National Writer: Charles Boehm

Raúl Sanllehí: What ex-Arsenal, Barça exec brings to Inter Miami

Raúl Sanllehí - Inter Miami CF

If a career path ranging from Barcelona to London to Zaragoza and beyond wasn’t already a tipoff, Raúl Sanllehí’s choice of cinematic comparison for the lessons learned at his previous stops before Inter Miami CF hinted at a cultured, philosophical outlook on soccer and life.

Akira Kurosawa, anyone?

“In all these three clubs, I worked with the same model of organization, which is based basically on teamwork, on specialization. I want everybody to be specialists in their area and complement each other to make the team stronger,” said Miami’s new president of football operations as he fielded questions from reporters in Tuesday’s introductory press conference at Chase Stadium.

“I always use the example of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ movie; I like it very much. It's actually originally [inspired by] ‘Seven Samurai,’ which is also a great movie. But it's about different individuals who are very good at something, but when they are together they are invincible. And that's how I base the structure of a football club. I think everybody needs to be specialized in their area, and then I'm going to try to help coordinate that, to make it flow property.”

A "global club"

In one sense, the news of Sanllehí’s hiring fits into the Herons’ ‘getting the band back together’ theme headlined by the arrivals of ex-FC Barcelona luminaries Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Tata Martino and Luis Suárez. The Spaniard was Barça’s director of football from 2008-19, when the Blaugrana were a well-oiled, tiki-taka, trophy-collection machine fueled by star signings and academy products alike.

That said, with subsequent stops at Arsenal and Real Zaragoza – the latter a well-loved but underachieving Spanish club whose ownership group is led by Miami owner Jorge Mas – Sanllehí built out his résumé in ways that he and IMCF believe make him an ideal leader for consolidating the club’s rapid rise from awkward expansion debutant to global player in barely five years.

Sanllehí referenced the club motto that currently features on the back collar of their jerseys as he acknowledged recent reports that Miami aspire to someday participate in Copa Libertadores, South America’s top club competition.

“It is an ambition of becoming a global club and the historic value of the competition. This is our goal,” he said. “Remember that slogan we can have, we should have that freedom to dream about that.”

Complementary growth

He says he’s not here to work on the Herons’ squad so much as finish constructing the larger edifice of the organization as a whole, linking their promising youth system to the first and second teams and growing that wider reputation beyond the shorthand perception of ‘Messi’s club.’

“It is impressive, their success in these five years: finals, qualification for Concacaf Champions Cup, you name it,” noted Sanllehí, who switched fluidly between English and Spanish during the press conference. “And this is something very important: Ten academy players that were signed to the first team; I believe this is the identity of a club. The academy has to feed the first team. The major clubs have a majority of players coming from their own academy, and you need to create a methodology around that, as a team that plays the same way in order to define the identity of the club.

“In terms of Miami, we're thinking about high pressure, ball possession. All the identities can be defended, that makes sense, but it is important to have one. So the main responsibility for me is the structure.”

He emphasized that this means he’ll have a different focus than Chris Henderson, Miami’s veteran chief soccer officer, who was already one of MLS’s most respected technical directors even before he pulled off the multifold juggling act of crafting the talent-packed roster that currently tops the overall league table despite a litany of serious injuries over the past several months.

“I'm not a sporting director,” said Sanllehí. “The relationship with Chris Henderson is going to be a complementary one. We already understand that we know what to do in each area … my job is to coordinate everyone in order to improve and develop this club sustainably, with a solid foundation. But I have no doubt that the collaboration with Chris is going to be good.”

Hot spot

Intriguingly, this isn’t Sanllehí’s first North American stint. He spent time in the United States as an exchange student in high school, and enjoyed it enough to return for a university education at Guilford College in North Carolina, where he played on the varsity soccer team and completed a degree in Business Management in 1992.

“I've been following MLS for a long time,” he said. “MLS has learned a lot from their mistakes of the past. They have a project that is now reality-based and a healthy business; it makes sense. MLS has evolved and this is going to be influential in the future; now they are an international reference ... MLS is in a turning point now, with stars playing here. I do have to see how we can grow in a competitive way.”

Pointing to this summer’s Copa América, the Club World Cup in a year’s time, the 2026 World Cup and various other major soccer events headed for these shores as well as South Florida’s obvious international appeal, Sanllehí described himself as “like a kid at Christmas” as he wades into his new project.

“Miami,” he declared, “is the place to be.”