The Miami Connection
Billionaire Marcelo Claure wants to bring soccer to South Florida. He just doesn't want to talk about it.
Here’s a little tossed-off aside from Marcelo Claure, the wealthiest Bolivian alive, a self-described embodiment of the American dream, and a guy trying, for the second time, to bring a Major League Soccer team to South Florida.
“Departures magazine asked me for an interview about our plans in Miami. I said, ‘Sure!’ But then I ran it past David and he said, ‘I hate Departures magazine.’ So that was that. No interview. No more contact. Completely cut off.”
When Claure shared this with me, we were drinking beers in one of the skyboxes that ring Sporting Park in Kansas City. Below us, Graham Zusi and his teammates dodged slide tackles from the visiting Chicago Fire. One of Claure’s young daughters crawled across his lap. Another daughter asked for help playing a game on her new iPhone 6 Plus. A couple seats over, Claure’s second wife crunched potato chips with a friend from England while Claure dove into detail about his new job as the CEO of Sprint, the wireless phone company. And then about why he’d left his first wife. (“You can get tired of someone, you know?”) And then about how he finds the quality of play in MLS so low that he is unable to watch its games on television. (“I just, I can’t. You know?”)
Departures magazine is one of those aspirational lifestyle guides. It lists trendy wristwatches to buy and the hippest whiskeys to drink and the best new restaurants in Lisbon and Los Angeles and Playa del Carmen. It seems inoffensive by design. I’m amazed that anyone might develop “hate” for it.
Then again, this “David” of whom Claure speaks is David Beckham. He’s a bit of a hothouse flower. In addition to being among the most famous men in the world, he is one of Claure’s partners in the MLS Miami project. Beckham is the front man, the guy who gets the attention. He had a highly discounted $25 million expansion fee written into his contract when he first signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy back in 2007. Though it’s widely recognized that a third partner, American Idol producer Simon Fuller, pulls Beckham’s strings, Beckham apparently can still tell Claure, the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, to stop talking to an obscure magazine that recently revealed “London’s Wine Shop of the Moment.” And Claure, a man who once built a multibillion-dollar company from the ground up, will listen.
I spent hours with Claure in Kansas City. I formally interviewed him at Sprint headquarters before the game. I then joined him at the stadium, where Sporting Kansas City squeaked out a win with two late goals. Prior to my trip to the Midwest from my home in Miami, I’d flown all the way to La Paz, Bolivia, to check out the city where Claure grew up, to interview his mentor, and to watch the soccer team Claure controls there, Club Bolívar, host a Copa Libertadores semifinal.
In Kansas City, when the game ended, we slipped down to the stadium’s VIP lounge to feed hot dogs to his daughters. I first grabbed Claure another bottle of Boulevard Pale Ale, opening for myself another bottle of Boulevard Wheat. I learned from Claure’s wife, Jordan, that Marcelo wants seven kids in total (he has four), but that she’s only got one more to give him, tops. From Jordan Claure I also learned that coca leaf tea is a great remedy for altitude sickness, which I sure wish she’d told me before I flew to La Paz.
Marcelo Claure gave me his private cell phone number, and his private e-mail address, too. I shared my info with him, also trading contacts with his friend from England. For at least the third time that night, Claure told me he was going to be in Miami in 10 days and that we should definitely get together at the house he still keeps there. After the girls finished their food and we drained the last of our beers, we walked around the playing field to reach the private garage where Claure had parked his SUV.
His wife looked forward to talking some more with me about Bolivia, she said. The two young girls buckled into their car seats and said goodbye in polite and adorable unison. Claure shook my hand and said, “Okay, see you soon in Miami.” Then he slipped behind the wheel of his black Range Rover, checking messages on his phone for a moment before shifting into drive and slowly pulling onto the street.
That was the last I ever heard from Marcelo Claure. He never replied to my texts or e-mails. We never did meet up again, though he did come back to Miami, though I live not six minutes from his house, and though he subsequently granted an interview to Ocean Drive, a Miami-focused lifestyle magazine that has not yet, it seems, offended David Beckham.
