Bolivian soccer kickstarted Sprint CEO’s career

Marcelo Claure has teamed with soccer star David Beckham in a push to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Miami.
Marcelo Claure has teamed with soccer star David Beckham in a push to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Miami. The Associated Press

Sprint’s new CEO, Marcelo Claure, moved his family here, bought a house and says he’s come to love Kansas City. But there is one side of this town he won’t embrace — soccer.

He’d rather compete.

As a Miami resident, Claure struggled for most of a decade to bring the city a Major League Soccer franchise — a future rival for the league’s 2013 champions, Sporting Kansas City.

Claure originally teamed up with Spain’s FC Barcelona, but that deal fizzled out. He has since formed Miami Beckham United LLC with friend and retired soccer star David Beckham and entertainment executive Simon Fuller. Their joint effort reached stadium talks with the city last month.

Claure already controls a successful Bolivian soccer team called Club Bolívar, which he said has been a $14 million expense.

The sport, wildly popular in Latin America, perhaps means more to Claure than even its strongest fans. It gave him his first “proper job” and a perspective on what underdogs can achieve.

The oft-printed story has Claure finished with college, jobless and flying home to Bolivia. On the plane sits Guido Loayza, then head of Bolivia’s national soccer team, who hires Claure by the time they land.

The team qualified for the 1994 World Cup, Bolivia’s first trip to the global competition since a one-game visit in 1950. Officially, the 1994 team was three games and out based on the standings. But just getting there was an achievement. In Bolivia’s first game — played at Chicago’s Soldier Field, in 90-degree heat and before 8,000 Bolivian fans — defending World Cup champion Germany came out ahead, 1-0.

For a young Claure, the World Cup experience was life-changing.

“It taught me that everything is possible,” he said in Kansas City this summer. “It gave me a lesson, that you can realize big dreams if you give everything that you have.”

Claure built his Miami business, Brightstar Corp., by taking on its giant rivals and is reshaping Sprint to compete better against wireless giants Verizon and AT&T and fast-growing T-Mobile.

It wasn’t his only life experience to come from that long-ago summer.

Eighteen years after Bolivia’s last World Cup whistle blew, the head of Bolivia’s soccer federation called a news conference. With television cameras rolling, Carlos Alberto Chávez Landívar blasted Claure.

Chávez levied charges of ticket fraud against Claure, whose job was in marketing.

“In 1994, he (Claure) implemented a scheme that was the most corrupt act ever in Bolivian soccer, in which 12,070 tickets were sold on the black market, taking in more than U.S. $10,000,000,” Chávez charged, according to Spanish-language media accounts.

Claure countered Chávez’s charges with a defamation lawsuit in Florida’s courts. The lawsuit denied the charges and demanded $10 million for the “substantial harm to his reputation as a businessman.”

And he attacked Chávez, calling the Bolivian federation leader a “clown,” which provoked Chávez to promise legal action against Claure.

Chávez’s charges and those lawsuits went nowhere, but he has remained Claure’s Bolivian nemesis.

Last year, Claure challenged Chávez for the federation’s presidency — even as he negotiated the sale of Brightstar and his move to Sprint. His plan was to resign the job the day after dislodging Chávez, but Chávez remained in control.

The tables turned in June, when Chávez became the target of a Bolivian investigation about the time that U.S. officials indicted 14 corporate and soccer officials in a racketeering conspiracy at FIFA, soccer’s international governing body.

Chávez was jailed in July by Bolivian officials on charges he had diverted funds from a 2013 charity match that had no connection to the FIFA cases.

New Bolivian soccer elections are set. Claure won’t be on the ballot and says he has no interest in the job. He will be content to see Chávez replaced.

“I think it’s going to be a big day for our country,” Claure said.

The Star’s Hannah Ritchie Stinger contributed to this report.

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