Beckham’s Coming Home

A lot of ink has already been spilled about David Beckham Coming To America, joining the Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid at the end of this season. From my end, the timing of the announcement couldn’t have been better, as I had only just, a week or so ago, finally got around to watching Once In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. (Thanks to Matt for pushing me to do so.)

Visit the Los Angeles Galaxy website and this is what you see.

If you’re my age or thereabouts, you will surely remember the Cosmos: in 1977, they had Pele, Giorgio Chinagila, Franz Beckenbauer, and Roberto Carlos all playing on the same team, to sell-out crowds at the then brand-new Giants Stadium. If you’re considerably younger than me, the Cosmos may mean nothing: the rise and fall of the North American Soccer League was one of the quickest fads in the history of sports, and the Cosmos, who were owned by music men Steve Ross, and Ahmet and Neshui Ertegun under the Warner Communications banner, ended up folding ignominiously in the middle of the 1985 season.

Once In A Lifetime makes fascinating viewing for dozens of reasons – Mick Jagger in the dressing room at half time! Chinaglia as an evil manipulative S.O.B. who barely has a kind word even for Pele! Pele’s refusal to be interviewed for the movie without a hefty fee (rumored to be $100,000)! Bobby Smith and Shep Messing recognizing the improbability of ending up on a team with the greatest players in the world! Rodney Marsh recounting his arrival in Tampa Bay as the “white Pele” and Pele’s response on the field! Most of all, it would appear to be an apparently instructive lesson on how not to blow your shareholders’ money on highly paid individuals if the infra-structure is not in place to support them.

So, is history destined to repeat itself? Perhaps. David Beckham can no more carry the hopes of an entire league than could Pele. But mistakes are there to be learned from, and American football is in a very different position now than it was then. When Pele arrived in the USA in 1975, few “native” Americans knew much about him or the sport for which he was internationally famous. The same is not true of David Beckham or American “soccer” in the 21st Century. It may not have set the world alight, but the current Major League Soccer, set up in the wake of the USA-hosted 1994 World Cup, has been an active and ongoing concern for a decade already. Crowds are respectable, expenditure is, pre-Beckham at least, under control. Americans Brad Friedel, Brian McBride and Damarcus Beasley are all flying the flag for American talent in in the English Premier League. And thanks surely in no small part to the halcyon days of the New York Cosmos, the Tampa Bay Rowdies and the like, and the effect they had on a generation of what are now parents, the game the rest of the world likes to call “football” is the most popular youth sport in America. The USA has successfully hosted one World Cup Final. The men’s team has qualified for each of the last five tournaments, and remains ranked in the world’s Top 10. And a few years ago, in winning their World Cup, the USA Womens’ Team offered a lesson in camaraderie and sportswomanship to a nation of otherwise overpaid athletes and cynical spectators.

Cosmos goalie Shep Messing steps onto the field thinking, “How did I get to play with Pele?” A still fromOnce In A Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos.

Assuming, then, that this not a repeat of 1975, the double-headed question becomes this: Does USA footie need a Beckham to lift it onto the global arena? Or is it better off continuing at its current quiet level? I’ll take a risk – because it is a risk, no doubt about it – and go for the former. I heard a pundit saying the other day that the standard of the USA MLS is somewhere between Britain’s Championship and League 1 – what Rodney Marsh and George Best would have recalled as the old Divisions 2 and 3. Certainly it’s no better than that and it’s probably worse: I can rarely watch more than a few minutes of mis-timed passes and widely cued shots on TV before I switch off and opt for Telford-Norwich on Fox Soccer Channel instead. I don’t attend the MLS games because they’re just not good or exciting enough. Those of us who live in America, love the game and want to love the domestic league as we do our home leagues, know perfectly well that MLS needs to raise its level if it’s going to bring in the next generation of fans. Signing the most famous footballer in the world is certainly one way to do it.

