By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Jan 13, 2010) USSoccerPlayers — When United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati rattled off the names of the 18 cities to be included in the bid for the 2018/2022 World Cup on Tuesday afternoon, Miami was one of the places that stood out among the potential venues.
In 1994, Miami was passed over as a World Cup site. This time, Miami beat out Orlando (a World Cup city 16 years ago) to make the list of places that the bid committee hopes will impress FIFA enough come December to award them the tournament.
Miami was one of 27 cities that was bidding to make the cut, spending the past eight months making an aggressive plea – both at the executive and grassroots level — to persuade the committee that South Florida was indeed a soccer hotbed and a wonderful place to host World Cup games.
“This is a great market for the highest level of soccer,” said Mike Sophia, who serves as the executive director of the Miami-Dade County Sports Commission.
The city’s sports commission spearheaded the push, teaming up with local politicians, the business community and a local soccer team to lobby hard for a spot on the list, which could be reduced from as little as nine to as many as 14 should the US get the tournament. The Miami bid, not deterred by the fact that the city has no pro team since Major League Soccer pulled the plug on the Miami Fusion in 2001, also got a big boost from local fans with help from the city’s large Hispanic and Caribbean population.
At the same time, Miami FC, who plays in the newly formed USSF Division 2, urged its fans to sign an online petition over the past few months by prominently placing the bid committee logo on its website. The move gave Miami the fourth-highest number of signatures (10,872) at GoUSABid.com. Only Seattle, Atlanta and Houston had more signatures.
Marcelo Claure, a cell phone magnate who failed to bring a MLS franchise to the Miami-area last year, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the city’s inclusion “gives us the hope to see world-class soccer very soon, hopefully in eight years, not 12. But I’m certain in the next 12 years, we’re going to see this great sport filling one of the greatest stadiums in this country.”
The city’s 80,000-seat Land Shark Stadium, located 15 miles outside Miami and host of next month’s Super Bowl XLIV, is the venue the bid committee pointed to as the place where matches could take place should FIFA award the World Cup to the US. The stadium hosted a friendly between Honduras and Peru this past November as a way of showing the committee that it could get world-class teams to come to their city. The game, organized in conjunction with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, drew nearly 12,000 – mostly Honduran — fans and was widely hailed as a success.
The venue — originally known as Dolphin Stadium when it was completed in 1987 and later renamed in honor of owner Joe Robbie — was built with soccer in mind even though football was to be a staple there.
“In some ways, the first soccer-specific stadium was when Joe Robbie built it wide enough to host the 1994 World Cup,” said Gulati.
Of course, Miami and Joe Robbie Stadium, never hosted a World Cup game. The main reason Miami was left off the list of nine cities at the time, in favor of nearby Orlando, was that the tournament conflicted with baseball games that were being played there. By the time 2018 rolls around, the Florida Marlins will have spent several seasons in their own ballpark. The locals hope that isn’t the only sport being played in Miami that summer.
“We are a multicultural city that knows how to host big sporting events and international tourists,” said Sophia. “I think we have finally dispelled the notion that we are a soccer city that can’t pull together as a soccer community.”