Any reporting I attempted from then on became very difficult. The friend from England went dark. I tried so many times to interview Claure’s brother, Martin, who lives in Miami, that I formed a bond with his office manager. I never did talk to Martin, though. Repeated attempts to speak with Beckham and Fuller were denied. Requests to take Claure’s picture for this story went ignored. A simple attempt to confirm that Claure once briefly worked for a cell phone start-up in California earned me a call from a vice president of corporate communications at Sprint, who demanded to know what I was up to.
In other words: That was that. No more contact. Completely cut off.
A year ago, when Major League Soccer announced that it would be expanding to Miami, Marcelo Claure was barely visible. In a pep rally of a press conference held outside Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, the focus fell on just one of the team’s three prospective owners: David Beckham. A few crumbs of ancillary attention dropped down to Fuller. As a Miami resident with an interest in soccer, I found myself most curious about the third owner, who wasn’t even on the podium.
I’d been watching Claure emerge out of nowhere to become Magic City royalty. He’d tried—and failed—to bring an MLS team here in 2008. Photos circulated from his very public 40th birthday party, where Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez sang his praises. Claure began sitting courtside at Miami Heat games, the pinnacle of status in this town (at least before LeBron left). He popped up in a New York Times story about Miami becoming the capital of Latin America. Claure’s a Bolivian? And now an American citizen? Then why is he saying nice things about Evo Morales? Bolivia’s president, a socialist with anti-American positions, is the kind of foreign leader that Miamians tend to reflexively despise.
Claure worked for the Bolivian Football Federation when his country played in the 1994 World Cup. He remains involved with FIFA. When a team from Bolivia started making noise in the Copa Libertadores, and when I saw that Claure is the team’s de facto owner—technically, he owns the company set up to manage the team—I realized that the man absent from the stage at the museum was the most interesting guy in the room.
When I first started researching him, I was struck by his presence on social media. He was all over it, remarkably so for a businessman. On Twitter he posted pictures of his travels around the world. There he was at the Kentucky Derby, and then at a Champions League final, and then on vacation at an upscale fishing retreat in New Zealand. On Instagram he documented the month he spent in Brazil for the World Cup—a full month, with 55 of his friends and family. Below a photo Claure posted of a trip to India, a friend commented, “Can I please trade lives with you?”
Since last August, when he moved to the Midwest to become the CEO of Sprint, Claure has buttoned up his image. “I can’t go out to clubs here or anything,” he told me in October, when I met with him in Kansas City. “I love to have fun. Life should be enjoyed. But we’re laying a lot of people off. It’s not a good idea for me to be seen having too much fun.” Claure has since set his Instagram account to private. (He’s also changed his profile description, which used to read “El Rey”—The King—back to just his name.) His tweets, occasionally still touching on Bolivian soccer, now largely center on his work at Sprint. Which is a little boring. Claure sounded bored by Kansas City in general.
“Once or twice a month I have to get out of here,” he said. “Go to New York or somewhere, just for the stimulus.”
The most arresting physical feature of Marcelo Claure is his height. He stands six feet, six inches tall. When I interviewed him at Sprint headquarters, I noticed that he slouched a bit at the shoulders and neck when he entered the room and that he slouched lower still as he shook my hand. It was as if he was trying to shrink his body to appear less intimidating. Claure dressed casually in jeans, an oxford shirt, and simple black loafers. In pictures I’ve seen of him in high school in Bolivia, Claure is stick-thin and gangly. Now 44, his face and frame have filled out. He looked put-together—gel glistened in the thick black hair he cuts conservatively—but he gave off a sense of approachability. Like, “Hey, I may be the CEO around here, but you can still talk to me. I’m just a regular guy.”
“He’s open to people, friendly, like a rich person’s dog,” jokes Guido Loayza, the man who gave Claure his first job out of college, with the Bolivian Football Federation.
Claure told me his ability to quickly win people over has been key to his success. He made his money in cell phones, mastering distribution among the many countries of Latin America. He entered the business, he said, by chance. A few years out of college, living in Massachusetts after his short stint with Bolivia’s soccer federation, he’d simply walked into a cell phone store, struck up a conversation with the owner, and ended up so charming the man, a Venezuelan who was reportedly fed up with the business, that the owner agreed to give Claure his store for free, just to take it off his hands. According to an oft-repeated legend, which I have struggled to independently confirm, within a year Claure had transformed that one freebie into the largest chain of cell phone stores in New England.
