FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – David Beckham stepped out of a Cadillac SUV into the dust of a construction site. It was December 2019. In front of him was the shell of a new 18,000-seat stadium in deep Broward County, where Inter Miami played its first two seasons before, if all was well, a US $ 1 billion venue -Dollars changed near Miami Airport. A training complex and team offices were built behind him.
After nearly seven years battling for an MLS expansion franchise somewhere in South Florida, Beckham was eager to realize his vision for a club that would start big and get bigger. “I don’t think there is another club anywhere that has the opportunity that we have worldwide,” he told ESPN.
MLS 2021 Kickoff Weekend LIVE on ABC / ESPN Deportes:
– Inter Miami CF v LA Galaxy, Sunday, April 18, 3:00 p.m. ET
Since then, almost nothing has gone as planned. Not long ago, Beckham and one of his co-owners, Jorge Mas, were standing on a terrace on the second floor of the office building one afternoon watching the scene. Across the street, the stadium parking lot had been converted into a COVID-19 vaccination station. Cars lined up in the distance.
The stadium had been rented to the local Boys & Girls Club for the day, an income that will help fund running an MLS team during a pandemic. So did the showcase that Brandon Marshall, the former recipient of Miami Dolphins, hosted on a practice field for potential NFL draft picks, and the decision to rent the stadium to Club de Foot Montreal for their MLS home games in 2021.
“You have to adapt to the situation,” said Mas, whose title is the executive owner. (Former Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and tech entrepreneur Masayoshi Son also have ownership interests.) “Given the short season, lack of fans and limitations we have faced, the past year has been a challenging one.”
On the field, Inter Miami became the first team in league history to lose their first five games. It ended with seven wins, three draws and 13 losses, good for 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 14 teams – and the worst record Beckham has been associated with as a professional. Miami finished three places behind last year’s other MLS expansion team, Nashville SC, who got into the league with minimal expectations, and an owner whose downright unromantic business interests include transport ships and print-on-demand books. Nashville won more games than it lost in the regular season and then knocked out Inter Miami 3-0 from the playoffs.
As a player, Beckham was drawn to, and was attracted to, successful clubs. He played for four of the biggest in Europe – Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and PSG – and won three championships as well as the LA Galaxy in MLS. Since Beckham, 45, negotiated a future option for an expansion franchise under his original MLS player deal, he’s had plenty of time to imagine what it would be like to own a team. Failure, even temporary, never crossed his mind. “We set high standards,” he said. “As individuals, Jorge and I set high standards in our company, and that’s how we want to run the club.”
So Beckham, who takes the lead in all areas of football, fired coach Diego Alonso in January and hired Phil Neville, his former Manchester United team-mate. He replaced the sporting director Paul McDonough, who had been picked with much fanfare by Atlanta United, with Chris Henderson from Seattle. He also oversaw the acquisition of 13 new players, an overhaul of basically half the team. A year after the opening game of Inter Miami in Los Angeles, it was almost as unexpected to see as many new faces in the training room as the vaccination line.
Beckham spent the first 10 months of the pandemic in England. He returned to the complex for the first time in late December and has not left the area. Of all the changes at Inter Miami, his presence there is possibly the most profound. The club was modeled after Beckham, from the emphasis on a strong academy and intense training sessions to the unique Great White Heron logo that he helped create. With it out of sight, Inter Miami looked like any other expansion team struggling to identify.
Despite remaining one of the most famous people in the world, Beckham is surprisingly approachable. When he sees someone he doesn’t know, he will show up and greet them, look them in the eye. “He’s David Beckham from Essex,” said Neville. “The guy who shows the chef upstairs the same respect as the kit man downstairs, as does Gonzalo Higuain,” said the Argentina international and Inter Miami striker.
As the owner, Beckham appears to be as comfortable on the football side of the building, where the gym and locker rooms are located, as they are on the business side. “His presence on site every day, even when he’s in his office, means there’s now a connection between everyone in the club,” said Neville.
And at least until Lionel Messi decides to buy a team, no other football owner has his seal of approval. “Having David here is just inspiring,” said Henderson.
Previously, Henderson had made much of the Sounders’ success from their inaugural 2009 season to two MLS Cups. Like so many others, he was drawn to Miami to work with Beckham. Just seeing Beckham in the parking lot is enough to remind his players that what is happening in Miami is no ordinary project. “This is the only way the boys can give an extra 5 or 10%,” said Scottish striker Lewis Morgan, Inter Miami’s 2020 MVP.
