Dolphins owner’s zeal spurs first Int’l Champions Cup

Stephen Ross had a vision. 
The Miami Dolphins owner and his RSE Ventures CEO Matt Higgins looked into the future and saw an international one-and-done playoff competition between the world’s elite club soccer teams.
What a thrilling event that would be … until Relevant Sports CEO Charlie Stillitano explained international diplomacy, futbol style, to Ross and Higgins.
“We had to explain to Mr. Ross and Matt that you really can’t tell (Chelsea manager) José Mourinho and (former Manchester United manager) Sir Alex Ferguson and (Real Madrid manager) Carlo Ancelotti and these guys they may play only one or two games,” Stillitano said. “We have to give them three games as part of the tournament if they’re going to be part of it. 
“And that makes sense — you don’t fly 4,000 miles to play one game and go home and have your whole preseason disrupted.”
Other billionaires might have been stubborn. Not Ross.
“He said, ‘Look, I don’t mind if they all play each other,'” Stillitano remembered Ross saying. “‘They all can play three games, and we’ll culminate in Miami where everyone is there, with two doubleheaders over two days.'” 
The result was the inaugural International Champions Cup, to be televised by FOX Soccer and sponsored by Guinness. Future ICCs will be televised by FOX Sports 1.
Teams competing in the July 27-Aug. 7 ICC will be A.C. Milan, Chelsea, Everton, Inter Milan, Juventus, LA Galaxy, Real Madrid and Valencia.
The tournament will be played in six U.S. cities — Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco — and one European city. It begins Saturday, when Milan visits Valencia at Estadio Mestalla.
The championship game will headline an Aug. 7 doubleheader at Sun Life Stadium, where a placement twinbill also will be played a day earlier.
“Outside the stadium, fans will be able to walk around and be visually transported back to the various cities and countries of the eight teams,” said Higgins, comparing the experience to the World Showcase at Disney World’s Epcot theme park.
The tournament costs also include appearance fees because, “these teams don’t come for free,” Stillitano said. 
“It’s a huge economic commitment and it’s risky,” Stillitano said, “but because (Ross and Higgins) believed in a tournament concept and they wanted to push it and they wanted it to culminate in South Florida, it has really turned into this great event. I can’t tell you how many teams are calling me already for next year.”
Few people know the U.S. soccer scene as well as Stillitano. He captained the men’s team at Princeton and has been involved with the sport in various roles (e.g. ’94 World Cup official, former general manager of the MLS MetroStars, radio show host).
He also helped form the 2003 Champions World Series, what Stillitano called, “the first go-around of an official tournament involving international club team.” Participants that year included teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool, AC Milan and Juventus.
“What we couldn’t get at that time was an official tournament — we had a series of games,” Stillitano said. “Teams in those days weren’t sure they should play each other. They felt it was better if they played a local team.
“I think we showed them that when big teams played big teams, that worked really well. The fans came out and it only enhanced the lore of the big teams like Manchester United and Juventus.”
Stillitano then went to work for Creative Artists Agency and helped pull together a 2009 event involving Inter Milan, Chelsea and Club America. 
“We dispelled a lot of myths around these tournaments,” he said. “Would big teams play each other that were from the same country? The second myth we eliminated was teams can train in the U.S. and then do well. 
“Inter Milan won the treble (Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia) and Chelsea won the double (Premier League, FA Cup). After that, we got more and more teams wanting to come here.”
Major League Soccer entered the tournament picture in 2010, but the league wanted as many of its teams as possible to participate.
“When you have that,” Stillitano said, “it’s hard to have a true (international) tournament.”
Then Ross pushed his vision about nine months ago, and the International Champions Cup became a reality.

Charlie McCarthy can be reached at mac1763@bellsouth.net or on Twitter @mccarthy_chas.