From there Claure moved to California for a bit, and then to Miami, where he launched Brightstar, his successful distribution company. He ended up in his current job after Brightstar got bought out by Masayoshi Son, a Japanese tycoon who already effectively owned Sprint. (The purchase of Brightstar reportedly made Claure a billionaire.) Son sat Claure on Sprint’s board of directors. Within six months, he asked Claure to run the company himself.
“We met up in Asia when I had business there,” Claure told me. “We had this fantastic chemistry, and so we decided to work together.”
Claure says such instant chemistry also led Loayza to offer him that first job in the Bolivian Football Federation only hours after they met, by chance, on an airplane. Claure was flying back to La Paz after finishing his studies at Bentley College in Massachusetts.
“I was sitting in first class because I had used my miles to upgrade. This friend of my family, his name is Juan, he came to me and said, ‘You know, the president of the federation is sitting back there.’ ‘Oh great,’ I said, ‘I would love to meet him.’ So I convinced the lady in first class to let him come up. So he sat with me. Then we drank, we talked, we chatted and all that. When we landed he says, ‘I want you to work with me.’ So that’s how we got started.”
Claure stayed with the federation through the 1994 World Cup, which was Bolivia’s only modern appearance in the finals. He’s remained active in soccer. He serves on FIFA’s Committee for Fair Play and Social Responsibility. In 2008 he bought control of Club Bolívar, in La Paz, reportedly infusing millions of his own dollars into the country’s most successful club. Last year he tried to return to the federation as president. (He ended up being disqualified for living outside of Bolivia.) And now he’s trying once again to bring Major League Soccer to Miami.
“I put all my passion and my energy into my work, but life cannot be all work; it has to be fun,” he said. “Soccer is the fun part of my life.”
I’ve read just about every word ever written about Marcelo Claure. I watched an interview he gave at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in which he says he’s living the American dream. I also watched a speech about entrepreneurship he gave in Barcelona, and several interviews he’s granted to television stations in Bolivia. I now know more about Sprint and AT&T and data-plan pricing than I ever imagined learning. As I’ve digested accounts of his life, I’ve failed to nail down key points of Claure’s history with any certainty.
I’ve found no one who has yet spelled out, with names and dates, how he turned a supposedly free cell phone store in Massachusetts into an empire. (There are contradictory versions of why he visited that particular store in the first place.) Claure has said he created “the largest cell phone retailer in the northeast U.S.,” yet he told the 2004 graduating class of Bentley College that after selling off his phone business he still needed his father to liquidate “his entire life savings” so Claure could launch Brightstar in Miami.
“When I was in college I started a business of buying and selling frequent flyer miles,” Claure said in his 2014 speech in Barcelona. “And it was definitely a pretty enriching experience to me. You know, it gave me a pretty good lifestyle while I was in college.” Yet in an Inc. magazine profile from 10 years earlier, he said he didn’t start flipping frequent flyer miles until years after college, and after he’d left the Bolivian Football Federation.
The confusion I’ve grappled with can come from the most innocuous of claims. When I met Claure in Kansas City and told him that he must have never imagined he’d end up as the CEO of Sprint, he said, “I did! I always had a vision of leading large companies. Since I was young I knew that someday I would be given an opportunity to sit at the top of a Fortune 100 company.”
Yet in his subsequent interview with Ocean Drive, Claure said this: “If you had asked me 10 years ago would I ever dream that I would be the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, I would have said that was beyond my capability, beyond a dream.”
Claure’s mentor in Bolivia, Guido Loayza, told me the widely circulated story of them first meeting on a plane to La Paz never happened—that they’d actually met at a Las Vegas convention. When I presented Claure with Loayza’s claim, Claure laughed, told me “Guido is getting really old!” and reaffirmed the airplane story. I believe Claure. In person, he comes across as sincere and frank. The dissonance in his stories, I suspect, may come from his eagerness to please—his interviewers, his associates, perhaps even his own sense of self.
Claure has a tendency to name-drop.
“I was having lunch two days ago with Carlos Slim,” Claure told me in Kansas City. We were talking about his South American soccer team, Club Bolívar, and its run through the Copa Libertadores. Bolívar advanced to the semifinals with wins over Brazil’s Flamengo and Mexico’s León. Slim, the richest man in the world, owns León. “I said, ‘It was such a pleasure to beat your team—because the payroll of my entire team is less than the payroll of one player of your team!’”
