FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida. — David Beckham got out of a Cadillac SUV and dove into the dust at a construction site. That was in December 2019. In front of him was the shell of a new 18,000-seat stadium in Broward County, where Inter Miami will play its first two seasons before moving, hopefully, to a billion-dollar complex near the Miami airport. The team’s training complex and offices loom behind him.
After nearly seven years fighting for an MLS franchise on a field somewhere in South Florida, Beckham was eager to realize his vision of a club that starts big and gets bigger. I don’t think there’s another club that has an overall chance, he told ESPN.
MLS 2021 Weekend Kickoff LIVE on ABC/ESPN Deportes:
– Inter Miami CF vs. LA Galaxy, Sunday, April 18, 3 p.m. ET
Since then, almost nothing has happened as planned. One afternoon not long ago, Beckham and Jorge Mas, one of his co-owners, were standing on the terrace of the second floor of the office building watching the scene. Across the street, the stadium parking lot has turned into a KOVID-19 vaccination station, with cars lining up to pass.
The stadium was rented for a day by the local Boys & Girls Club – revenue that will help fund the operation of an MLS team during the pandemic. There was also talk of former Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall setting up a practice field for potential NFL draft prospects, and the decision to lease the stadium to the Montreal Football Club for MLS home games in 2021.
You have to adapt to the situation, says Mas, who is general manager. (Former Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and tech entrepreneur Masayoshi Son are also involved). With the short season, the lack of fans, the restrictions we had to deal with, it wasn’t easy last year.
On the field, Inter Miami became the first team in league history to lose its first five games. They finished with seven wins, three draws and 13 losses, placing them 10th in the 14-team Eastern Conference – and the worst record Beckham has ever achieved as a professional. Miami finished three places behind last year’s MLS expansion team, Nashville SC, which began the league with minimal expectations, and an owner whose clearly unromantic business interests include shipping barges and printing books on demand. Nashville won more games than it lost in the regular season, then beat Inter Miami 3-0 in the playoffs.
Beckham’s more active role in 2021 is indicative of his passion for the Inter Miami project, but also reflects the need for more input to thrive in the MLS. Mary Beth Keth for ESPN.
As a player, Beckham was attracted to successful clubs and they attracted him. He played for four of Europe’s biggest clubs – Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and PSG – and won the league with three of them, as well as for LA Galaxy in MLS. Because Beckham, 45, negotiated a future expansion option for the franchise as part of his original contract with the MLS players, he has had plenty of time to imagine what ownership of the team will look like. Failure, even temporary, never entered his mind. He said we have high standards. As individuals, Jorge and I have set high standards in our business and that is how we want to run the club.
Beckham, for example, is the boss when it comes to football. He sacked manager Diego Alonso in January and hired Phil Neville, his former teammate at Manchester United. He replaced athletics director Paul McDonough, who was obsessed with Atlanta United’s fan base, with Seattle’s Chris Henderson. He also oversaw the purchase of 13 new players, a reshuffling of almost half the team. A year after the first Inter-Miami game in Los Angeles, it was almost as surprising to see as many new faces on the practice field as the inoculation line.
Beckham spent the first 10 months of the pandemic in England. He didn’t return to the site until late December and hasn’t left until now. Of all the changes at Inter Miami, his presence may be the most consequential. The club is designed around Beckham’s ideas, from the emphasis on a strong academy and intensive training to the unique great white heron logo he helped create. Without him, Inter Miami looked like every other expansion team trying to find an identity.
Despite being one of the most famous people in the world, Beckham is surprisingly cheap. When he sees someone he doesn’t know, he goes up to them and greets them, looks them in the eye. It’s David Beckham from Essex, says Neville. A man who has as much respect for the boss above as he does for the mitre below is Gonzalo Higuain, Argentine international and Inter Miami striker.
As owner, Beckham seems to be as comfortable on the football side of the building, where the gym and locker rooms are located, as he is on the business side. His daily presence on the field, even when he is upstairs in his office, means there is now a bond between everyone at the club, Neville said.
And at least until Lionel Messi decides to buy the team, no other football owner has his seal of approval. The fact that David is here is just inspiring, Henderson said.
Mas and Beckham are optimistic about Inter Miami’s second season after a strong inaugural campaign. Mary Beth Keth for ESPN.
Henderson previously played a key role in the Sounders’ success, from his first season in 2009 to two MLS Cups. Like many others, he was lured to Miami for the chance to work with Beckham. One look at Beckham in the parking lot is enough to remind his players that what’s happening in Miami is no ordinary project. That alone might get guys to give 5 or 10 percent more, said Scotland forward Lewis Morgan, Inter Miami’s 2020 MVP.
