After his controversial appointment by Everton, former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez gets to kick off his Blues reign over 4,000 miles from Goodison Park in Orlando.
Dubbed ‘The City Beautiful’, the central Florida resort is usually one of the most-visited locations in the world.
With tourist attractions like Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld plus major convention traffic, in pre-pandemic times, Orlando would typically draw 75million visitors per year.
Those figures have obviously been decimated since the global coronavirus pandemic, enabling Benitez and his Everton side to play their first two high-profile fixtures in a situation of much greater anonymity, certainly up close.
In most summers you’d have expected significant numbers of enthusiastic Evertonians to plan their holidays around the Blues pre-season schedules and combine the friendly fixtures with trips to the plentiful supply of nearby theme parks, golf courses and other leisure facilities.
However, continued travel restrictions will limit the travelling Everton contingent for the games against Colombian side Millonarios on Sunday July 25 (1:30am on Monday, UK time) and either Romelu Lukaku’s Serie A champions Internazionale or Mikel Arteta’s Premier League rivals Arsenal on Thursday July 29 to a combination of expats and American fans of the Blues.
With a significant Latin American populace in Florida, the first fixture could feel like a real away game for Benitez’s men unless the presence of James Rodriguez – a global icon with an international Instagram following of 46.8million – can help tip the balance in the support against his compatriots.
The city’s local Major League Soccer club are now once again able to operate with capacity crowds at their 25,500 Exploria Stadium but the venue where Everton will be playing, Camping World Stadium, is significantly larger.
Built in 1936 as a project of the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great Depression, the stadium currently holds 65,194.
It staged five matches in the 1994 World Cup finals – all kicking off at either 12 noon or 12:30pm local time to maximise European television audiences – ensuring humid and sweltering conditions.
All five games attracted crowds in excess of 60,000 with Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland playing two fixtures there.
Their first game at the venue in the group stage against Mexico was played in a temperature of 105 °F (41 °C) with a dew point, the temperature to which air must be cooled to become saturated with water vapour of more than 70 (deemed oppressive).
Such conditions saw tempers boil over too and Ireland’s Scouse striker John Aldridge – now an ECHO columnist – infamously berated the touchline officials with a foul-mouthed outburst of “You t***, you d*******” when his introduction to the game as a substitute was delayed.
First played in 1947, the stadium has also been the venue for an annual American football charity fundraising game.
Typically played on New Year’s Day, the fixture was originally called The Tangerine Bowl but since 1983 has been known as various guises of The Citrus Bowl.
Pitting two of the top 25-tanked US college teams against each other, it has been dubbed ‘The Little Bowl with the Big Heart’ because all proceeds go to charity.
The stadium’s record attendance was 75,245 for WrestleMania XXIV on March 30 2008 while it served as the filming location for Adam Sandler’s 1998 movie The Waterboy with exterior shots used in the US television series Coach .
But forget play-fighting in choreographed bouts or fictionalised sporting scenarios, for Everton, the focus will firmly be on the real-life man in the dugout as Benitez makes his first matchday moves as Blues boss in the Sunshine State.
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