He told a story to Ocean Drive: “I got in a discussion the other day with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. And we started talking about no-brainers in the world. One of the no-brainers to Tim is Apple Pay.” Another? “It makes no sense for Miami not to have a soccer team. It’s the most cosmopolitan city in the U.S., where the people love and understand soccer.”
When Claure told me how he got involved with David Beckham in their bid to bring soccer to Miami, the names dropped so fast I was reminded of a short-order cook plating lunches during the noon rush.
“I was hanging out at Jennifer Lopez’s house. [Ding!] Marc Anthony is a friend of mine. [Ding!] He was her husband. This was out in L.A. The producer Simon Fuller [Ding!] dropped by because he was working with Jennifer on something to do with American Idol. We got to talking about soccer. He brings up David Beckham [Ding?] and says we should get together to talk about Miami. He gives me his phone number. I call him.”
Claure, Beckham, and Fuller eventually agreed to team up as co-owners of the club. Beckham will handle team operations, Claure said. Fuller will oversee marketing while Claure told me he’s been assigned “the business side.” Claure joked that he was interested in partnering with Beckham just to get faster service at Miami restaurants.
“He’d never been to Miami before the day we met,” Claure explained. “As I was driving over to his hotel to pick him up, I was so nervous. I didn’t know anything about the guy, what he was like. He could have been an asshole, you know? But right away, we clicked. I took him to a Miami Heat game. We went for sushi. We went out to clubs on Miami Beach. Every club! We talked about everything: girls, life. At the end of the night, we shook hands and said, ‘Let’s do this!’”
I said something about how surreal it must have been to cruise Miami with such a famous person. Claure seemed momentarily bruised by my comment. “You should see when I am in Bolivia,” he said. “I can’t walk down the street, people come out of stores and offices to talk to me, even to touch me.”
La Paz, Bolivia, is a fascinating, two-tiered city located more than two miles above sea level. The high altitude didn’t seem to affect me when I first arrived in July, but late into my fourth day in the country, after I’d spent the previous days eating llama meat and (stupidly) drinking my share of Paceña beer, I started shivering. A sharp headache paralyzed my brain. I buried myself under layers of comforters and wool blankets, yet I still couldn’t stop shivering. I taped a few more blankets over the windows in my hotel room to snuff any drafts. I also left the hot water running in the shower and bathroom sink to steam up the place as best I could. It was pretty miserable.
Before the altitude destroyed me, I watched Claure’s Club Bolívar play the second leg of a Copa Libertadores semifinal against San Lorenzo—the Pope’s team. Bolívar won by one goal, which wasn’t nearly enough to recover from a 5–0 loss in the opening game, down in Argentina. Old-school Bolívar supporters lit fires in the stands afterward, perhaps only to stay warm, as it was very cold out.
I visited Bolívar’s training ground, too. It was, well, let’s just call it rustic. It’s hard to imagine David Beckham playing even a couple of games there, an idea Claure once floated, admittedly just for publicity. I talked to journalists about Claure. I talked to several team officials, including Loayza, whom Claure has now asked to run the club.
I learned a lot while I was there and learned even more when I got back to the States. I am up to speed on Bolivia! Go ahead, try to stump me about the Revolution of 1952. Ask me about the country’s culture of victimization. Or do you want to know about the government’s decision in the early 2000s to run a natural gas pipeline through neighboring—and hated—Chile, and how it sparked protests so deadly that Bolivia’s president fled to Maryland for his own safety? That abdication led to the election of Evo Morales, an anti-American socialist who has been in power since.
I could easily write a whole story about the relationship between Claure and Evo. (Perhaps this was my original plan.) I’d contrast Claure’s privileged upbringing (“I was one of the 1 percent”) with Evo’s lack of a high school degree. While Claure’s elite friends in Bolivia despise Evo, Claure— now an American citizen—has become one of the president’s biggest fans. Soccer ties them together.