With characteristic thoroughness, Beckham delved into every aspect of the property. It must be said that during the pandemic, his frequent trips to China and Europe for support and his wife Victoria’s fashion business were suspended. I physically enjoy being here, watching the training and seeing the drills they do, Beckham said. I talk to our physical therapists, doctors, fitness trainers, cooks, parents of our children under 13 and 14. I’ve been lucky enough to play with the biggest clubs, the biggest managers, the biggest players and on the biggest stage. I’d like to think that my participation, even if the players only see me sitting here while they practice, has made a big difference.
This commitment holds enormous potential, especially now that the biggest names in the MLS of the past decade – Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Beckham himself – are no longer on the pitch. We have an owner who may be one of the most famous people on the planet, said David Bruce, the league’s senior vice president. He transcends the worlds of sports, culture and lifestyle like few can. Add in the glamour of Miami and you have the potential of an American flagship team for the first time since the New York Cosmos of the 1970s. Miami could be a great franchise and a great market, Toronto FC president Bill Manning said. I’m incredibly excited. But, Manning warns, they must win.
Otherwise, the risk is a public humiliation for someone who has devoted a career to scrupulously avoiding it. Beckham’s brand is at stake. No wonder he wants to be there to check it out.
This routine has taken place week after week at the Beckhams’ estate in Chipping Norton, Cotswolds, where the family spent last summer and autumn in preparation for the pandemic. At midnight or 1 a.m., Beckham nestled on the couch with his son, longtime friend and business partner Dave Gardner and high hopes for the team’s game. The frustration starts to grow.
Inter Miami’s brilliant actions often included a close-range shot from Morgan or attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, but they inevitably ended with a successful counterattack in the other direction or a missed penalty or red card. It was overwhelming and unfathomable, said Ray Hudson, a spokesman for Inter Miami. The English midfielder, who played more than 300 games for North American teams between 1977 and 1991, later became manager of Miami Fusion, a failed MLS franchise attempt, and Washington United. In his career as a footballer, coach and broadcaster, he says he has never experienced a season like this. Every week would be different, he said. You’d just hit me over the head with your hand. What’s the next step?
Inter Miami’s first season was a disaster, with just seven wins in 23 games and an early playoff appearance. Mike Stobe/Getty Images
For Beckham, watching defeat after defeat from a distant time zone was unbearable. He has never wanted to be the owner who calls his manager and, as he says, demands that the left-back be replaced. But there, in the silence of the night, Beckham saw that his club was wrong. He didn’t just say: Why are we playing 4-4-2? It was about the little things that really matter because they become big problems.
As a former player, you can see things that aren’t right about the way we play or just the way we go out on the field. They recognize the signs.
– Houston vs. San Jose (20:00 ET)
– Washington vs. New York (8:00 ET)
– Dallas vs. Colorado (20:00 ET)
– Red Bull vs. Sporting KC (8:00 PM ET)
– Chicago vs. New England (8:30 AM ET)
– Nashville vs. Cincinnati (8:30 AM ET)
– Miami vs. Los Angeles Galaxy (3:30 AM ET)
– Vancouver vs. Portland (10 PM ET)
To be fair, few clubs have been hit as hard by the pandemic as Inter Miami. Unlike clubs like Nashville, who were promoted to the MLS after spending some time in the United Soccer League (USL), the club has steadily progressed. The players hardly knew each other. A few days before the opening. Morgan said we couldn’t have communication sessions with the team. And then we couldn’t risk our season by going on team feeds.
The lack of fans in the stadium ruined the enthusiasm of the first season. In September, reinforcements came in the form of world-class striker Higuain, whose older brother Federico also plays for the club, and stylish midfielder Blaise Matuidi. But they come from Italian club Juventus, who are used to beating most opponents, and adjusting to the expansion mentality over the course of the season has been predictably difficult. Eventually fans were admitted in limited numbers in October, but by then Inter had been hopelessly outclassed by Miami.
Or is it? If you really analyze their games, they underperformed incredibly, Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin said. The Union defeated Inter Miami twice, in July and September, by a combined score of 5-1. But they dominated us for a long time, Curtin said. He describes the club as a sleeping giant. I think they did everything right in key positions in midfield, he said. Curtin himself coveted Pizarro, the most expensive transfer in Liga MX history. With a full training camp behind him, Higuain, 32, is ready to step out of the group, Curtin said. And he voted for Morgan in the Top XI competition.
Neville, a former teammate and close friend of Beckham, is the coach to get Inter Miami back on track. Courtesy of Inter Miami
All we have to do is practice. Prior to signing Alonso, Beckham and Mas negotiated with a list of candidates who seemed more suited to a club with the history and reputation of AS Monaco or Aston Villa than to an MLS franchise that hadn’t played a single match yet. Roberto Martinez, who won the FA Cup with Wigan, finished fifth in the Premier League with Everton and leads the Belgian national team, was a distinct possibility. So did Gennaro Gattuso, who managed Milan and now works at Napoli, and Santiago Solari, Beckham’s teammate at Real Madrid, who now coaches Mexico’s Club America. Patrick Vieira, the outstanding midfielder of Beckham’s generation who was head coach of NYCFC for three seasons, was close, very close, Mas said. Marcelo Gallardo of Argentine club River Plate was willing to come, but could not agree on the terms.
