How a British Icon Failed America.
There are two things I know about David Beckham. First, he has the lacquered coif and square jaw of a WWII-era RAF officer, a resemblance that would make for a brilliant Spielberg period piece, if his affect weren’t so terse and vacuous. (Becks and Scott Parker could channel Pearl Harbor’s Affleck and Hartnett in the looks-sans-acting-chops department as buddy pilots who fall for the same girl during, say, the Battle of Britain.)
The second thing I know is this: he’s the worst thing that ever happened to soccer in America. Pardon the hyperbole, but like Bono running a self-righteous campaign for Africa, Beckham’s experiment in the States may have provided some provisional, short-term aid to a fledgling cause, but in the long run, and without any infrastructural changes, it’s left a lot of people asking “What now?”
Where did it all go wrong? Here was a model of sporting virtue come to a country obsessed with sports, a man who could defeat the continental stereotype of the effeminate soccer player with his six-pack abs and winsome wife. He was soccer’s Vitruvian man, perfectly proportioned in both physicality and temperament, recalling the old Bond line, “Men want to be him, and women want to be with him.” On top of it all, he was a devout father, a loving husband, and a philanthropist. In sum, as MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted, he was an icon who could “transcend the sport of soccer in America.”
And boy did he transcend.
Beckham’s five-year contract was as audacious as it was ambitious. The MLS adopted a designated player rule so that Beckham’s stratospheric wage demands could be met. He was billed as the $250 million man, although his salary would total closer to $30 million over half a decade. (Perhaps in a bid to further intensify Beckhamania, many reports conveniently ignored the fact that the bulk of his potential earnings would come through endorsements). With Idol creator Simon Fuller at the helm, it seemed very possible that David Beckham would be the next king of American culture. Magazine covers, soiree events, and underwear ads out the wazoo (which, incidentally, is where underwear is worn). But in Becks’ mind, it was more about making a difference than making a splash. “Soccer in America…can go higher than anyone could probably believe.”
A nation some years behind the curve enacts a slipshod plan for rapid development under the banner of a charismatic leader, but in the end the costs outweigh the benefits? Yes indeed, Beckham’s five-year contract played out a lot like Stalin’s five-year plan. Let’s take a moment to recall what Golden Balls did to, erm, for American soccer.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood
A year after debuting for the Galaxy, Beckham requested a loan transfer to AC Milan for the MLS’s winter break. His intentions seemed virtuous enough. England manager Fabio Capello was keen on calling upon the former captain in the build up to 2010’s World Cup, but was hesitant to give a spot to a player outside the European circuit. This would be Beckham’s chance to prove that age had not impacted his form and to bring home the coveted Cup for the first time in 44 years. Anyway, it was only an offseason loan, with Beckham pledging his long-term future to Los Angeles. Fast forward one month: “Beckham on Wednesday expressed his desire to convert his current short-term loan with Milan into a permanent move” (ESPN). A year and a half after the American experiment began, it looked set to end. And although the transfer ultimately fell through, Beckham forced the MLS’s hand and extended his loan through June, cutting his commitment to the Galaxy in half. Said the Brit, unconvincingly, “It allows me to…continue my commitment to develop soccer in the United States, which is something I am passionate about.”
Los Angeles is Burning
True to his word, Beckham returned to Los Angeles for the second half of the season. And, to his credit, the Galaxy made the MLS Cup final (losing to Real Salt Lake on penalties). But it didn’t take long for his allegiances to surface. At the end of the season, Beckham returned to Milan for another loan spell. Unsurprisingly, as is apt to happen as players age, injury intervened. Barely two months into the rossoneri project’s second instantiation, an Achilles tendon tear ended Beckham’s World Cup dreams and affirmed the risks of playing without rest. No one can blame him for his passion, but hindsight allows us to condemn his pipe dream priorities, which were always going to jeopardize his livelihood at club level.
Beckham recovered faster than expected and featured for the Galaxy in the last few weeks of the 2010 MLS season. As Los Angeles fell short of a second consecutive MLS Cup final appearance, it didn’t take long for the rumor mill to start moving again. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp made no secret of his desire to bring Beckham back to England, and for a while it seemed likely that the move would materialize. Reports indicated that the player, too, was interested in White Hart Lane, with some claiming that the transfer could become permanent. English journalists licked their chops at the prospect of Beckham debuting against United in January. The Galaxy, however, blocked the move, hoping that their petulant superstar would finally play a full season in the United States…
Swing, and a foul tip.
God Save the Queen
…which he did. With two exceptions. Namely, a wedding and a class reunion. In April, much to the delight of his fashion-starved wife Victoria, Beckham attended the Royal Hat Party in London, trading in his Herbalife kit for a tuxedo and missing practice leading up to his team’s 2-1 loss to FC Dallas. As for the ceremony? “Those don’t come around very often.” Okay, fair point, it was the first royal wedding in thirty years. Exceptions can perhaps be made for occasions of circumstance, which is why the Galaxy gave Beckham the green light to abandon his team just four weeks later for another historic event: an exhibition match. Say what now? “It’s more important than anything for me to be there for Gary,” said the Manchester United alum about his former teammate’s testimonial. Yes, nothing could be more important.
Strike three. You’re out!
Before his arrival in 2006, Beckham’s signing was defended by then-manager Frank Yallop: “He’s coming here to make a difference. He’s not coming here on vacation.” Considering the time he’s spent away from the Home Depot Center, it’s difficult to agree with Mr. Yallop’s assessment in retrospect. Beckham underestimated the responsibility of being the face of Major League Soccer, and for that miscalculation, we paid.
At the end of this season, Beckham’s five-year tenure in the U.S. will come to an end. That gives him three months to either rescue American soccer as he designed, or start making excuses. To this point, he’s mustered zero championships, made countless enemies, and most strikingly, convinced no one that the MLS has what it takes to compete. It’s no surprise that I and many other soccer fans were incredulous about the impact he could have.
For my part, I’m ready for the Beckham saga to end. Give me soccer’s next iteration: the renaissance of the New York Cosmos. I remain cynical, but with the birth of a club that’s branding itself on youth development above all else, I’m more hopeful now than I ever was in the Golden Balls era.
What do you think? Would you rate Beckham as the Joker or Mr. Freeze on the villain scale? Leave your comments below, and don’t forget to follow us @O87minutes.