Beckham delved into every aspect of property with characteristic thoroughness. It helps that his frequent trips to China and across Europe in support and fashion business of his wife Victoria were interrupted during the pandemic. “I like being here physically, watching the workouts and seeing what exercises they are doing,” said Beckham. “I speak to our physiotherapists, our doctors, our fitness trainers, our cooks, the parents of our under 13 and under 14 year olds. I was very lucky to have played with the greatest clubs for the greatest managers – with the greatest players the biggest stage. I would like to believe that even if the players just saw me sitting here while they were training, my involvement made a big difference. “
This commitment holds great potential, especially at a time when the biggest names in MLS of the past decade – Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Beckham himself – are no longer on the field. “We have an owner who is arguably one of the most famous people on the planet,” said David Bruce, senior vice president of the league. “It transcends the worlds of sport, culture and lifestyle in ways that not many people can.” If you factor in the glamor of Miami, for the first time since the New York Cosmos of the 1970s, you have the potential for an American flagship team. “Miami can be a great franchise and a great market,” said Bill Manning, president of Toronto FC. “I’m incredibly excited about it.” However, Manning warns, “You have to win.”
If not, there is risk of public embarrassment for someone who has spent a career diligently avoiding it. The Beckham brand is at stake. No wonder he wants to be there to supervise.
The routine played out week after week at the Beckham’s country house in Chipping Norton, Cotswolds, where the family stayed last summer waiting for the pandemic. At midnight or 1 a.m., Beckham sat down on the couch with a son or two, longtime friend and business partner Dave Gardner, and high expectations for the team’s game. Soon the frustration would begin.
Inter Miami’s inspired game often included a near-goal from Morgan or attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, but they inevitably ended in a successful counter-attack the other way, or a goal conceded or a red card. “It was confusing and unfathomable,” said Ray Hudson, Inter Miami’s play-by-play announcer. Hudson, an England-born midfielder who played more than 300 games for North American teams between 1977 and 1991, later led the Miami Fusion, the region’s failed attempt to create an MLS franchise, and D.C. United. During his career as a footballer, coach and broadcaster, he insists that he has never seen a season like this. “There would be something different every week,” he said. “You would just hit your head with your hand. ‘What’s next?'”
Beckham found it unbearable to watch losses after losses from a distant time zone. He never wanted to be an owner who called his manager and, as he says, “demanded that the left back be replaced”. But there in the stillness of the night Beckham could see that his club was not right. “It wasn’t just ‘Why are we playing 4-4-2?'” He said. “It was about the little details that really matter because they become bigger problems.
“As an ex-player you can see things that go wrong in certain positions, or how we play or how we step on the field. You get to know the signs.”
To be fair, few clubs have been as affected by the pandemic as Inter Miami. Unlike clubs like Nashville, which switched to MLS after some time in the United Soccer League (USL), it was built from whole cloth. The players hardly knew each other. Some arrived days before the kick-off. “We couldn’t have team bonding sessions,” said Morgan. “And then we couldn’t jeopardize our season by going to the team dinner.”
With no fans in the stadium, the excitement of an inaugural season was largely dashed. Reinforcements came in September in the form of world-class striker Higuain – whose older brother Federico also plays for the club – and stylish midfielder Blaise Matuidi. But they came from Italy’s Juventus, a club that are used to overtaking most opponents and it was predictably difficult to adapt to an expansion mentality during a season. In October, fans were finally allowed to be in limited numbers, but by then, Inter Miami was irrevocably bad.
Or was it? “When you really analyze their games, they were incredibly unhappy,” said Jim Curtin, Philadelphia Union head coach. The Union beat Inter Miami twice, in July and September, by a combined 5-1. “But they dominated us for a long time,” said Curtin. He describes the club as a sleeping giant. “I think they got it right in the key positions on the field,” he said. Curtin himself had coveted Pizarro, the most expensive transfer in the history of the Liga MX. With a full training camp behind him, 32-year-old Higuain is “ready to break out,” said Curtin. And he voted for Morgan on his best XI.
That leaves the coaching. Prior to hiring Alonso, Beckham and Mas held discussions with a list of candidates who seemed more appropriate for a club with the history and reputation of AS Monaco or Aston Villa than an MLS franchise that hadn’t played a game. Roberto Martinez, who won the FA Cup with Wigan, finished fifth in the Premier League with Everton and heads the Belgian national team, was a clear possibility. So also Gennaro Gattuso, who ran AC Milan and is in Napoli, and Santiago Solari, a Beckham team-mate at Real Madrid, who now coaches the Mexican Club America. Patrick Vieira, an eminent Beckham generation midfielder who has spent three seasons as the NYCFC head coach, was “close, extremely close,” said Mas. Argentina’s River Plate’s Marcelo Gallardo agreed to come but was unable to agree on terms.
