we could, we would start in 2009. Never has a team of the quality of Barcelona made the choice of starting a 'sister' team in another league. This is the first time this happens."

Local team, global partnership

"This is a sweetheart deal. The financial risk is zero," said Joan Oliver, Barcelona 's general manager upon his return to Spain . "We think the Barça brand makes the difference. Maybe there are other candidates with strong financial backing, but none with the strength and history of FC Barcelona. Barça has to become a global brand. If we don't get into ventures like these, then we would be overtaken by the teams that have new investors from the East and the Gulf."

The Miami club, which would be constituted once the league approves the bid, would be the second MLS team owned by a European (New York being the other). Laporta and his traveling committee were aware that a constituency of Barcelona "socios" in Catalonia are debating the merits and faults of the MLS initiative.

In an online poll of more 3,000 Barca fans, 56 percent were in favor of the proposed MLS franchise and 42 percent were against.

In an e-mail, Claure fleshed out how the joint MLS gambit came about and noted that he and Laporta have been talking about MLS since February.

"It never made sense … that Miami did not have an MLS team," Claure wrote. [Claure] had several conversations with D.C. United shareholder Will Chang, but it was a few weeks back that Marcelo and Laporta met with Don Garber, commissioner of MLS, and [MLS president] Mark Abbott.

"After the meeting, Claure and Laporta 'both decided that it would be a very good move to partner and bring soccer to Miami.' We said, 'Let's make it happen.'"

After graduating from Bentley University in Boston, Claure organized the international aspects of the Bolivian Soccer Federation during Bolivia's 1994 World Cup preparation. Several years later, during a business visit to Bolivia, he was convinced by Guido Loayza, the former president of the Bolivian Soccer Federation, to get involved with Bolivar FC, the country's most popular club.

Claure and his group have a five-year agreement to use FIU's stadium, which has artificial turf but was built with soccer specifications in mind. The stadium, in western Miami, is ready to stage matches but would have to undergo certain modifications, such as a new press box. FIU's football team plays only five home games at the stadium per season, and the football lines are washable. Moreover, FIU has a soccer field next to the football stadium, which could serve as a training site.

Strategy questions arise

Local Miami soccer promoter Tom Mulroy said, "They are already involved in the sport, and that's good. I would have to reserve judgment until I find out exactly what Barcelona's exact involvement is. But if the team is not good, they risk their putting their name at risk."

Observers feel that a new South Florida MLS franchise has potential.

"People here know what good soccer is about," said Munga Eketebi, FIU's soccer coach, who noted fan support of the defunct Miami Fusion (shut down by MLS in 2001) was strong. "The dumbest thing the MLS did was pull the plug on the Fusion. It was a good thing in the making."

"We want the best for Miami. If it's Barça and MLS, or if it's not," said Aaron Davidson, president of Miami FC. "We're happy to pull our weight in any way, shape or form. Traffic Sports [Brazilian company which owns Miami FC] has sold players to Barcelona."

Eketebi noted that Miami could be an entry point for Barca into the North American market, not for fans, but for nurturing players in Barcelona's famed youth academy. "You send Bojan [Krkic] here for a year, it would be tremendous," Eketebi said.

But Albert Vicens, a former Barca vice president, questioned the Miami initiative in an article published in El Periodico de Catalunya. "It seems to sign a deal with an unknown businessman, in a league that holds little interest for the Barcelona faithful," Vicens wrote. "If it's such a great deal, then why bring in a third party?"

Laporta, when asked what would happen if MLS were to reject Barca's joint bid, responded, "It would be very strange to us, but we would have to go back and see what else they want and we would need to do."

Keyvan Heydari is a print and TV journalist who covers the USL for ESPNsoccernet.

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