The Unused Substitutes had a chance to catch up with Rowdies President Farrukh Quraishi at the end of one of the club’s biggest weeks since he took over in December of last year. The response to the club’s multi-platform partnership agreement with Brazilian giant São Paulo FC has possibly brought the most attention to the club since its reincarnation. The talk that the announcement has stirred in the soccer world must be sweet music to the ears of Quraishi, who emphasized when he was hired that one of his goal to restore the Rowdies global recognition.
“The response has been overwhelming, as we thought it would be,” said Quraishi. “It’s a big step for the club in our effort to build the professional culture that we want, and to establish ourselves as one of the best teams in North America.”
The seeds for Tuesday’s big announcement were sown during the club’s two-week long preseason trip to Portugal in the beginning of March.
“When we went to Portugal, Thomas Rongen, Perry Van der Beck, Francisco Marcos and I were sitting around as you do because you have a lot of time together,” related Quraishi. “We talked about our vision for where we want to see the club go and an international partnership was one of the key components of the future we saw. We talked about candidates that would be good partners for us and when we came back to St. Petersburg we talked to Bill Edwards and he agreed that an international partnership was a key ingredient in what we were trying to do to move the club forward.”
Francisco Marcos was the main organizer of that Portugal trip and appears to have been tasked with much of the groundwork for the São Paulo deal after being hired as the club’s International Development Consultant on May 1. It was Marcos who made first contact with São Paulo and convinced them to send a delegation to tour the Rowdies facilities and take in a match in at Al Lang during the Spring Season.
Then, while the players were taking a breather during the first week of the midseason break, the Rowdies sent a group of their own down to São Paulo to further explore the relationship. It was during that the trip that it became perfectly clear that this was the right international partner for the Rowdies, partly because as Quraishi puts it, “a great synergy” already existed between the clubs.
The two sides formed an official partnership back in the original NASL that led to exhibition matches and allowed young Rowdies talent to train with the storied Brazilian club. Current Assistant General manager Perry Van der Beck was one of the players to benefit from the intense training environment when he went to Brazil for six months at 18-years-old.
Current São Paulo President Carlos Miguel Aidar was even working in a much smaller role for the club when that original deal was made in heyday of the old NASL.
Also, recently appointed São Paulo head coach Juan Carlos Osorio is someone who both Quraishi and Rongen have familiarity with because of his time coaching in Major League Soccer. Even São Paulo’s Assistant Coach for nearly 20 years, Milton Cruz has a connection to the Rowdies through Francisco Marcos, who brought Cruz to the original NASL in the early 80s to play for Dallas Tornado.
The connections between the two clubs were already present; the only missing factor was the signatures to make things official again.
The new partnership agreement covers many facets. Like the original 1980s deal, the clubs will play each other in exhibition matches and there will be a two-way street for some players to move between Tampa Bay and Brazil on loans or for training stints. In 2015, though, the Rowdies are looking to build an academy to call their own and will rely on their knowledgeable partners for guidance.
“When we looked at their youth academy, it’s a magnificent complex that even has a five star hotel. It was the headquarters for the Colombian national team during the 2014 World Cup,” said Quraishi. “The facilities are second to none. Thomas Rongen has managed academies, has been all over the world to see countless academies and has been involved in youth development with the US U-20s. He thought it was as good a facility and program as he had seen anywhere in the world.”
At Tuesday’s press conference, owner Bill Edwards mentioned to the media an ambitious plan of setting up a charter school and academy program in St. Petersburg. Quraishi didn’t say the club had an exact timeline for the potential academy, but they are in the research process and now that the roster overhaul is done and the São Paulo deal is set, he’s hopeful that the process will start progressing much more.
“I think we’re very fortunate because Thomas ran the Toronto FC academy for three years, which is a really outstanding program,” said Quraishi. “And also Perry Van der Beck has been involved in youth soccer and developing players for many, many years. Our technical staff is among the best I’ve ever seen, so I think we have all the ingredients in place to really operate a first class academy.”
While a majority of the potential benefits from this partnership need time to take fruition, Quraishi sees two ways that the club can possibly benefit in the immediate future. The first way could come in the offseason when the handful of young players on the roster possibly go on a month-long training stint in São Paulo to get a taste of a more intense soccer environment. The second benefit, though, could come before this season’s end.
“I think the most immediate impact is that we could possibly get a player on loan from São Paulo,” said Quraishi. “We still have one international player spot available and we’re very much in the market for another striker. That’s the only position where we don’t have a lot of depth right now. So that’s a possibility. One of the goals of this partnership is to bring in young players from São Paulo on loan that can gain experience in the process of helping us.”