Alonso, the ultimate choice, couldn’t help but feel like a consolation prize. He had run six clubs – two in Uruguay, two in Paraguay, two in Mexico – and the Uruguayan national team. Once upon a time, in 2001/02, he scored 22 goals for Atletico Madrid, but his name was hardly a name the average South Florida football fan would know. He also wasn’t hired until after Christmas and had no history with Beckham after a brief La Liga crossbreed. That wouldn’t have mattered if the season had been normal. But last summer, when Beckham was desperately trying to telepathically communicate with his manager from an ocean away, he couldn’t help but feel like he had no idea what Alonso was thinking.
David Beckham passionately defends Phil Neville passionately as Inter Miami manager, his first such club role.
Much has been said about Beckham hiring one of his oldest friends to run his football club. From a distance it seems desperate. Neville’s history as a manager is short and non-existent at the club level. He took on responsibility for England’s women in 2018 and did well enough, including finishing fourth at the Women’s World Cup the following year before ending up with seven defeats in his last eleven games. Before that he trained for a single 2013-14 season under David Moyes at Manchester United and then in Valencia during the turbulent 2015-16 season under Nuno Espirito Santo and then under his brother Gary. It’s hard to imagine his résumés on the same pile as Gattuso and Vieira if Beckham didn’t know him.
But Beckham knows him. “Since we were about 14-15 years old,” Beckham said. Neville, a year younger than Beckham, believes they met when they were eleven. They came to Manchester United in the early 1990s as the “Class of ’92” together with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson. By 1996 they won doubles, the Premier League and the FA Cup. Beckham, gifted with talent, refined it with an exceptional work ethic. The Nevilles, whose talent was less obvious, worked even harder. They put in so much time that Beckham admits “we laughed at them”.
It is precisely this dedication that Beckham believes was missing from last year’s team. “I would watch games and think about what they did during the week leading up to it.” Beckham said. “Did they prepare properly? Did the players watch videos of the team we were playing against? Do the coaches watch the academy kids on the weekend? And why are we out in the 60th minute? Why don’t we press?” He doesn’t have to pass on his expectations to his new manager. Neville is from the same place. “Phil has already said to me,” If a player doesn’t reach a certain level of fitness, they’re not on the field, “Beckham said.” It doesn’t matter who. “
Neville arrives around 6 a.m. most days. “He’s still there at 7:00 am,” Beckham said approvingly. What he’s doing all the time is adapting Ferguson’s football philosophy to today’s North America. “Many of the values that David wants to bring to the football club come from the values that have been implemented at Manchester United,” said Neville. It goes way beyond what happens during games or even practice. “Humility,” he said. “To do the right thing every minute of every day. How you dress. How you talk to each other. And just basic values our parents probably taught us. If there’s a bottle in the field, you go over and pick it up.” “
Whether Ferguson’s approach works in MLS is an open question. For one thing, European managers have tended to underestimate the difficulty of the league, not to mention the Byzantine complexity of its player-sourcing regulations. Notable disappointments are Ruud Gullit, Frank De Boer, and Thierry Henry. “They brought European coaches into this league and they didn’t really understand the rules, or really anticipate the trip or the weather,” said Beckham. He refers, among other things, to Gullit, who ran the galaxy when Beckham was there. Gullit expressed surprise that he could not easily sign players for any amount and lasted less than a season before returning to Europe.
“It’s a unique league in many ways,” said Union’s Curtin. “There are many different styles of play. It takes certain Argentine league elements, the fighting and the intensity, but other games can look and feel like a Premier League game. The journey is difficult and the hot weather means you can’t always play the way you want. You have to adapt, not just from month to month, but from week to week. “
Neville thinks he’s ready. Fifteen years ago when Beckham first went to Los Angeles, Neville started watching MLS games on television. “After David there was Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard,” he said. He insists he’s seen every Inter Miami game last season long before he knew he’d run the club. When he arrived, he watched again with different eyes. “Last year was a disappointment, but there were many factors,” he said. “This year we have a fresh start.”
Determined not to get caught off guard, Neville has surrounded himself with MLS veterans like Henderson and former NYCFC head coach Jason Kreis who is assistant. “I know there haven’t been many overseas managers who have been successful,” said Neville. “That’s my personal, individual motivation. When I go back to my apartment and think of Philip Neville and not the team, there’s a bit of ‘I’ll show you a lot that a foreign manager can do it here.’ You know a little bit of ‘I’ll show you a lot that it is can be done.'”
It’s a sunny Saturday morning in March, a month before the 2021 season begins. Beckham has owners’ meetings at the facility. Neville has duties on the first team. But the lure of live football is too strong.