Claure says he is trying to use his team to improve life in what he still calls “my country.” Evo is a soccer fanatic. At age 55, while president, Evo signed on with a team in Bolivia’s first division, though he has never appeared in an official match. He’s built thousands of soccer fields in rural pueblos across the country. Claure’s Club Bolívar is his favorite team. They make such a curious pair, walking in an unexpected lockstep. I’d quote an academic who said, “Evo and Marcelo are, in their different ways, the two people most responsible for putting Bolivia on the map.” I’d list all the people in La Paz who told me they can see Claure someday succeeding Evo as Bolivia’s president.
It’s hard to find newspaper or magazine stories that are critical of Claure. There’s a blogger in Bolivia who wonders if Claure and his brother are using the soccer team they control there as a front for a real estate company. (After Claure took over Bolívar, he announced a three-point plan to revive the club. The first and most important goal: build the tallest condominium tower in La Paz, which his brother Martin would oversee.) There are a few grumbly posts about Claure and Brightstar on the workplace review site glassdoor.com, which is to be expected for any business. (“The core company value seems to be making Marcelo money at any and all costs.”) Some analysts of the telecommunications industry don’t think he can resuscitate Sprint, a receding player in wireless. But those analysts don’t really think anyone can save Sprint, so it’s not criticism of Claure personally. Other than that, clear sailing.
“Marcelo Claure is the kind of entrepreneur story you just can’t make up,” wrote the Kansas City Business Journal before repeating wholesale the tale of the Venezuelan gifting him the cell phone store. Ocean Drive described Claure as a “scrappy and hard-driving entrepreneur.”
Coverage of the group’s plans to bring soccer, and a soccer stadium and hotel complex, to Miami has been similarly fawning. Here are some headlines from the Miami Herald: “Michelle Kaufman: David Beckham brings optimism to fans,” “Michelle Kaufman: David Beckham’s big plans seem feasible,” and “Michelle Kaufman: David Beckham not ready to give up on MLS: ‘Miami will happen.’”
Kaufman is the Herald’s lead soccer reporter. She’s written about the time Beckham granted her teenage daughter a thrilling private audience. “Beckham has grown to truly love our city,” she wrote of a man who had spent maybe two weeks of his life in Miami by then, total. (His wife and kids have yet to accompany him.) “This is not just a vanity project,” she declared. Kaufman’s celebration of Beckham culminated in an op-ed encouraging the county and the city to give Beckham, Claure and Fuller access to waterfront land valued at $100 million an acre on the open market. “With every passing day, I am more and more convinced that David Beckham’s plan for a stadium and a waterfront park in the heart of the city is a great idea,” she wrote in the op-ed.
I’m on the record about Beckham, too. Perhaps with a bit less gusto. In an article for Newsweek I noted that Miamians, especially after spending billions on a Marlins baseball stadium, are fed up with sports team subsidies. “Stadium fatigue is the biggest obstacle to overcome if [Beckham] is to place his team in the city he wants.” I still think that’s true.
I also wrote about how obvious it was that Beckham, who theoretically could have placed his franchise anywhere, had clearly targeted only Miami. What other city would he have chosen? “Miami has a beach and nightclubs and soft weather and restaurants crowded with celebrities from around the world. Albuquerque? St. Louis? Edmonton? Not very Posh.”
At the time, Beckham, a landed resident of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, had made fewer visits to Miami than hard-partying Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Claure told me Beckham green-lighted Miami as his city of choice after only one night clubbing on South Beach.
I noted elsewhere that the project is always promoted as Beckham’s team. It’s not promoted as Claure’s team, or as Miami’s team. It’s Beckham’s. The pitch revolves entirely around his image. But images have been known to change. This is Miami, where they once named a street after Jose Canseco. Commissioners named another street after a man who turned out to be a major drug dealer. I am not saying that Beckham is a drug dealer, or even a mediocre athlete. It’s just that it’s risky to hinge a project on the public image of one very-much-still-living person. Tiger Woods was a super clean, almost nerdy family man. Until one Thanksgiving, when suddenly he wasn’t.
Beckham has conceded that he, Claure, and Fuller were “cheeky” when they first approached Miami. He compared their request for waterfront downtown property to a demand that London let him relocate Old Trafford next to Buckingham Palace. He has said that a new stadium plan will be in place by March. (Claure told me the plan would be in place by last December, so who really knows?) The general perception of the project remains, Hey, look here, Miami, you have a chance to have David Beckham as your ambassador. And I still can’t help but think that attitude is skewed. Who needs the other more? Again, what city without a Major League Soccer team best helps grow David Beckham’s brand? Baltimore? Minneapolis? El Paso?