Alonso, a possible choice, couldn’t help but feel like a consolation prize. He has managed six clubs – two in Uruguay, two in Paraguay and two in Mexico – and the Uruguayan national team. He scored 22 goals for Atletico Madrid in the 2001-02 season, but it’s unlikely the average South Florida soccer fan knows his name. He wasn’t hired until after Christmas either, and he had no history with Beckham behind the short crosses in La Liga. It wouldn’t have mattered if the season had gone well. But when Beckham desperately tried to communicate telepathically with his manager from coast to coast last summer, he couldn’t help but feel that he had no idea what Alonso was thinking.
David Beckham is a passionate defender of Phil Neville as manager of Inter Miami, his first position at such a club.
There has been much talk that Beckham would hire one of his old friends to run his football club. From a distance it looks hopeless. Neville’s history as a manager is short and at club level he is non-existent. He took charge of the England women’s national team in 2018 and has done quite well, including a fourth place finish at the Women’s World Cup the following year and seven defeats in his last 11 games. He previously coached under David Moyes at Manchester United in the 2013-14 season and then at Valencia in the turbulent 2015-16 season under Nuno Espirito Santo and his brother Gary. It’s hard to imagine his CV being in the same pile as Gattuso’s and Vieira’s if Beckham hadn’t known him.
But Beckham knows him. Since we were 14 or 15, Beckham said. Neville, a year younger than Beckham, believes they first met when he was 11. They met at Manchester United in the early 1990s in the class of ’92 with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville under Sir Alex Ferguson. In 1996 they won the double, the Premier League and the FA Cup. Beckham, gifted with talent, honed his exceptional work ethic. Neville, whose talent was less obvious, worked even harder. They wasted so much time that, as Beckham admits, they were laughed at.
That’s exactly the kind of dedication Beckham said was missing from last year’s team. I watched the games and wondered what they did the week before the game? Beckham said. Have they prepared properly? Have the players seen the video of the team we’re playing? Are the coaches watching the academy kids this weekend? And why are we in the 60th? A minute? Why aren’t we pushing? He shouldn’t transfer his expectations to his new manager, Neville came from the same place. Phil already told me: If a player doesn’t reach a certain level of fitness, he won’t be on the pitch, Beckham said. It doesn’t matter who.
Miami Inter’s ambitious stadium complex is still under construction, as are most of his projects. Thank you, Inter Miami.
Neville comes around 6 o’clock most days. He’s always there at 7pm, Beckham said with satisfaction. Meanwhile, he adapted Ferguson’s football philosophy to contemporary North America. Many of the values David wants to bring to the football club stem from those implemented at Manchester United, Neville said. It goes way beyond what happens in competitions or even training sessions. Humility, he says. Do the right thing every minute of every day. The way you dress. The way you talk to each other. And just the basic values that our parents probably taught us. If there’s a bottle in the field, come and get it.
Whether Ferguson’s approach will work in the MLS remains an open question. On the one hand, European managers tend to underestimate the complexity of the league, not to mention the byzantine complexity of the rules for buying players. Notable disappointments include Ruud Gullit, Frank de Boer and Thierry Henry. According to Beckham, European coaches came into this league without really understanding the rules, without expecting the travel or the climate. He refers, among other things, to Gullit, who led the Galaxy when Beckham was there. Gullit is surprised that he can’t contract players for any amount, and can’t even last a season before returning to Europe.
It’s a unique competition in many ways, Union’s Curtin said. There are many different styles of play. You need some elements of the Argentine league, the fight and intensity, but other games can resemble a Premier League match. Travel is tough, and the hot weather means you can’t always play the way you want. You need to make adjustments not only from month to month, but also from week to week.
Neville thinks he’s ready. Fifteen years ago, when Beckham arrived in Los Angeles, Neville began watching MLS matches on television. After David, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were there, he said. He insists that he watched every Inter Miami game last season, long before he had any idea that he would be leading the club. He looked again with different eyes as he arrived. Last year was a disappointment, but there were many factors, he said. We have a new beginning this year.
Everyone agrees that Beckham has become more active and thoughtful. Says the owner of Inter Miami: I like to think that my involvement, even though the players see me sitting here while they train, has made a big difference. Al Diaz/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Neville is determined to avoid any surprises and has surrounded himself with MLS veterans like Henderson and former NYCFC coach Jason Kreis, who serves as his assistant. I know not many foreign managers have been successful, Neville said. That is my personal, individual motivation. If I go back to my apartment and think about Philip Neville and not the team, a foreign manager can come here. I’ll show you that it’s possible.
