Apr 15, 2021
Bruce Schoenfeld, Special to ESPN
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — David Beckham stepped out of a Cadillac SUV and 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 deepest Broward County, where Inter Miami would play its first two seasons before moving, if everything fell into place, to a $1 billion venue near Miami Airport. Behind him, a training complex and team offices were beginning to emerge.
After nearly seven years of battling to get an MLS expansion franchise on the field somewhere in South Florida, Beckham was eager to implement his vision for a club that would start big and get bigger. “I don’t think there’s another club anywhere that has the opportunity we have globally,” he told ESPN.
MLS 2021 Kickoff Weekend LIVE on ABC/ESPN Deportes:
– Inter Miami CF vs. LA Galaxy, Sunday, 4/18, 3 p.m. ET
Since then, almost nothing has gone as planned. One afternoon not long ago, Beckham and Jorge Mas, one of his co-owners, stood on a second-floor terrace of the office building and surveyed the scene. Across the street, the stadium parking lot had been transformed into a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination site; cars were queued up into the distance.
The stadium had been rented for the day to the local Boys & Girls Club, income that helps pay for running an MLS team during a pandemic. So did the showcase that Brandon Marshall, the former Miami Dolphins wide receiver, was staging on a practice field for potential NFL draft picks, and the decision to lease the stadium to Club de Foot Montreal for its 2021 MLS home games.
“You have to adapt to the situation,” said Mas, whose title is managing owner. (Former Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and tech entrepreneur Masayoshi Son also have ownership shares.) “With the short season, with the lack of fans, with the restrictions we faced, last year was a challenge.”
On the field, Inter Miami became the first team in the history of the league to lose its first five games. It ended with seven wins, three draws and 13 losses, good for 10th place in the 14-team Eastern Conference — 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, which came into the league with minimal expectations and an owner whose distinctly unromantic business interests include transport barges and print-on-demand books. Nashville won more games than it lost in the regular season, then eliminated Inter Miami from the playoffs 3-0.
As a player, Beckham was drawn to successful clubs, and they were drawn to him. He played for four of the biggest in Europe — Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and PSG — and won championships with three, as well with the LA Galaxy in MLS. Since negotiating a future option on an expansion franchise as part of his original MLS player contract, Beckham, 45, has had plenty of time to imagine what owning a team would be like. Failing, even temporarily, never crossed his mind. “We set high standards,” he said. “As individuals, Jorge and I set high standards in our businesses, and that’s how we want to run the club.”
So Beckham, who takes the lead on all things football, fired manager Diego Alonso in January and hired Phil Neville, his former Manchester United teammate. He replaced the sporting director, Paul McDonough, who had been plucked with much fanfare from Atlanta United, with Seattle’s Chris Henderson. He also supervised the acquisition of 13 new players, an overhaul of basically half the team. A year after Inter Miami’s inaugural game in Los Angeles, seeing so many new faces in the workout room was almost as unexpected as the vaccination line.
Beckham spent the first 10 months of the pandemic in England. He returned to the complex for the first time at the end of December and hasn’t left the area. Of all the changes at Inter Miami, his presence there may be the most profound. The club has been sculpted in Beckham’s image, from the emphasis on a strong academy and intense training sessions to the unique great white herons logo that he helped design. With him out of sight, Inter Miami seemed like any other expansion team, struggling to find an identity.
Though he remains one of the world’s most famous people, Beckham is surprisingly accessible. If he sees someone he doesn’t know, he’ll step up and greet them, look them in the eye. “He’s David Beckham from Essex,” said Neville. “The guy who shows the same respect to the chef upstairs as he does to the kit man downstairs, as he does to Gonzalo Higuain,” the Argentine international and Inter Miami forward.
As an owner, Beckham seems equally comfortable on the football side of the building, where the gym and changing rooms are located, as the business side. “His presence on-site every day, even if he’s just up there in his office, means there is now a connection between everybody in the club,” Neville said.
And at least until Lionel Messi decides to buy a team, no other football owner has his cachet. “Having David here is just inspirational,” Henderson said.
Previously, Henderson had engineered much of the Sounders’ success, from their inaugural season in 2009 through two MLS Cups. He was drawn to Miami, like so many others, by the chance to work with Beckham. Merely catching a glimpse of Beckham in the parking lot is enough to remind his players that what’s happening in Miami is no ordinary project. “Just that can make guys give an extra 5 or 10%,” said the Scottish striker Lewis Morgan, Inter Miami’s MVP in 2020.