I never got around to discussing this with Claure, the member of the group with the strongest ties to Miami, when I met with him in Kansas City, where he lives.
I was talking about Claure recently with recently with Miami mayor Tomás Regalado. It had been a few months since Claure and his partners had sought 34 acres of publicly owned waterfront land at PortMiami on which to build a hotel and soccer stadium complex. (Based on the most recent sale of Miami waterfront, the property would have been worth $3.4 billion.) The proposal met with strong opposition, particularly from the city’s shipping industry, and was shot down in a vote by Miami-Dade County commissioners, 11 to 1.) The group turned its attention to a location adjacent to the Heat’s arena in downtown Miami.
Regalado told me he’s met Claure only once, when they bumped into each other at a forum over in Miami Beach. Claure has never tried to set up a meeting with Regalado, the mayor said, nor has he stepped foot in Miami City Hall, where Regalado and I spoke in his office.
Regalado said he has only met once with Beckham, too. As Regalado told the story, it sounded like Beckham didn’t realize he needed to get the City of Miami on board before he could receive use of land the city owned.
“He was in town and he and Simon Fuller were meeting with Rebeca Sosa,” Regalado told me. Sosa was the chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission, the biggest and most important local political body. Beckham and Fuller—Claure did not attend the meeting—started to talk about building their stadium on a slip of waterfront near the arena. “You do realize that the City of Miami owns that land, right?” Sosa interrupted.
“Have you talked to Mayor Regalado yet? You have not talked to the mayor yet?! Well, let me get him on the line.”
Sosa picked up her phone and called Regalado’s cell. “Mr. Mayor, I’m here with the wonderful gentleman David Beckham,” Sosa said. “It sounds like he needs to be talking to you.”
That night, Beckham and Fuller joined Regalado at the Casablanca seafood restaurant on the Miami River. Regalado offered encouragement. People in Miami love soccer, he said. They’d love to have their own team. He’d especially love to have Beckham here, as he’s an international icon and Miami bows to celebrity. But the mayor said he can’t just let the club have the waterfront property they’ve targeted.
“It was a bad idea,” Regalado told me. “What they were requesting was enormous for what the land was worth. It would never work. You can’t imagine the political fallout if we gave away that land.”
That dinner took place last May. I spoke with Regalado in December. “They said they were going to get back to me,” the mayor shared. “That was the last I heard from them.”
When I spoke to Claure in Kansas City, he told me it was politicians like Regalado and Miami-Dade county mayor Carlos Gimenez who’d mucked up the soccer stadium plans. It had been the two mayors who jointly suggested that particular waterfront land in the first place, he said. “It was a lack of political will,” he concluded.
“I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Claure about that,” Regalado responded when I shared Claure’s assessment. “It’s not about having or not having political will. It was about the residents’ public space. It’s about my responsibility as a steward of public land. For them, this is simply a business deal.”
The Sporting Kansas City game to which I invited Claure was the first he ever attended. He was excited. “They’ve got crazy fans here,” he said before kickoff. “I heard they’re sold out every time.”
The game was a sellout. The atmosphere felt electric, surprisingly so, since the hometown Royals had a playoff game in Baltimore at the same time. Kansas City backs all its teams, Claure learned in the short time he’d lived in the city. “For example, I go to see the Royals games, it’s so much fun,” he told me. “I go to the Chiefs games, there’s 80,000 people dressed in red. They die for their team. The fountains are in red. I mean, the whole city gets behind them. That’s something Miami could be a little better at.”
This is the second time Claure has tried to bring MLS to South Florida. A partnership with FC Barcelona fell through in 2009. MLS commissioner Don Garber endorsed the Barcelona/Claure bid and talked up his league’s strong interest in a Miami franchise.
“The economy collapsed,” Claure told me, explaining why the bid fell through. “And to be honest, once I got to understand Barça a little better, it was like doing a partnership with nobody.”
I asked him what he meant by that.