A sunny Saturday morning in March, a month before the start of the 2021 season. Beckham holds ownership meetings at the facility. Neville has responsibilities within the first team. But the lure of live football is too strong.
Inter Miami Fort Lauderdale’s girls team set up a scrum with midfielders at the back. By 11am, old friends had gathered with Henderson and assistant coach Anthony Pulis, the son of England coach Tony Pulis, in a nearby corner. Beckham, as always, looked impeccable in an Inter Miami black training shirt emblazoned with those iconic prancing herons. Neville is wearing a plain red Manchester United Adidas shirt. The quality of the game is vivid, although uneven. Beckham thinks some of them have professional potential – he says that two minutes after watching them play.
For someone with such a glamorous reputation, Beckham spends a lot of time in Inter Miami’s youth program. He believes the way to build a world-class club is to set up a recruitment system that identifies and attracts talent at a young age and then nurtures it until it matures. I’ve always said it’s not just about the team playing in the stadium, he said. It’s 13, 14, 15, 17, 23. We’re a club, after all. Yes, we have a team that plays in MLS. But more than that, we’re a club. All of our coaches, regardless of age, should be happy with what these players are doing here on these two fields. If not, we’re wrong.
Coincidentally, the MLS system encourages player development. Players from a team academy do not fall under the league draft and do not count towards the salary cap. Teams that have invested their resources in youth teams like Philadelphia and Dallas have been rewarded with a steady stream of first team talent. If he can at least bring in young players who become better players, that will really help, said Brian Robson, who captained Beckham’s senior team in his first two seasons at Manchester United. And David knows that success is hard to buy. Players can get a mercenary at the end of their career. You have to be careful with that.
The problem is that the whole world is watching us now. Inertia is not a luxury David Beckham affords podcasters or Twitter posers when he decides to own a football club, especially when he insists Inter or Miami could eventually become the biggest club in the world. Almost every major player over 30 has received an offer for the next year or two, often from their own agents. Neville gets calls every day. A player of brilliant level, brilliant in world football, he said.
David Beckham believes Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shown he is the right man for the job of Manchester United manager.
One of them was Higuain, who at the age of 32 didn’t seem to have lost a step. Matuidi, whose contract with McDonough is under investigation by the league as a possible breach of the salary cap, is now 34 years old. Mas admits that many of the big names that circulated around this time last year as possible targets – Edinson Cavani, Dries Mertens – wanted to come. The pandemic has ruined everything.
The club’s biggest purchases last winter – Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross and defensive midfielder Bahia Gregor – won’t sell many season tickets. Gregor has not played outside of Brazil yet. On a cold, rainy night in Stoke, as they say, Shawcross has done for years, but he’ll have to get used to the rather lethargic environment of South Florida, not to mention the sweltering temperatures. Inter Miami still has some of the world’s best stars in mind, Beckham stresses, but it doesn’t want them to use the club as a sudden retirement, as aging stars from Pele to Chicharito have done for decades in American soccer. They must be hungry, Beckham said. Not to go on vacation, but to win a championship.
Apparently, it’s easier to convince a major international star to transfer his talents to South Beach than to Sacramento. But the main attraction is, of course, Beckham. According to Ivan Gazidis, a former MLS assistant commissioner who managed Arsenal from 2009-18 and now works for AC Milan, he is indeed special. People underestimate David a little. There is a reason why he only played for the top clubs: He went there. There will be skeptics and naysayers, but this is nothing new to him. He thinks about what he says, and when he commits to something, he does so with all his heart. So when he says Inter Miami will be a world class club, I don’t underestimate him.
But if that doesn’t happen, if Miami’s Inter continues to languish this season, Beckham’s carefully cultivated image will likely suffer. He’ll want to win in Miami, Bruce said of the MLS. It will be very important for him to celebrate his success as owner of this club. What he sells now, with his Adidas clothing line, his high-end sponsorship deals and even Inter Miami, is the David Beckham brand. And, as in the game, he misses as few opportunities as possible.
Back on the terrace, Beckham sits down for a photo shoot. Watching him get photographed is like watching him take a free kick. He has a choreography of the outcome in his head and works backwards from there to achieve it. That afternoon, the wind blew her hair around. Beckham won’t get it. He finishes it with his hands to get it a certain way. As soon as the photographer takes a break, he starts again. He pulls the zipper of a pink sports top he’s wearing down an inch. Then he shifts it up an inch. Wind gusts. With a look, a gesture, a polite word, he makes his discomfort known. As is almost always the case, Beckham succeeds in everything he does. The photo shoot is getting closer.
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