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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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…