With characteristic thoroughness, Beckham has immersed himself in every aspect of ownership. It helps that his frequent trips to China and around Europe for endorsements and his wife Victoria’s fashion business have paused during the pandemic. “I like to physically be here, watching the training sessions, seeing what drills they’re doing,” Beckham said. “I’m talking to our physios, our doctors, our fitness trainers, our chefs, the parents of our under-13s and under-14s. I’ve been very lucky to have played with the biggest clubs, for the biggest managers, with the biggest players, on the biggest stage. I’d like to think that my involvement, even if the players just see me sitting here while they’re working out, has made a big difference.”
That involvement carries a huge potential upside, especially at a time when MLS’ biggest names of the past decade — Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Beckham himself — are no longer on the field. “We’ve got an owner who is arguably one of the most famous people on the planet,” said David Bruce, a senior vice president with the league. “He transcends the worlds of sport, culture and lifestyle in a way that not many people can.” Factor in the glamour of Miami and you have the potential for a flagship American team for the first time since the 1970s New York Cosmos. “Miami can be a great franchise and a great market,” said Bill Manning, the president of Toronto FC. “I’m incredibly excited about it.” But, Manning cautions, “they have to win.”
If not, the risk is public embarrassment for someone who has spent a career studiously avoiding it. The Beckham brand is on the line. No wonder he wants to be around to supervise.
The routine played out week after week at the Beckhams’ country home at Chipping Norton, in the Cotswolds, where the family spent last summer and fall waiting out the pandemic. At midnight or 1 a.m., Beckham would settle on the couch with a son or two, his longtime friend and business partner Dave Gardner and high expectations for the team’s game. Soon enough, the frustration would begin.
Inter Miami’s stretches of inspired play often included a near-goal by Morgan or attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, but they would inevitably end with a successful counterattack in the other direction, or a conceded penalty, or a red card. “It was bewildering and unfathomable,” said Ray Hudson, Inter Miami’s play-by-play announcer. An English-born midfielder who played more than 300 games for North American teams between 1977 and 1991, Hudson later managed the Miami Fusion, the area’s failed attempt at an MLS franchise, and D.C. United. Over a career of playing, coaching and broadcasting soccer, he insists he’d never seen a season like it. “Every week there’d be a different thing,” he said. “You’d just slap your head with your hand. ‘What’s next?'”
For Beckham, watching loss after loss from a distant time zone was excruciating. He’d never wanted to be an owner who’d call his manager and, as he says, “demand that the left back be replaced.” But there in the stillness of the night, Beckham could see that his club wasn’t right. “It wasn’t just ‘Why are we playing 4-4-2?'” he said. “It was about the small details, which are actually the important ones because they become bigger problems.
“Being an ex-player, you can pick up things going wrong in certain positions, or in the way we’re playing, or just the way we’re stepping out onto the field. You get to know the signs.”
To be fair, few clubs anywhere were affected by the pandemic as much as Inter Miami. Unlike clubs like Nashville, which graduated to MLS after time in the United Soccer League (USL), it was constructed out of whole cloth. The players hardly knew one another. Several arrived days before the opener. “We couldn’t do any team bonding sessions,” Morgan said. “And then we couldn’t jeopardize our season by going out for team meals.”
Not having fans in the stadium dissipated much of the excitement of an inaugural season. Reinforcements arrived in September in the form of the world-class striker Higuain — whose older brother, Federico, also plays for the club — and the stylish midfielder Blaise Matuidi. But they came from Italy’s Juventus, a club accustomed to overrunning most opponents, and adapting to an expansion mentality during a season was predictably difficult. Fans finally were allowed in limited numbers in October, but by then, Inter Miami was irredeemably bad.
Or was it? “When you really analyze their games, they were incredibly unfortunate,” said Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin. The Union beat Inter Miami twice, in July and in September, by a combined 5-1. “But they dominated us for long stretches,” Curtin said. He describes the club as a sleeping giant. “In the key positions up the spine of the field, I think they got it right,” he said. Curtin had himself coveted Pizarro, the most expensive transfer in Liga MX history. With a full training camp behind him, the 32-year-old Higuain is “ready to break out,” Curtin said. And he voted for Morgan on his leaguewide best XI.
That leaves the coaching. Before hiring Alonso, Beckham and Mas held discussions with a list of candidates that seemed more appropriate for a club with the history and reputation of an 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 manages the Belgian national team, was a distinct possibility. So were Gennaro Gattuso, who managed AC Milan and is at Napoli, and Santiago Solari, a teammate of Beckham’s at Real Madrid who now coaches Mexico’s Club America. Patrick Vieira, a standout midfielder of Beckham’s generation who spent three seasons as head coach of NYCFC, was “close, extremely close,” Mas said. Marcelo Gallardo of Argentina’s River Plate agreed to come, then couldn’t agree on terms.