One is tempted to imagine David Beckham – who may be past his prime but is still barely into his 30s and has plenty years left in him – as a one-man League, winning the MSL title for the Los Angeles Galaxy singlehanded. But Once In A Lifetime reveals how hard Pele found it to win games on his own than (hence the arrival of Chinaglia, Beckenbauer and the like), and even the star-studded Cosmos of 1978 occasionally came up short. Assuming Beckham does not become a solo show, then the hope in the MLS boardrooms must be for Beckham’s arrival to focus fresh attention on the American league, draw new fans, and inspire other players to make a similar journey overseas. Yes, it does sound like déjà vu all over again but for those all-important differences: the stability of the League, the respectable crowds, the success of the US team and the ongoing TV coverage, none of which existed when Pele came over in 1975.

We can act a little overwhelmed by the amount of money Beckham will be earning in the States. (But even then it should be noted that Pele’s deal, $1.5 million a year for three years, made him the highest paid athlete in the world in 1975; Beckham’s annual income, including accompanying sponsorship deals, puts him only at number three.) Certainly, no one who follows these things can be surprised that the deal itself took place.

Becks and Posh: If ever there was a Hollywood couple…

Besides, Beckham belongs in America. He’s a global franchise, a pop idol, an astute businessman, a sporting pin-up, a recognizable brand and, when the game takes him, a supremely talented footballer. Add in his famous wife, his (non)sense of fashion, and the fact that he conferred with Tom Cruise two nights in a row before signing with the Galaxy, and it’s a surprise he didn’t decamp to Beverly Hills years ago.

For the above off-field reasons and more, Beckham comes in for flak, some of it well justified. For my part though, I’ll come to his defense. His treatment at the hands of English fans and media alike after the 1998 World Cup was totally deplorable – made me embarrassed to be English, in fact – but the manner in which he returned the following season, earning Man United the treble with that spectacular last couple of minutes against Bayern Munich in the European Cup final, was one of sport’s great comebacks. Sure, he’s been a disappointment at Real Madrid, but so has the whole team: he’s hardly the only international superstar on the books of that underperforming club. He and his missus, Victoria ‘Posh Spice’ Beckham, have spent a full decade under an excruciating hot spotlight, and somehow the marriage appears to have survived intact – which is more than can be said for most of his future Hollywood pals. Even if you opt to be cynical about the motives behind his California—based Football Academy, he appears to genuinely love kids. Besides, anyone who calls their first-born son Brooklyn is alright in my book.

Beckham after his last-minute goal against Greece put England in the 2002 World Cup Finals.

I have another reason to root for Beckham and the LA Galaxy. In 1994, I spent some time with the USA’s pre-World Cup squad out in California, filming them for Rapido. We had chosen to hone in on be-goateed grunger Alexei Lalas, who had not yet been confirmed as a member of the final squad of 22, and who had therefore not given up his other childhood dream of making it in a rock band. A nicer guy you could not hope to meet. The same, it should be stressed, was true of almost the entire squad, who were on embarrassingly low wages, sleeping in dorms and, frankly, surprised that the UK had sent a camera crew out to profile them.

Lalas has had his share of ups and downs in subsequent years – he had a poor second World Cup, couldn’t cut in the Italian Serie A, and after moving into the back rooms of the sport, was abruptly let go as GM last year by the New York Red Bulls. He promptly landed back in California, as General Manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy, where for the last few months, he has been that team’s most instantly recognizable (if no longer goatee’d) public face. That title, of course, will now fall to David Beckham, but as GM, Alexei Lalas is the one who will be dealing with the superstar, the media and the footballing world on a day-to-day basis. He may just have found himself with one of the most high-profile jobs in the whole of world football. I’d like to think he’ll meet the challenge. I’d also like to think he offers proof that, in sports at least, nice guys don’t have to finish last.

The wisdom of Beckham’s move remains, at most, a 50-50 proposition: there is absolutely every chance that it will all end in tears, in a lot less time than it takes to count his dollars. But the optimist in me prefers to take the positive view, and besides, there’s not a sports fan in the world doesn’t know the importance of taking a risk. So while he’ll still be based several thousand miles away from my own locale, I’d like to welcome David Beckham, home at last.

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