How Miami Became the Favorite Vacation Destination for International Soccer Stars
If you’ve ever been inside an indoor soccer facility, you’ve memorized its signature soundtrack: the bouncing of balls off the walls or pads, the shouts of teammates running to the side waiting for the ball, the tenor general delight as players young and old lace up their boots to play.
On a typically sweltering summer day at Miami’s Urban Indoor Soccer, the noise did not reverberate. I was silent. The ball stopped rolling. Nobody yelled. Whipped heads. Some even forgot to breathe. That’s what happens when one of the best players in the world must dodge his famously imposing 6-foot-5 frame just to get through the front door.
On that day in 2010, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a few friends wandered into the facility just 20 minutes north of South Beach looking for a few gigs. Owner Michael Athea reviewed the field schedule while Zlatan leaned against the counter waiting comfortably.
Athea, originally from Autun, France, who moved to Miami 24 years ago, kept looking to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating. It wasn’t Zlatan, he was there in his place in Miami.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” said Athea, who opened the facility in 2007. “I was hoping to open a place for us, for soccer players in Miami. I didn’t realize this would be such a big deal. Now every winter break, every summer, every international break, we have players from all over the world.”
In the years since Zlatan leaned into her building, Athea has hosted informal games for Paul Pogba, antoine griezmanAlejandro Nesta paulo dybala as much as Karim BenzemaAndri Shevchenko, Blaise Matuidi, kingsley eat, Wilfred Zaha and more. The facility’s rise as a destination mirrors that of Miami itself; Over the last 20 years, the city has quickly become the top holiday destination for the biggest names in the world of soccer. The reasons are as obvious as Miami’s ocean water being blue.
Unlike being taken in a private car to avoid the crowds in France or Spain, World Cup the winner Griezmann can attend a Miami Heat game and be part of the fan experience rather than the focal point of it. It’s where Dybala can dine at outdoor cafes, unmolested by fans looking for a selfie. It’s where Pogba can rehab from injury on a recreational soccer field in Flamingo Park for hours on end and avoid the paparazzi. It is where neymar you can party in front of a barrage of flashing cameras and wear your sunglasses at night.
and that’s where Lionel Messibecause he’s Lionel Messi, he’s still the exception to the rule even at his mansion in Miami, where fans stand and sweat waiting to see one of the greatest players of all time. That could become a more common theme in 2023 as the athletic reported at the end of October that Messi could make Miami his full-time home after his contract with PSG expires.
“In Europe, they can’t have a life,” said Riccardo Silva, an Italian businessman who co-founded NASL club Miami FC in 2015. “In Miami, they sometimes get recognized, but they get by much more easily.”
The relentless demands of club and international soccer typically allot just one month each summer for those who play in the world’s top leagues to enjoy downtime. It’s when they don’t think about putting on training bibs or small kits or riding the bus or train or playing up to three games in a week. In June and July, when the temperatures in South Florida are as miserable as can be, this generation of the biggest names in sports come to town to relax, party, drink, dance, watch their kids play in the sand, just being someone on vacation.
With icons putting down roots in the city each summer, soccer as a whole has skyrocketed in popularity in South Florida over the past decade. The expected arrival of David Beckham MLS franchise, intermiamihas steadily become the hot-stove link for icons like Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo when his time in Europe comes to an end. And several club and international friendlies packed the city’s stadiums during pre-season tours.
Charlie Stillitano, an American sports executive who helped broker some of the most high-profile soccer events in the country in recent years, looks back on his first year as general manager of the now-defunct New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1996. In that So to no surprise, Los Angeles was seen as the prime location for the league’s high-profile imports. Stillitano, who grew up in New Jersey, remembers the heyday of the star-studded New York Cosmos with Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, all of whom wanted to be the center of attention in the city that never sleeps.
Now? It is the Magic City.
“The young, hip people assure me, much more than I do, that it’s the place to be because of the lifestyle,” Stillitano said. “I can’t tell you how many guys in Europe have asked me over the last decade: ‘When does David Beckham open his franchise? I want to go there.'”