Alonso, the eventual choice, couldn’t help but feel like a consolation prize. He’d managed 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 was hardly a name the average South Florida soccer fan would know. He also wasn’t hired until after Christmas, and beyond a brief intersection in La Liga, he had no history with Beckham. That wouldn’t have mattered if the season had progressed normally. But last summer, as Beckham tried desperately to communicate telepathically with his manager from an ocean away, he couldn’t help feeling that he had no idea what Alonso was thinking.
David Beckham makes a passionate defence of Phil Neville as Inter Miami manager, his first such club role.
Much has been made of the fact that Beckham has hired 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 at the club level, it is nonexistent. He took charge of the England women’s team in 2018 and did well enough, including a fourth-place finish at the Women’s World Cup the following year, before ending with seven losses in his last 11 games. Before that, he coached for a single season, 2013-14, under David Moyes at Manchester United, and then at Valencia during the tumultuous 2015-16 season under Nuno Espirito Santo and then his brother, Gary. It’s hard to imagine his résumé in the same pile as Gattuso’s and Vieira’s if Beckham didn’t know him.
But Beckham does know him. “Since we were about 14, 15 years old,” Beckham said. Neville, a year younger than Beckham, believes they first met when he was 11. They came up together at Manchester United in the early 1990s as the “Class of ’92,” along with Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville, under the management of Sir Alex Ferguson. By 1996, they were winning the double, the Premier League and the FA Cup. Beckham, who was gifted with talent, honed it with an extraordinary work ethic. The Nevilles, whose talent was less evident, worked even harder. They put in so much time that, Beckham admits, “we used to laugh at them.”
It’s precisely that devotion that Beckham believes was missing from last year’s team. “I’d be watching games and thinking, what had they done during the week in the lead-up?” Beckham said. “Had they prepared right? Had the players seen videos of the team that we’re playing against? Are the coaches watching the academy kids at the weekend? And why are we dropping off in the 60th minute? Why are we not pressing?” He doesn’t have to convey his expectations to his new manager; Neville’s come from the same place. “Phil already has said to me, ‘If a player isn’t reaching a certain fitness level, he won’t be on the field,'” Beckham said. “It doesn’t matter who.”
Neville arrives around 6 a.m. most days. “He’s still there at 7 o’clock at night,” Beckham said approvingly. What he’s doing all that time is adapting Ferguson’s football philosophy to today’s North America. “A lot of the values that David wants to implement into the football club come from the values that were implemented at Manchester United,” Neville said. It goes far beyond what happens during the games, or even training. “Humbleness,” he said. “To do the right thing every minute of every single day. The way you dress. The way you speak to each other. And just basic values that our parents probably taught us. If there’s a bottle on the field, you go over and pick it up.”
Whether Ferguson’s approach will work in MLS is an open question. For one thing, European managers have typically tended to underestimate the league’s difficulty, not to mention the byzantine complexity of its player-procurement regulations. Notable disappointments include Ruud Gullit, Frank De Boer and Thierry Henry. “You’ve had European coaches come into this league and they’ve not really understood the rules, not really anticipated the travel or the weather,” Beckham said. He’s referring, among others, to Gullit, who managed the Galaxy when Beckham was there. Expressing astonishment that he couldn’t simply sign players for any amount he wanted to, Gullit lasted less than a season before returning to Europe.
“It’s a unique league in a lot of ways,” said the Union’s Curtin. “There are lots of different playing styles. It takes certain elements from the Argentine league, the fight and the intensity, but other games can look and have the feel of a Premier League game. The travel is hard, and the hot weather means you can’t always play the way you want to. You have to adapt, not only month to month but 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 that he watched every Inter Miami game last season, long before he had any inkling that he’d be managing the club. He watched again through different eyes once he arrived. “Last year was a disappointment, but there were many factors,” he said. “This year, we’ve got a fresh start.”
Determined not to be caught unprepared, Neville has surrounded himself with MLS veterans such as Henderson and former NYCFC head coach Jason Kreis, who is an assistant. “I know there haven’t been many foreign managers who have succeeded,” Neville said. “That’s my own personal, individual motivation. When I go back to my apartment and I’m thinking about Philip Neville and not the team, there’s a bit of ‘I’ll show you lot that a foreign manager can make it here.’ You know, a bit of ‘I’ll show you lot that it can be done.'”
