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Is football the world’s game, or a local game? Charlie Stillitano knows

In an exclusive interview, Charlie Stillitano, executive chairman of Relevent Sports speaks to Callum McCarthy about the ICC, his attempts to bring LaLiga matches to the US and his deep-rooted passion for the sport.

  • In trying to bring LaLiga fixtures to the United States, Stillitano faces his greatest challenge yet
  • After 30 years selling soccer to Americans, he must now sell his vision to European fans
  • Stillitano asserts that his intentions are pure and is hurt by accusations of greed

At the turn of the 20th century and throughout football’s first 50 years, British and mainland European clubs embarked on long tours of countries and continents in order to spread the game’s popularity, exchange ideas about the way it should be played and, perhaps above all, make some money.

Barring the invention of the internet and the rise of the global brand, barely anything has changed in the last 100 years. Clubs still tour far-off lands to spread the good word and make some cash, while domestic football is still as domestic as it ever was. In a globalised world, football’s traditions are sacrosanct. God help anyone who disturbs them.

Charlie Stillitano is an Italian American from New Jersey who loves football. He wants other people to love it, too, or at the very least respect it. His father was a founding member of the Italian American Soccer League and was president of the Soccer Referee Association of New Jersey. Charlie has continued the family tradition, but has taken a things a few steps further.

“I grew up an AC Milan fan. My hero was Gianni Rivera. Why shouldn’t I have a chance to see him play in his prime? Just because I was born in a different country or different city doesn’t mean I don’t love him as much as a fan from Milan.”

Stillitano has made it his life’s goal to break football’s domestic obsession and bring the world’s best clubs to the United States. It’s a goal that has constantly evolved – from one-off friendlies, to annual tournaments, to competitive league matches. It has made him one of football’s most-divisive men.

It’s a Jersey thing

A year before the World Cup in 1994, a rather curious event took place at the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington D.C. The Supercoppa Italiana, played between the winners of Serie A and the Coppa Italia, is perhaps Italy’s least meaningful competitive fixture. Four years after it was created in 1989, the Supercoppa was shipped across the Atlantic for the benefit of 25,000 ex-pats and Italian Americans. Milan beat Torino by a single goal to nil. Barely anyone noticed.

Stillitano, who worked on the operational side of the event, may be one of the only people on the planet to remember it well.

“We were frightened to death the stands would be empty,” he says. “A club like Torino playing in the United States was unheard of. Then you have the fact they were playing in Washington D.C. which… doesn’t have a huge Italian population. The whole thing was a bit novel. That’s the best way to describe it.”

In 1993, soccer’s potential audience in the United States was almost solely made up of ex-pats and first-generation citizens already wedded to clubs in their countries of birth or heritage. Middle America regarded the sport as little more than a jokea pastime for Hispanics and women too scared to play real sports.

Stillitano, who was working as the venue director for Giants Stadium ahead of the 1994 World Cup, wanted to show ex-pat communities that local club football could be appealing. He arranged a double-header that would see the New York/New Jersey MetroStars play a domestic club match immediately after a friendly between the national teams of Colombia and Greece – two countries with large immigrant populations in the Metro area.

A total of 73,511 people, almost all of them Colombian and Greek ex-pats, attended the first match. Over half of them stayed to watch the MetroStars play immediately afterward.

Stillitano, in his role as a soccer promoter, had manoeuvred 40,000 people into watching US soccer at a time when clubs were lucky to get 10 per cent of that. It was a trick he continued to turn when he became general manager of the MetroStars in 1996. The club would sell season ticket packages that included friendlies against the likes of Sampdoria, Galatasaray and, again, the Colombia national team.

“All the fans here had a favourite team, but it wasn’t a US team. They supported clubs back home, and they also supported their national teams,” Stillitano says. “Our bet was to go after the ex-pats and, in the process, create new fans of American soccer. This is how I got other fans to come and see us, and that’s how we would promote.”

Fast-forward 25 years and Stillitano’s attitude towards soccer hasn’t changed one bit. Football, futbol, futebol and calcio are preeminent sports. Soccer, on the other hand, is all about the tough sell. It was then and it is now.

“My whole life has been pushing a boulder up the hill,” Stillitano says. “I still live in my starter home. It’s a hard business.”

The ICC

Today, Stillitano is executive chairman of Relevent Sports, the company which operates the annual International Champions Cup pre-season tournament. Over the course of six years, the ICC has become the biggest pre-season competition in the world, attracting the world’s biggest clubs. Stillitano has been running tournaments akin to it in the United States for almost 25 years.

This year, however, attendances in the United States were noticeably down. The star-studded lineups of the early ICC tournaments – and of the tournaments that preceded it – had given way to a smattering of stars playing among new signings and youth-team players.

This was partly due to a busy summer schedule that included the Copa America, Africa Cup of Nations and the Gold Cup. It was also due to clubs and coaches becoming increasingly worried about player fatigue. But there is also a feeling that the novelty factor of the tournament has somewhat worn off.

The growth of Major League Soccer over the past five years has given American soccer fans a competitive, immersive experience. They are more discerning than they used to be, and a half-strength Arsenal team isn’t the draw it might have been in 2013.

“Ticket sales were really strong in the last 10 days before almost all the games. So we sat down afterwards thinking, geez, if only we had another week, I think it would have been much better,” Stillitano says.

He continued: “Teams need to have their full teams. Of course, a guy could be hurt. But you can’t come without your best players. It’s the worst thing you could do to your brand. That’s really… I’m going to say it, that’s really ripping people off.”

