It seems like only yesterday to me when former Real Madrid, Man Utd, and England midfielder David Beckham was introduced to the soccer community in the USA with great pomp and circumstance befitting an idolized movie star but here we are, five years later, following the Galaxy’s 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the MLS Cup Final yesterday, on the brink of bidding farewell to the biggest star name to play in Major League Soccer to date. One thing that Beckham has done during his time here, is polarize soccer fans to the point where you either love him or hate him, and many experts are now chewing over the fat of his career in Los Angeles to determine whether this deal was good or bad for the sport in this country.
First of all let me state my position with Beckham. I neither love him, nor do I hate him, but what I do have is a huge amount of respect for the way the man lives his life, and how he does his job. In the crazy world of sports, there aren’t many athletes who can remain as untarnished as the Englishman amongst all of the insanity, and that in itself isn’t all of it but no-one is squeaky clean (just ask Tiger and Michael) but I’ll bet he’s as clean as anyone. I think it’s important to be clear about what expectations were set when he came over here because that defines what he leaves behind as his legacy. You have to cast your mind back to 2006 and understand what the MLS meant to the majority of American sports fans.
Back in those days, if you walked the street and randomly asked dedicated sports fans if they had heard of David Beckham and the MLS, I would venture that a large majority would have not heard of Beckham and almost 100% of them would never have heard of the MLS. The League seemed to be moving along without any huge progress in either attendances or talent. When compared to other similar Leagues in Europe and South America, the MLS paled in contrast. Probably an unfair comparison to start with, the MLS was trying to take the jump to the next stage of “major sport” in America. One thing you have to understand about the US market and that is that the NFL rules, with baseball and basketball running in second and third. The NHL has definitely increased it’s profile over the past 5 years, but realistically, soccer, even before Beckham, was never interested in competing directly with those well established cornerstones. What the MLS did want to do, and hence the move to sign Beckham, was increase the it’s profile in the “mind awareness” of the public where the League could persuade the advertisers and TV Networks that contracts with professional soccer would make money. It is that part of Beckham’s time with the League that has proved very successful. In 2012, even without his presence, NBC have now decided for the first time to screen live MLS games which had traditionally been the domain of ESPN and FOXSoccer Channel, who have benefited from Beckham’s presence. That to me, is a big step forward, and with the renewed enthusiasm surrounding the US Men’s National team since the arrival of Jurgen Klinsman as manager, the future of the sport in the US looks solid.
Many fans and media pundits have suggested that Beckham was selfish and careless about his responsibilities to the MLS and more so to LA when he decided to spend the winter months in Italy with Serie A giant AC Milan back in 2008/09. His stint with them resulted in him missing a good part of the following season and he garnered a lot of abuse for that, some of it somewhat justified as at the beginning of 2010, he had only appeared in 41 MLS games, scoring seven goals. Comments were made about him using the Galaxy as a stepping stone for him to regain his playing status with England under Fabio Capello after he was unceremoniously retired by “The Wally with The Brolly, Steve McClaren. Each of those arguments carry some weight and truth. His goal for playing in Serie A was only to further his aim with England as Capello had already stated that he would not consider players for selection if they were “idle”. Beckham saw AC Milan as a means to an end, but the League also allowed Landon Donovan to do the same thing with Everton in the Barclay’s Premier League. The difference there was that Donovan didn’t get injured. Many fans also felt that Beckham’s huge salary prevented the League from paying younger, home based players a fair “working wage” and again you can make a case for that, but then you have to look at all of the other teams who have done that over the years to bring over older stars from Europe and South America. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander, and again you have to look at the ROI to really make a critical argument.
One thing that does irk me about the way the so-called “message board boys” and “media hypes” look at Beckham is the way that his work ethic was criticised. I think you can fairly question his waning abilities and speak volumes on his love for the camera and his celebrity status. You can also claim that his intentions are self serving at times, but when statements are made that his effort and commitment were lacking, then you’re not telling the truth. If you’ve bothered to follow his career before and after LA, there is no logical way you could draw that conclusion. The man is “not the sharpest tool in the box” and his on the field talents are very specialised – passing and dead ball situations only (in my view amongst the best ever in both categories) – so with his “limited” talents, he has to give 110% to be close to being successful. Listen to what all of his coaches say. Almost to a man, hard work is part of his character. It has to be. Another point that has been debated long and hard is the thought that winning the MLS Cup was necessary to validate his stay with the Galaxy. Beckham’s stay was never about trophies. The MLS would have gladly accepted no trophies in exchange for increased exposure and that’s exactly what they got.
For me, I think his stay in LA has been a success, not only for the Galaxy but for soccer in general in the USA. The sport has gained a tighter hold on the “top of the mind awareness” that advertising executives talk about all the time, but unfortunately, I think one area that has not gained momentum is the MLS itself in terms of quality as a League. I think it has actually declined in the years Beckham has been here. They have concentrated more on importing older players and many fans choose to come and go with those players. Beckham and Blanco in Chicago have been two examples of that. The League’s marketing policy with Beckham has bordered on greedy where fans had to buy tickets to 3-4 other home games if they wanted to see their team play the Galaxy. I also believe that the Galaxy and the League wrongly assumed that Beckham “had promised to stimulate soccer’s growth in America, to push the game into the forefront of previously dismissive minds” and to change the fortunes of the Galaxy on his own. Complete fabrication. What he did say was “I’m going out there to hopefully build a club and team that’s got a lot of potential,” Beckham said. “I think that’s what excites me.” The so-called spat with Donovan was blown out of all proportion and for a man of such limited achievement and ambition as Landon Donovan has, to even compare his level of importance with Beckham is ridiculous. There have been books written, most notably by Grant Wahl of Sports Illustated callled “The Beckham Experiment” which rip apart Beckham’s attitude and commitment. Quite a lot of old rubbish about players on his team resenting his presence etc etc etc. Frankly, I think that if Beckham had realised how bad the Galaxy were when he came, he might never have signed. It took the club 2-3 years to sign players that could actually defend, but Beckham never complained. I have seen him play in MLS games, and I have seen him play exhibitions too, and the last thing I would call him out for is his commitment.
So what now for David Beckham ? Many people have suggested that he will end up playing for PSG in the French Ligue 1 whilst others have claimed that he will retire or even go back to England and play with QPR in the Premier League. I think one thing that we can be sure of and that is his time in the MLS as a player is over. I think both parties have had enough of each other so he will move on with his playing days. One important factor here is that his family love the life in LA and Hollywood, so I doubt that will change and he will continue to consider Los Angeles his home. He won’t go to England as his body doesn’t have the pace or strength to play there any longer. France is an option but again, that is a League which imports many young, physical African players and I doubt Beckham’s body is up for that fight, even though throughout his career, he has always challenged himself so it’s possible that he will surprise us all with his next step. It’s my contention that he will go to France initially and finish out this year, find it impossible to function at the level he’s used to and then retire to LA where he might get involved with the MLS in an ownership role at some later date.
Finally, I do wish he would put to bed the thought that he deserves a place on the Great Britain Olympic Football team next year in London. I know he can’t help himself because he’s always pushing forward ( are you listening, Landon?), but his international days are over, and especially with the Olympic team, it primarily will consist of Under-23 players who do not play in Euro2012, but any place he takes, will be stealing from a younger, more worthy inclusion. If I was Stuart Pearce, I would ask Beckham to come as a coach and mentor so eliminating his ambition to play. His presence on the sidelines for a young team like that would be hugely beneficial.
Whatever happens going forward, Beckham has changed the soccer landscape in the USA, which in anybody’s book, has to be a good thing.