Charlie Stillitano arrived in Dublin to announce an International Champions Cup fixture between Chelsea and Arsenal, but broke off to issue a personal message of gratitude to John Delaney. "I want to thank the FAI and John Delaney. I guess he voted for North America to host the World Cup, so thank you John for that".
Stillitano is executive chairman of Relevent Sports, the company that organises the International Champions Cup - the pre-season tournament spanning three continents and encompassing 18 of the biggest football clubs in the world, including Barcelona, Real Madrid and England's Top Six. Stilitano is an influential sporting figure in the United States, with a 2015 Sports Illustrated profile calling him "world soccer’s best-connected American".
In a sit-down with Balls after the announcement, we explored Stillitano's involvement the last time the U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994. Stillitano worked as the Stadium Director at Giants Stadium, with Ireland vs Italy his stand-out memory.
"That was probably the worst fucking day of my life!" laughs Stillitano.
The game started with an inauspicious moment as both Ireland and Italy were in white uniforms in the tunnel to come out. I talked with Denis Irwin about this [recently].
The night before, you go see the managers. I’m the manager for the US organising committee and there’s a FIFA guy there. Arrigo Sacchi’s the ultimate gentleman and Jack Charlton’s a maniac. I hear he's not well so I mean that in the most respectful way. I know Sir Bobby [Charlton] quite well and Sir Bobby is much more like Arrigo Sacchi than Jack, who was screaming and yelling and cursing at us.
He didn’t pay much attention to what the colour of the uniform was. So the next day, I'm in the tunnel and I see them wearing a sweat jacket underneath and I’m going ‘fuck’. So I [tried to get the attention of] the Swiss guy who was organising it, but he says ‘not now Charlie, not now'. I say ‘they’re both in the same fucking uniforms!'
So Ireland had to go back and change, and put on green uniforms.
That game was the international big bang for Irish fans' famous proclivity for snaffling tickets not designated to them. The game was played in East Rutherford, an area with a large Italian influence, meaning it was expected that it would be a virtual home game for Italy. Yet, by the time the game kicked off, the stadium was awash with green.
That game was truly remarkable. There was a guy in charge of World Cup ticketing. The Greeks thought they were going to New York and Ireland thought they would be in Boston. So this guy arranged for all the Greeks to exchange tickets with the Irish. It was the first secondary ticket market ever invented.
So they had six or seven jumbo jets filled with Irish fans. At that time, I knew a lot of the Italian guys. And [Paolo] Maldini says as he’s walking out, ‘I thought we were going to be playing at home today.’ It was all green.
So it was really quite a day.
Stillitano's ambition for the ICC is to ultimately have a proper final for the two best-performing teams across the pre-season tournaments, but varying European schedules have so far put paid to that hope. Nonetheless, the competition is bigger than ever, with the ICC organising the pairings "We can cheat. We can put Klopp against his old team in Charlotte; we can decide to do Liverpool vs Manchester United and we can replicate Barcelona and Roma in Dallas".
Clubs are not contractually obliged to pick their star players, although Stilltano says the proximity of the season, the relative quality of the games and the size of the occasion means that top players generally want to play. "They know they have to do pre-season, so they would prefer to be with us playing good teams rather than beating teams twenty-zero".
Some are motivated by other factors. Consider this yarn about Cristiano Ronaldo.
After the last World Cup, we were at the Big House [in Michigan] and it was the only place on Earth he was universally loved. We had Real Madrid against Manchester United. So there was one person who everyone universally loved in the stands and it was Cristiano Ronaldo.
They may have hated Ramos, or this guy, but they loved Cristiano. The day before, Ancelotti said he wasn't playing him as he had just come back from the World Cup. At half-time, Cristiano said, 'You have to bring me on'. You had 110,000 people wearing two different No.7 jerseys, and so he went out there.
Although Ronaldo is not the only footballer attracted to the States by the prospect of adulation. "Players have brands. So, what better place to go and send their tweet and take their selfies than somewhere where hundreds of thousands of their followers come from".