Miami - The sun is still searing during the evening training session in Little Haiti when the youngsters' passing drills and kickabouts are momentarily halted by the unexpected arrival of football's most recognizable face.
A year after retiring from football, David Beckham's career has entered a new phase - the campaign trail. After making his name bending free kicks and delivering trademark crosses, the former England captain needs the Miami electorate to put a cross next to his plans for a downtown stadium for his new Major League Soccer franchise.
“It's definitely something that's different for me,” Beckham said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday on the pitch in Little Haiti. “I'm starting to know a little bit more about politics, which I'm glad I didn't go into as a kid.
“It's obviously very different from what I'm used to, but I have enjoyed the process because I know that there's light at the end of the tunnel, and I always like a challenge. This is a tough challenge.”
Not everyone agrees with Beckham's vision that has been developed since the former Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder chose Miami to exercise his right to start an MLS franchise after retiring.
After a coalition of politicians and businesses led by Royal Caribbean Cruises opposed building a stadium at PortMiami, Beckham was forced to propose a new site at a downtown boat slip instead, near the AmericanAirlines Arena where the NBA's Miami Heat play.
His latest visit dovetails with England in town for World Cup warmups at Sun Life Stadium, the home of the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Beckham, who made a record 115 England appearances for an outfield player, wants to re-create the traditional English football experience in the South Florida sun, so he rejected the possibility of a stadium next to the Miami Marlins ballpark in favor of one in the heart of the city.
“It's what football is all about,” Beckham said. “The atmosphere is created by people and generated by a downtown site. It has to be downtown and it has to be on the water because Miami is all about the water and so much is happening downtown.
“It would be a mistake if it wasn't downtown, and everyone is coming round to that and seeing that it is the perfect place to be.”
For the “Miami Beckham United” vision to become a reality, it must pass a city-wide referendum in November. So Beckham has been thrust into an unfamiliar role, lobbying for the support of politicians, business owners, and real estate professionals on this latest flying visit. Beckham's group must also obtain county and city approval and environmental permits, with Beckham pledging to protect the sea life at the site.
“Every time that we come to Miami it's to ... do the lobbying,” he said.
“We know my name opens certain doors but it's a bigger picture. This team is something that's going to be around for hundreds of years. It's not as if we are coming here and we want to start something that is only going to be here for five, ten years.”
Having been accustomed to near-universal adulation on his global football travels, it takes more than a flash of a smile for a selfie or an autograph to gain support on the Miami political scene.
“What David wants to do is something that is good for the community and for the community to embrace,” Beckham's attorney, Neisen Kasdin, said by telephone. “He's not looking for a fight with the community.”
The closest the former Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain player has come to such a role previously is campaigning for London's winning 2012 Olympics bid and England's unsuccessful 2018 World Cup bid.
“It's more difficult than I thought it would be but people are excited about the game coming to this part of the country,” Beckham said.
That is why he has come from his trans-Atlantic flight to Little Haiti. This neighborhood surrounded by dollar shops with the financial district's skyscrapers in the distance is the kind of local community he's trying to grasp for fan support and potential players.
“Our goal was to bring it to the inner cities, specifically to where there is this hotbed of passion for football,” David Villano, executive director of the Little Haiti team, said after meeting Beckham. “I respect the fact he is trying to find urban soccer as opposed to just going out to see the soccer moms in the suburbs. This is such a critical part of making it work, connecting with these kinds of communities.”
Such a visit provides hope to the teenagers who trained in front of Beckham, that one day they might be scouted for his team, which isn't due to start playing for at least two years.
“It's given the motivation for me to play for a real team,” 16-year-old Mikel Martineau said. “I wanted to show him my talent to impress him. I want to become a player - a great player.”