It was eight years ago on August 5 that international soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal received a pass in midfield and the flash of cellphone cameras lit up Sam Boyd Stadium like fireflies around a Tennessee marsh.
This happened every time Ronaldo touched the ball for Real Madrid, one of the world’s most valued professional sports franchises, during a one-off event billed as the World Football Challenge.
Although it did not sell out, it came close enough to show that Las Vegas would support pro soccer when played at its highest level. It would be proven again in 2017 when Mexico defeated Iceland’s thunderclappers in front of an announced crowd of 30,617 — the largest ever to witness a soccer match in Las Vegas.
It’s a record that would have been obliterated this weekend or next provided the global pandemic had not corner kicked the world soccer schedule and shut down Allegiant Stadium to spectators.
Back in February, when it was still OK to shout “Ole! Ole! Ole!” sans face mask, it was rumored that Real Madrid would return to Las Vegas to play archrival Barcelona in a bright lights, set your soul on fire exhibition version of the El Clasico rivalry that dates to 1902 and usually attracts a viewing audience of 75 million or so.
It would have been the ideal way to kick the tires and recheck the plumbing at the new football plant, and make sure Al Davis’ torch flamed.
Stadium built for soccer
“Absolutely,” Raiders president Marc Badain said Monday when asked if international soccer still figures in the 65,000-seat stadium’s future. “We’ve had conversations with a number of the teams overseas in European leagues as well as Mexico and South America.
”We’ve played games in those countries and had conversations with the various teams over there so certainly that’s something we’re looking at.”
Badain would not disclose the identities of the specific clubs the Raiders hope to bring to Las Vegas in adding that “we have some things we are working on right now that are almost in contract that would be for MLS teams.”
But no need for the yellow card. Talks also are ongoing with English Premier League clubs and other teams of that ilk, Badain said.
“We’ve talked to some about coming here and having almost a residency for a couple of weeks and playing a sort of round-robin of games. The stadium was certainly built for it; the time of the year they’re talking about, the June and July time frame, works before football ramps up,” Badain said.
“We’d love to do it. I think it would be fantastic.”
If it happens, Daren Libonati should receive an honorary assist.
Vision has legs
The former Sam Boyd Stadium and Thomas & Mack Center director and UNLV field-goal kicker was the one who had the big idea/preposterous dream to bring Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo to town to play almost equally renown Juventus of Italy — ironically the club for which the 35-year-old Ronaldo now toils for a hefty price.
But Juve pulled out at short notice to play in a more lucrative exhibition in China, and isn’t it just like China to screw everything up?
Santos Laguna of Mexico was hastily recruited to play second fiddle, and it brought along Herculez Gomez, who had played soccer at Las Vegas High and would score three goals for the U.S. national side in 2014 World Cup qualifying matches against island nations with ampersands in their names.
“It took two years, and I was able to bring the world’s (most popular) sport to the world’s playground,” said Libonati, who had to jump through more hoops than a lion at a circus to make it happen. Foremost among them: Putting in a new grass field and putting up with a Real Madrid sodbuster who walked it after dark to assure it met the Cristiano Ronaldo requirement.
At kickoff, it was feared the freshly minted pitch might be set ablaze by the 103-degree temperature. Alas, the field held up and enough soccer fans showed up that Libonati’s promotion company nearly broke even. The sound of honking vuvezelas had to be music to his ears.
But when Ronaldo deftly weaved through midfield and those cellphone cameras lit up the night, it was apparent that the vision, much as the great teams in extra time, had legs.
“That was the best team of its time, Real Madrid, and they were in our backyard, in our little stadium,” Daren Libonati said eight years later, as if he still couldn’t believe it himself.
Most valuable sports franchises
1. Dallas Cowboys (NFL) $5.5 billion
2. New York Yankees (MLB) $5 billion
3. New York Knicks (NBA) $4.6 billion
4. Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) $4.4 billion
5. Golden State Warriors (NBA) $4.3 billion
6. Real Madrid (soccer) $4.24 billion
7. New England Patriots (NFL) $4.1 billion
8. Barcelona (soccer) $4.02 billion
9. New York Giants (NFL) $3.9 billion
10. Manchester United (soccer) $3.81 billion
Source: Forbes magazine