“Barcelona is owned by everybody and by nobody,” he answered. “So it’s owned by its members, you know? The president is an elected official per se. So even though the president back then was a progressionist, somebody who was always looking forward, I figured that four years later he might not be there. And the new guy might not like Miami. So I felt uncomfortable at the end, on Garber and on Barça. I said, ‘I’m not going to do it, you know, if it doesn’t feel right.’”
(Back in 2009, Claure publicly blamed Beckham for the bid’s collapse. Beckham, who had signed a year earlier with the Los Angeles Galaxy, had decided to spend his first offseason on loan to Italian club AC Milan. Fears that he might stay on in Milan snuffed Barcelona’s interest in MLS.)
Claure got us seats both in the Sprint box and also outside, at midfield, in the very first row. I’ve never sat closer to the pitch during a professional game. When we were up in the skybox, team officials brought over personalized “Claure” jerseys for Marcelo, his wife, and for both of their young daughters. Everyone received scarves, too. At halftime, Cliff Illig, one of Sporting Kansas City’s five principal owners, stepped in to introduce himself. We talked a bit about Howler, and about my being there to write about Claure. Another owner, Robb Heineman, joined the conversation.
Claure asked about the stadium. It was beautiful, he said. How much did it cost to build? They told him. Any public money involved? There was. He hadn’t realized the stadium was located so far from downtown, apparently unaware of the MLS stadiums in Commerce City, Foxborough, Chester, Bridgeview, Harrison, Sandy, Carson, and Frisco. Is the club making money? he asked. “Just barely,” said Illig, really drawing out the word “just.” Who are your most expensive players? Heineman said their costliest signing was the Argentine forward Claudio Bieler. He sounded frustrated. Bieler was having a tough season.
“That’s sports,” Heineman explained with a shrug. You do your homework, you make smart decisions, and things can still go wrong. One aspect of MLS that both Kansas City owners really liked was the centralized structure. All the players are owned by the league, which helps keep payroll—and the players—in check.
“If labor ever tells us they’re going to strike, we’d be like, ‘Fine, we’ll replace each and every one of you,’” said Heineman.
Claure nodded approvingly. He’s reportedly sunk at least $12 million of his own money into Bolívar. While that cash helped the team transform into Copa Libertadores contenders, Claure’s money has also upended the league’s stability. The director of a rival team cracked that the only way his club can fight for a title is if Claure adopts him.
When we went outside to watch the second half, Claure told me he likes MLS specifically because, in his words, “it’s communist.” Look at La Liga, he said. A couple hemorrhaging teams at the top and a bunch of hopelessly broke teams below. In England, a club can’t win without the backing of a Russian oligarch or a Saudi prince. MLS is more balanced, Claure asserted. He sees it staying that way. The central ownership, the cost control, will eventually make MLS the strongest league standing. Star players from around the world will have no choice but to play there. He says the shift will happen within a decade. When I expressed some skepticism, he shook me off.
“It’s already a good league, you know? In the World Cup, the U.S. team did better than England, it did better than Portugal. And almost all the players are in MLS right now.”
At that press conference more than a year ago, the one where MLS announced its return to Miami, the one where Claure never even made the stage, a guy called Uncle Ed did. He’s the leader of the Southern Legion, a fan group supporting the still-theoretical team. He posed for pictures with Beckham, with Garber, and with county mayor Carlos Gimenez. Ed waved a teal scarf above his head, like an ultra.
I have one of those scarves. It was a gift from Ed. He gave me a black-and-teal “MLS Miami” T-shirt, too, declaring me a member of the Southern Legion. I’ve sat in the county commission chambers when maybe a dozen Legionnaires lobbied for a waterfront stadium, and then, when the waterfront was ruled out, for a stadium anywhere, please. One Tuesday night, I ventured downtown to a Southern Legion meet-up. It turned out to be just Ed, me, and three other guys, one of whom was a friend visiting from Australia. The meeting broke up when a comedian stepped onto a small stage and started telling jokes. Amateur night.
It’s hard to tell how deep the support for Beckham’s team goes. The strongest MLS franchises have leaders who are hyper-focused on the local communities. Fans in Atlanta, another city that is awaiting the arrival of MLS, have already reserved 17,500 seats. There aren’t many people in the Legion, I’ve noticed. Yet Ed and a hard-core few others always pop up the rare times a potential owner is in town (and there are cameras present). I’ve wondered if the Legion is an artificial grassroots movement gardened by some publicist. But whenever I talk to Ed and the (few) others I’ve met, I pick up a genuine vibe. These guys seem to honestly want an MLS team here.