USL team Fort Lauderdale FC, affiliated with Inter Miami, is hosting a scrimmage for semi-pro trialists on a backcourt. At 11 a.m., longtime friends Henderson and assistant coach Anthony Pulis, son of traveling English manager Tony Pulis, joined in on the nearby corner. Beckham looks flawless as always in a black Inter Miami training shirt adorned with these iconic herons. Neville wears a generic red Adidas shirt from Manchester United. The quality of the game is brisk when it is ragged. Beckham believes some of the hopefuls have professional potential – he can say “after watching them play for two minutes”.
For someone with such a glamorous reputation, Beckham spends a lot of time on Inter Miami’s youth program. He believes that the way to build a world-class club is through a recruiting system that identifies and attracts talent in youth and then nurtures them into adulthood. “I said from the start that it wasn’t just about the team that played in the stadium,” he said. “It’s about the 13s, 14s, 15s, 17s, 23s. Because we are ultimately a club. Yes, we have a team that plays in the MLS. But beyond that, we are.” An association. All of our coaches of all ages need to be attuned to what these players are doing on these two fields. If not, we’re getting it wrong. “
Fortunately, the MLS system rewards player development. Players coming from a team academy are not subject to the league’s draft and do not count on salary restrictions. Teams that have invested their resources in their youth teams, such as Philadelphia and Dallas, have been rewarded with a steady flow of first-team talent. “If he can just bring some youngsters through to become top players, it really helps,” said Bryan Robson, who was Beckham’s senior team captain for Manchester United’s first two seasons. “And David knows that buying success is very difficult. Players can become mercenaries at the end of their careers. You have to pay attention to that.”
The problem is, the world is watching now. Slow building is not a luxury that David Podham can afford from the podcasters or the Twitter posters when deciding to own a football club, especially if he insists that Inter Miami can end up being “the greatest in the world”. Virtually every major player over 30 has been proposed as splash signing for the next year or two, often by their own agents. Neville gets calls every day. “Players of brilliant, brilliant standing in world football,” he said.
David Beckham says Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shown he is the right man for the Manchester United job.
One of them was Higuain, who at 32 doesn’t seem to have lost a step. Matuidi, whose signing by McDonough is being investigated by the League as a potential salary cap breach, is now 34. Mas admits that many of the bigger names floating around as potential targets at the time last year – Edinson Cavani, Dries Mertens – wanted to come. The pandemic has spoiled that.
The club’s biggest acquisitions last winter, Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross and Bahia defensive midfielder Gregore aren’t going to sell many season tickets. Gregore has not played outside of Brazil. The gritty Shawcross did it for years on a cold, rainy night in Stoke, as the saying goes, but it has to adjust to the lazy ambience of South Florida, not to mention the stifling temperatures. Inter Miami is still targeting some of the world’s greatest stars, Beckham points out, but he doesn’t want them to use the club as an exit from retirement like aging stars from Pele to Chicharito have done with American football over the decades. “You must be hungry,” said Beckham. “Not to come as a holiday destination, but to win championships.”
It’s clearly easier to convince a big international star to bring his talent to South Beach than it is to Sacramento. But the main attraction is of course Beckham. “He’s really a very special person,” said Ivan Gazidis, a former MLS deputy commissioner who ran Arsenal in 2009-18 and is now at AC Milan. “People underestimate David a bit. There’s a reason he only played with the top clubs: He fought his way there. There will be doubts and skepticism, but that’s nothing new to him. He’s thoughtful in what he says and when he makes a commitment, he does it wholeheartedly. So if he says Inter Miami will be a world class club, I wouldn’t underestimate him. “
But if it doesn’t happen, if Inter Miami continues to stall this season, Beckham’s meticulously manicured image is likely to suffer. “He’s going to want to win in Miami,” said Bruce of MLS. “It will be very important for him to mark his success as the owner of this club.” What he’s now selling with his Adidas clothing line and upscale recommendations and even Inter Miami is the David Beckham brand. And as with gaming, he leaves as little as possible to chance.
Beckham sits back on the terrace for a photo session. Watching him take a picture is like watching him take a free kick. He choreographed the result in his head and works backwards from there to achieve it. This afternoon the wind rummaged in his hair. Beckham won’t have it. He refines it with his hands just to get it one way. The moment the photographer pauses, he does it again. He zips down the pink training top he’s wearing maybe an inch. Then he pulls it up a sixteenth of an inch. The wind blows. With a look, a gesture, a polite word, he makes his discomfort known. As almost always, Beckham achieved what he set out to do. The photo shoot moves inward.