Stillitano organized what is described in Miami as the crown jewel football event when Real Madrid and FC Barcelona played an El Clásico at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami in July 2017 as part of the International Champions Cup.
“It stoked the fire like no other place,” said Ray Hudson, a radio host and television commentator who first moved to South Florida in 1977 to play for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. “That was probably the biggest event. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh. That is all.’ There was a time when we played the Cosmos with the Strikers in New York City and sold out. That day was a big explosion. This day was an even bigger explosion than that.”
In the years since that Clásico preseason, Messi and other notable players have invested heavily in Miami real estate.
The Miami trend, however, began in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the legendary AC Milan teams of that era. The stars of that team, including Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini, began visiting Miami together during that time, in what Silva said was an effort to take time out of the European spotlight. Maldini and Nesta liked it so much that they bought houses and still spend time there. Nesta was the first head coach of Miami FC and remains in Miami often.
“Maldini and Nesta were the pioneers in this,” Silva said.
Hudson’s front-row view of it all over the past 45 years still makes him laugh hysterically. After all, he still remembers being back in England in a Newcastle bar when he was introduced to a woman living in California. She herself laughed when Hudson told her that she lived in South Florida, saying, “That’s where all the nursing homes go.”
It has taken time for soccer to completely win over Miami. Hudson has seen the sport in his adoptive hometown wrestling. He was the coach of the defunct Miami Fusion, which closed in 2001. In the 1994 FIFA World Cup, it was Orlando, not Miami, that hosted Florida. That will be changed at the 2026 World Cup in four years. The attention that helped Miami evolve as a major event city came when LeBron James announced his decision to join the Miami Heat. That changed the paradigm. In the years since, massive events like the Breeder’s Cup and Formula 1 races have also made stops more frequent in Miami.
It is a city that demands attention, because in any other turn something can attract your attention.
“It’s a very difficult type of thing to put into words or even describe verbally when you’re talking about how much these players are in these pressure cookers all over the world,” Hudson said. “Sure, they can go to Monaco and they can go to Ibiza, but it’s not the same as coming here. They can enjoy sports here and watch it as an observer. You see cutaways of these guys at events and they look like kids at Disney World. They are enjoying the show now. They are removed from it. They’re just fans.”
Miami is also where players can experience an intersection of various cultures unlike anywhere else in the United States, and perhaps the world at large. It is where the European and South American style collide. According to World Population Review, Miami is the most diverse city in the world based on the population of its foreign-born residents.
“Miami,” Athea said, “is not the United States.”
Stillitano said that whenever he is involved in organizing a major European club’s preseason prospects in the US, the coach almost immediately balks at the idea of New York, Boston, Washington DC and other options. That is, until Miami is thrown into the mix. They say yes so fast they cut it off.
“As my friends at Real Madrid say, ‘We don’t need to speak English when we’re in Miami,’” Stillitano said.
Athea said that some French TV stations have noticed that Pogba, Coman and more French national team stars have come to play in recent years, so much so that producers have already contacted him about setting up their set inside. of its facilities for the 2026 World Cup. The tournament returning to the United States is constantly a topic of conversation in the fields. It is certainly an issue among gamers as well.
“I think this World Cup in 2026 could not exist in the United States without Miami,” Silva said. “It is mutual.”
Hudson said there’s a Miami vibe that finds its way into the DNA of these famous players. It’s contagious, he said. Part of this is desired anonymity, sure, but in Miami they feel they can choose when they want to be on camera rather than anywhere else, where that’s usually out of their hands. After the US men’s team was eliminated in the round of 16 of the World Cup this winter, the players scattered around the world to rest. Captain tyler adams went to Thailand. yunus musah I went to Paris.
Stars Christian Pulisc and weston mckennie they chose Miami, where they were on the court for Miami Heat games and were recognized for their accomplishments in front of an adoring crowd.
In Miami, sports stars are part of the scene, not the main attraction.
“It’s fun to relax here but…the only problem we have is the iguanas,” Hudson said. “They are as dangerous as Messi.”
(Top photo: MEGA/GC Images/Getty Images)