The last time I saw Ed was in December, at Fado Irish Pub in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood. It was an MLS Cup viewing party. The Legion assembled in a far corner of the bar, away from televisions showing NFL games and away from an outdoor patio where an oil painting class erected easels. A signed David Beckham jersey hung near the main TV, which set off my alarms. Astroturf! The alarm bells continued to clang when I turned to find a soccer ball signed by Beckham, to be raffled off with the shirt. Beckham was not there. Nor was Simon Fuller. Claure wasn’t there, either, though I heard his name mentioned.
“My impression of him is you’d never know he has a lot of money,” said a Legionnaire sitting near me. Said another guy, just generally: “You’ve got this thing going on in Miami where we’re not sure what’s going on.”
When Claure (and everyone he knows) suddenly cut off contact with me, I imagined at first that maybe David Beckham was behind it. That, like the poor souls at Departures magazine, I’d written something, somewhere, that he didn’t like. But I’ve been watching this Miami project for a year and a half now, since before that official announcement at the museum. And the more I look, the more it seems like nobody’s paying much attention.
Claure, the only Miami resident in the ownership group, doesn’t live here anymore. Beckham remains in London. Fuller is in Los Angeles. For months now, it seems, Beckham has only answered questions about the team when he’s making appearances in support of his Haig Club whiskey and other interests. Everyone’s off doing their thing. Which leaves the Southern Legion to conduct its own field exercises down in South Florida. At the MLS Cup viewing party, during the raffle of the signed shirt and the signed soccer ball, it was announced that executive positions with the Legion remain open. This is a volunteer organization, it was declared—anybody who wants to help is welcome. That calmed me a bit. Maybe it’s not Astroturf. Before they picked the winners, Uncle Ed stepped over to talk to Fernando Fiore, the Spanish-language TV personality, who was sitting next to me. As always, Ed sounded really sincere.
“I have to have hope,” he said. “Miami deserves a team.”
Marcelo Claure feels the same way. At least I think he still does. The man who used to call himself the King was off trying to save someone else’s company. If he’d been there in Miami, if he wasn’t preoccupied, I would have asked him. Or tried to.
Editor’s note: In the process of fact-checking this story, Miami Beckham United and Sporting Kansas City objected to certain quotations contained in the piece. Their statements are reproduced below in full:
From Sporting Kansas City on 2.13.15: “Sporting Kansas City steadfastly denies that these statements were made and object [sic] to the method used by the reporter.”
From Mr. Claure on 2.13.15: “Mr. Powell’s story includes words I never said. Our box at Sporting Park was loud and crowded, it was a lively match, and there were no notes recorded, so Mr. Powell must have misheard my comments about Major League Soccer. That’s unfortunate, because one of the most important points I made was my belief that MLS will be the world’s premier league in 10 years due to an ownership model that promotes competitiveness and parity across all teams.”
From Sporting Kansas City on 2.23.15: “On behalf of Sporting Kansas City and Major League Soccer, we are extremely dissatisfied with the validity of what has been presented regarding Robert Powell’s article and the unauthorized, unscrupulous technique in which [sic] was used. We completely deny and disagree with the alleged quotes, context, and description of what transpired for less than six minutes in the private suite at the Sporting Kansas City versus Chicago Fire match on October 10, 2014. The unethical nature and inaccuracies from Howler are surprising and disappointing, and this situation has irreparably damaged the relationship. We had given unfettered access to Howler in the past, going above and beyond for articles, MLS media and marketing tour [sic], big events and more. In light of what is transpiring, we will no longer accommodate your publication in the future and are doing so with the support of Major League Soccer.”
Howler conducted a thorough review of the reporter’s notes and the circumstances in which he obtained these quotes. The magazine stands behind the accuracy of this story.
Robert Andrew Powell (@robertandrewp) is a contributing editor for Howler Magazine. He is the author of This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez and, most recently, Running Away: A Memoir. His journalism has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, The Best American Sports Writing anthology, and on public radio’s This American Life. He lives in Miami.