The challenge of providing a consistent pre-season attraction has perhaps led Stillitano to the logical conclusion of his life’s work: bringing top-tier European league matches to American soil. After 25 years of being a soccer promoter, Stillitano now faces his toughest sell yet. Decades of groundwork means that the US audience is ready. Europeans? Not so much.

Taking it to heart

Relevent is currently the midst of a battle to bring a competitive LaLiga fixture to the United States every year for the next 15 seasons. The deal would have seen Barcelona play one of its home matches in Miami this coming January, but it has been blocked by the RFEF and Fifa, both of which are concerned about league games being played outside of their domestic territory.

The deal would have seen LaLiga earn $232m over the 15 years as well as granting them the opportunity to become the first major European league to take competitive matches to a new audience. LaLiga and Relevent are fighting tooth and nail to keep the deal on track.

To the majority of European football fans, Stillitano’s plan to stage competitive league matches outside their country of origin has made him the devil incarnate. The prevailing view of Stillitano is of a cynical man who hates football; a cold-hearted American businessman with no regard for anything but money. Stillitano mostly takes it in stride, but the criticism and abuse has taken its toll.

“I grew up as an immigrant in an Italian immigrant family,” Stillitano says. “Our identity was football. We were different because we loved football. It was our football and the same could be said for the Brazilian kid down the street, the Italian kid, the German kid. You could have been as American as apple pie, but if you were a soccer player you were a foreigner and you felt a little bit isolated, a little disenfranchised.”

Originally, Stillitano’s fight was for America to take soccer seriously. In 2019, Atlanta United, a new franchise in Major League Soccer, is averaging 53,000 attendees every weekend. Its team boasts two of South American football’s greatest young talents in Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco. It stands to reason that Stillitano has won that fight. The question is: why not just stop there?

“I don’t think we have a limited obligation. There’s not that many people in this country that love soccer, not like you and I do. They have created a culture in Atlanta, and those of us that have been keeping this flame alive and pushing the boulder up the hill… we helped create that. But I don’t know… when is enough, enough? I don’t know. I certainly don’t think we’re there yet.”

Now that America takes soccer seriously – both domestically and abroad – Stillitano’s next fight is for soccer to return the favour.

Culture clash

The practice of taking competitive games abroad is now commonplace in American sports, with all four major leagues now playing regular-season games outside the US and Canada. On the whole, American and Canadian fans are supportive and celebrate international interest in their teams and sports.

European football fans are the complete opposite. They are particularly offended by increased commercialisation that would take domestic football matches – something they believe to be community property – away from them.

Stillitano, who has spent his entire life on the outside looking in, doesn’t quite grasp the concern. More than anything, Stillitano just wants people to understand that he’s not trying to be a villain; that he doesn’t do this for money; that he’s doing this for the right reasons.

“You know, in 1994, they were going to build 1,994 fields in the United States as the World Cup legacy. How many fields were built? One. I built it, for the Italian national team at the Pingry School in New Jersey. I dedicated it to my dad. He died in a car accident two years before that. And it is still there today and still used by the US national team. Any team that comes here to the East Coast to play, they can use this field.

“And you know, if you hate me because of what I’m trying to do, that’s fine. I’m good with that. But what I can’t accept is that we’re doing it because we’re greedy. Because we’re bad people. We are trying to build this sport. Let’s look at the women’s ICC, and the junior ICC. Do you think we make a penny on that? I mean, how much do we lose on those games?

“Think about it for a second. We bring in 32 teams and pay for everything in the youth tournament. We have eight MLS teams, eight state teams this year, we’re gonna have 16 international teams. The women’s tournament? We bring Man City, we bring Atletico Madrid, we bring Olympic Lyonnais, then we bring one team from NWSL. And next year, we’re going to keep doing this. If you hate me, I’m okay with that. But don’t hate me because I’m some greedy guy making all this money. I would love you to live in my house.”

The slow burn

However far Stillitano pushes that boulder up the hill, it’s likely he will never reach the top. Proposals for a 39th round of Premier League fixtures played outside England received backlash so severe that the idea has scarcely been mentioned since.

Relevent’s partnership with LaLiga has been met with a united front of disapproval and it looks ever-more doubtful that the deal will go through. Even the Italian Supercoppa, a match that barely raises a shrug from most Italian fans, has been slammed for being played in Saudi Arabia. The criticism now the same as it was in 1993: Per qualche Dollaro in più, for a few dollars more.

The second leg of last year’s Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate was played at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, 10,000km away from Buenos Aires, after pre-match violence caused the match’s postponement. Predictably, the move was not received well by either set of fans. One of the biggest games in the history of South American football had been taken away from them.

Conversely, the move meant that European fans were able to watch one of the biggest matches in the history of South American football, making it the most talked-about Copa Libertadores match of all time. The majority of European fans that watched were tuning into a Copa Libertadores match for the first time. The gift was gratefully received.

Predictably, Boca and River have been drawn against each other in the two-leg semi final of this year’s Copa Libertadores, and the world has kept on turning.

“I think everyone’s a little bit resistant to change. I understand that and I respect that,” Stillitano says. “But when it comes this boulder, I’m not going to be satisfied until where we’re like England, like Italy, like Germany. I want everyone here to feel like that. I want the game to be part of the fabric of our society. I’m sure I’ll be long dead before that happens, but I’ll keep trying.”

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