Football’s best-connected hidden ‘player’

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Barcelona v Real Madrid in the 2017 International Champions Cup finalImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Barcelona were crowned International Champions Cup winners after defeating Real Madrid

US soccer promoter Charlie Stillitano has been called many things in the past 18 months or so – with “power broker” and “mogul” among the more flattering descriptions of the ebullient New Yorker.

On the downside, for his apparent suggestion that a European super league might be an idea worth talking about, he has been called “a poster boy for greed” and even “a corporate goblin”.

Stillitano is the executive chairman of Relevant Sports, which organises the International Champions Cup, an annual summer tournament held mainly across the US – although other countries also host matches – featuring the world’s top football clubs.

But it was for organising a meeting of executives from Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool. Arsenal and Chelsea – where they discussed the possibility of restructuring the Uefa Champions League – that he found himself in the firing line.

‘Unintentional controversy’

“It was not our [Relevant’s] intention to be a stalking horse for the creation of a European Super League, that was never the intention,” he tells me.

“I would never advocate a closed-shop Champions League or any closed European league. I know it sounds cliched but I was misquoted, or rather I was asked a question about whether closed leagues can ever work.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Stillitano has been a football fan since his childhood days in the 1960s

“And in some circumstances they can – look at NFL American football, one of the most successful leagues in the world. But I know that closed leagues are anathema in Europe.”

The 57-year-old says discussions about the format of European football first emerged because clubs came to him and asked if the Champions Cup could become more than just a pre-season event, and be put on a more official footing.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Stillitano says he got sucked into a Champions League controversy inadvertently

“So things were coming about more as a reaction to teams approaching us,” he says. “We caused a stir unintentionally. And clubs are still coming up to us.

“Anyway, the big European clubs ended up cutting new commercial and sporting deals, including the changes at Uefa with the Champions League,” he adds, referring to the deal where bigger nations such as England are guaranteed more places.

‘Huge untapped market’

Stillitano’s partner in the International Champions Cup is US billionaire and Miami Dolphins American football team owner, Stephen Ross.

Indeed, he says it is Ross’s lack of a traditional soccer background that has enabled him to put together some of the bigger Champions Cup matches.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has helped bankroll the International Champions Cup

“We brokered the biggest game, the Real Madrid v Barcelona Clasico, in Miami this summer,” he says. “Steve Ross has the advantage of not being a massive soccer follower, so he just said ‘let’s get it’ without even considering it might not be possible.

“From the beginning Mr Ross and his business partner Matt Higgins could see there was something out there, a huge untapped soccer market.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Five English clubs took part in the 2017 event

“The Champions Cup sits in a nice pre-season niche. It gives us the opportunity to own the month of pre-season, and build a viable business.

“We get to show the best players in the world, and they are able to perform in a relaxed atmosphere without the the pressure of a regular season game. It allows the teams to build for their seasons.”

‘Cultivating new fans’

The tournament has just completed its fifth year, with Ross investing roughly $100m over the period since 2013.

“We are making money out of it, we have turned the financial corner, I think the investment has paid off,” says Stillitano.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Stillitano says the Champions Cup is creating a new generation of US soccer fans

“I know it is not a Champions League or regular season games. But the fans love it and lots of cities and clubs would live to have Champions Cup games to host.

“We are helping to cultivate the new US soccer fan. The biggest crowd ever for a Manchester United v Real Madrid game was in America this summer. Clearly we have something that has caught the imagination of the US sporting public.”

Image copyright Getty Images/Hulton
Image caption Stillitano’s favourite player is Gianni Rivera of AC Milan (extreme left, back row)

Profile: Charlie Stillitano

Son of Italian parents from Calabria

Grew up watching Italian and German football on cable TV

AC Milan fan, favourite player was 1970s star Gianni Rivera

First English game: Leicester City v Aston Villa in March 1976

Director of Giants Stadium at the 1994 World Cup

In 1996 became general manager of MLS team New York/New Jersey MetroStars (later Red Bulls)

Set up Champions World series of games in the US featuring major European teams in the 2000s

Friends with Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho

Super Bowl route?

Stillitano says the next step is to make the event more of an entertainment property.

“We saw it for the first time in Miami with the Clasico,” he says. “We had legends games, concerts, activities for kids. That is something we want to expand, make it a fun day out, not just the match. The NFL Super Bowl is currently the only event that gets that mix right.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Singapore hosted three Champions Cup games this summer, including Chelsea v Inter Milan

“The next part is also to attract more cities to take part – Singapore is a good example of a city that has come on board with us.”

Games have also been held in England, Italy, Spain, Canada, Mexico and China; Mr Stillitano says there is interest in Argentina, Brazil, the Middle East, and South Africa.

“It is good for the economies of host cities,” he says. “Three quarters of the people who came to the Miami Clasico were from out of state. And there were 70,000 at the game, and 40,000 at the training sessions.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Fifa took over the former Intercontinental Cup/Toyota Cup

So, does this growth signal that the Champions Cup is indeed ripe for becoming a part of the official football calendar?

“Different people own different football spaces… but things change,” he says. “Look at how Fifa decided they wanted to take over the old Intercontinental Cup, and moved in on it.

“However, are we going to morph into something more official? I don’t think so.”

Two-tier system

And on the subject of competitions morphing into something else, Stillitano has a final riposte for those who accused him of trying to set up a closed-shop European league.

“I think we are already in danger of creating a closed league, through financial fair play,” he says, referring to Uefa rules which generally mean clubs can only spend what they make, and break even.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption PSG are emerging as one of clutch of super-wealthy European teams

“It means there are five, six, clubs that are wealthy enough to dominate the Champions League over the next 20 years – the likes of Paris Saint Germain, Manchester City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich.

“A Celtic or Ajax will never win the cup again, while the likes of AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, and other historic big names are condemned to almost second tier status.”

He laughs: “But I am the one who got all the trouble and criticism!”

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