Back in March, I made a somewhat far-fetched proposal. The best way to transform Fair Park and The Cotton Bowl would be to buy a Mexican league soccer team and have them play in Dallas’ most historic stadium. Some of the people I spoke to who have experience working with Mexico’s Liga MX agreed that the Cotton Bowl was a great soccer venue but were skeptical of the feasibility of actually moving a Mexican team to the United States, due to complications over ownership and the interest of the Mexican league. But whatever. A man can dream, no?
Well, tonight a little piece of that dream comes true. There will be soccer in the Cotton Bowl, and not just any old game. Two of the best clubs in the world, Real Madrid and AS Roma, arrive in town as part of the Guinness International Champions Cup. The tournament is a preseason warm-up for European teams looking to get match fit before their respective seasons kick-off in late August. But since the tournament launched over a decade ago, it has grown in stature and prestige. Once a grab bag of teams from Europe, Mexico, and the United States, the International Champions Cup this year features most of the best teams in the world, making the tournament of friendlies look almost like a mini preseason Champions League.
There used to be a stigma surrounding top-notch clubs traveling to the United States for preseason games, explains Charlie Stillitano, CEO of Relevent Sports, which organizes the tournament. But after 2009, when two of the teams that participated in the tournament – Chelsea and Inter Milan – went on to claim all of the top trophies in European competition that year, the tournament started to be seen as an opportunity for quality warm-up. Plus, it affords clubs a chance to tap into the growing American market and extend their international brand, something Real Madrid has managed to do well while American-owned AS Roma is trying to play catch up. And even though the games are “friendlies,” Stillitano believes there will still be quality soccer on display.
“It’s just a friendly match, but when you put these players in front of 70 or 80 thousand, it’s no friendly,” Stillitano says. “These are professionals and they have too much pride.”
But with this much high class soccer talent coming to Dallas – players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Francesco Totti will be in town – why not book Jerry’s World, where the tournament was last held when it was in Dallas? Turns out, the Cotton Bowl’s historic character and its proximity to the center of Dallas still have appeal when it comes to organizing soccer games.
“We saw that it had been recently upgraded,” Stillitano says. “And we wanted to get to the heart of the people. Bringing in two old world traditional teams, we wanted to play in this revitalized old venue.”
And so tonight, Il Gladiatore will grace Dallas’ coliseum, as it should be. It will be interesting to see how the venue performs, so to speak. And I hope it will inspire a more concerted effort to rethink how to make soccer a more regular occurrence at the Cotton Bowl.