It’s a sunny Saturday morning in March, a month before the start of the 2021 season. Beckham has ownership meetings inside the facility. Neville has first-team duties. But the lure of live football is too strong.
Inter Miami’s affiliated USL team, Fort Lauderdale FC, is holding a scrimmage for semipro trialists on a back field. By 11 o’clock, the longtime friends have joined Henderson and assistant coach Anthony Pulis, son of itinerant English manager Tony Pulis, at the near corner. Beckham looks immaculate as usual in a black Inter Miami training shirt adorned with those aspirationally iconic herons. Neville is wearing a generic Adidas shirt of Manchester United red. The quality of play is brisk, if ragged. Beckham thinks several of the hopefuls have pro potential — he can tell, he says, “after two minutes of seeing them play.”
For someone with such a glamorous reputation, Beckham spends a lot of time immersed in Inter Miami’s youth program. He believes that the way to construct a world-class club is with a recruitment system that identifies and attracts talent during adolescence, then nurtures it into adulthood. “I’ve said from the start that it’s not just about the team that’s playing in the stadium,” he said. “It’s about the 13s, the 14s, the 15s, the 17s, the 23s. Because we’re a club, at the end of the day. Yes, we have a team that plays in MLS. But more than that, we are a club. All of our coaches from every age have to be aligned with what these players are doing on these two pitches here. If they aren’t, we’re getting it wrong.”
Fortuitously, the MLS system rewards player development. Players who come from a team academy aren’t subject to the league’s draft, and they don’t count against 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 bring even just a few young players through who become top players, it really helps,” said Bryan Robson, who was the captain at Manchester United for Beckham’s first two seasons with the senior team. “And David knows that buying success is very difficult. Players can get mercenary at the end of their career. You have to be careful of that.”
The problem is, the world is watching now. Building slowly isn’t a luxury that’s afforded David Beckham by the podcasters or the Twitter posters when he decides to own a football club, especially when he insists that Inter Miami can eventually “be the biggest in the world.” Just about every major player over 30 has been proposed as a splash signing for the coming year or two, often by their own agents. Neville gets calls daily. “Players of brilliant, brilliant standing in world football,” he said.
David Beckham says Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has shown he’s the right man for the job at Manchester United.
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 possible salary-cap violation, is now 34. Mas acknowledges that many of the bigger names that were circulating as potential targets last year at this time — Edinson Cavani, Dries Mertens — wanted to come. The pandemic spoiled that.
The club’s biggest acquisitions last winter, Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross and Bahia defensive midfielder Gregore, won’t sell many season tickets. Gregore hasn’t played outside Brazil. The gritty Shawcross did it for years on a cold, rainy night in Stoke, as the saying goes, but he’ll have to adapt to the more languid ambience of South Florida, not to mention the sweltering temperatures. Inter Miami is still targeting some of the world’s top stars, Beckham insists, but he doesn’t want them to use the club as an off-ramp to retirement, the way aging stars from Pele to Chicharito have done with American soccer over the decades. “They have to be hungry,” Beckham said. “Not to come as a holiday destination but to win championships.”
It’s clearly easier to convince a major international star to take his talents to South Beach than to Sacramento. But the main draw, of course, is Beckham. “He actually is quite a special person,” said Ivan Gazidis, a former MLS deputy commissioner who spent 2009-18 running Arsenal and is now at AC Milan. “People sort of underestimate David a little bit. There’s a reason he only played with the top clubs: He fought his way there. There will be doubters 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 when 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 falter this season, Beckham’s meticulously manicured image is likely to suffer. “He’ll want to win in Miami,” said MLS’ Bruce. “That’s going to be really important to him, to mark success as owner of that club.” What he’s selling now, with his Adidas clothing line and his upscale endorsements and even Inter Miami, is the David Beckham brand. And as he did while playing, he leaves as little as possible to chance.
Back on the terrace, Beckham sits for a photo session. Watching him get photographed is like watching him take a free kick. He has choreographed the outcome in his head, and he works backward from there to achieve it. On this afternoon, the wind is rummaging his hair. Beckham won’t have it. He finesses it with his hands to get it just a certain way. The moment the photographer pauses, he does it again. He pulls down the zipper on the pink training top he’s wearing maybe an eighth of an inch. Then he pulls it up one-sixteenth of an inch. The wind gusts. With a look, a gesture, a polite word, he makes his discomfort known. As nearly always happens, Beckham achieves what he sets out to do. The photo shoot moves inside.