FC Barcelona has its eyes on Miami and the U.S.
With a trophy case chock-full of Spanish League, Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Copa and UEFA hardware, FC Barcelona clearly knows something about soccer. Now the club that will celebrate its 109th birthday in November hopes to bring its winning ways to North America.
Barcelona's chosen portal is Miami, which is competing against St. Louis, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Atlanta and Portland, Ore., to secure one of the two MLS expansion franchises that are scheduled to come online in 2011. (The MLS is expected to award the franchises during 2009.)
The proposed Miami franchise would play its home games in the new soccer-friendly stadium at Florida International University, and has drawn strong political support in Miami Dade County. Barcelona is partnering with Bolivian-born Miami businessman Marcelo Claure, founder of the wireless communications company Brightstar.
During a telephone interview on Thursday afternoon, FC Barcelona President Joan Laporta described his club's plan in simple and direct terms -- import Barcelona-style futbol to the the States, improve the quality of MLS Play, build the Barcelona brand and, in the process, "make a better world."
The latter objective, Laporta said, is evident in the club's decision to hand valuable real estate on its jerseys to UNICEF rather than leasing the space to a for-profit. "That is a message to the world," Laporta said, "especially to the most vulnerable boys and girls of the world, that Futbol Club Barcelona is returning things to the world, to the society."
And as for futbol? Barcelona's name is synonymous with such talented players as Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi (and Ronaldinho and Deco, who were traded away to, respectively, AC Milan and Chelsea).
If the Miami bid succeeds, Laporta said, Barcelona would stick close to its philosophy of drawing up-and-coming players from athletes enrolled at its soccer academies. And, yes, Barcelona would establish academies in the U.S. to funnel athletes into its system.
Laporta wouldn't rule out importing a European superstar from Europe -- a la the L.A. Galaxy with David Beckham -- to anchor an MLS franchise. But he also emphasized the importance of young players trained in Barcelona's ways.
"It is better to build with players that have the hunger to win," Laporta said. "We would want this franchise, the Miami franchise, to be very competitive. Would like to win."
Laporta said that Miami was chosen because of synergies with Claure, who already is involved with soccer, as well as the demographics of South Florida. Though the last professional soccer team to play in South Florida (the Miami Fusion, an MSL franchise) folded seven years ago, Loporta is confident that there are "plenty of supporters of soccer" -- if the team offers the right kind of game.
As for the naysayers who hold that futbol won't succeed in the U.S.? Laporta points to MLS franchise price tags that rose from $5 million a few years ago to $40 million in the most recent league expansion.
"The evolution of MLS is progressing very well," Loporta said. "We are sure that our franchise will be, first of all, competitive in sporting affairs. Secondly, it will be profitable for shareholders, for the owners of the franchise."
The best way to reach those dual goals, Loporta said, is to "touch the hearts of the people in the Miami area. This is important, and we know how to do it."
The willingness of Barcelona and Claure to buy into the MLS also throws more cold water on Ruud Gullit's conspiracy theory.
-- Greg Johnson
Photo: FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi after scoring a goal against Atletico de Madrid during a Spanish League soccer match in Barcelona. Credit: David Ramos / Associated Press