On Beckham

David Beckham is leaving the Los Angeles Galaxy to go to Paris Saint-Germain.  Apparently.  This is not news; in fact, I’ve been hearing this for months.  Technically it is all still a rumor given that neither Beckham nor his people have confirmed that he is leaving Los Angeles, but the entire world has taken it as a given that he is headed back to Europe.  Ergo, the Beckham tour, which began in Manchester and then moved to Madrid and Los Angeles (with two stopovers in Milan) is now headed for Paris.  No lesser cities will do for Beckham in the post-United stage of his career–no Dallas, no Lille, certainly no Seville.  Only the most glamorous cities in the world, with art, music, movie stars, fashion, and culture, will do for the Beckham family.  Beckham will fit right in too; no footballer ever branded himself as successfully as David Beckham.

Beckham’s best days are long behind him.  Any team that employs him really just wants to sell shirts, and this has been the case since his late Madrid days.  Ironically, even though his shirts are top sellers, the dirty little secret is that his fame is disproportionate to his abilities.  One cannot deny that he was (and is) talented, but no one ever considered him one of the game’s greatest players either.  Beckham was never even the best player on any of his teams.  At Manchester United he played next to Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, and Paul Scholes.  At Madrid he played alongside Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Raúl, and Luis Figo.  Even at Los Angeles, there was Landon Donovan, who is not better than Manchester United-era Beckham, but is certainly better than Beckham the Galaxy teammate.*

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When players retire, there are many familiar career paths.  Some leave football entirely for other fields.  Some go into coaching or become a part of their club’s hierarchy.  A rare few players get involved in politics (Romario for example).  Michel Platini got involved in a different type of politics; he is the head of UEFA with designs on the FIFA presidency.  Some players gracefully disappear from the spotlight leaving only the memory of their brilliance (get well soon, Eusebio!), while other desperately seek to keep themselves in the spotlight with ridiculous attention-seeking behavior (I’d hate to name names, but we all know this describes Maradona).  One figure completely transcended the game, and that was Pele.  Pele became football’s unofficial ambassador to the world, quite possibly a unique position in sport.**

Pele, for his considerable faults, is arguably the greatest player in the game’s history, therefore it is natural he should have such worldwide renown.  In contrast, it is odd from an objective perspective to see Beckham, who was nowhere near Pele’s level as a player, following Pele’s path.  Yet as an active player Beckham has become football’s second ambassador to the world.  He is among the world’s most recognizable athletes.  More than that, Beckham has taken on a celebrity that even Pele did not have.  Pele was a footballer; Beckham is a star.

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Getting objective opinions about Beckham is near impossible.  The British absolutely adore him, and the rest of the world pretty much follows the British lead.  For all the digs that the British take at Americans, they cannot say a word about our celebrity-worshipping culture without looking like major hypocrites.***  Celebrity worship is a mainstay of British culture.  Why keep a royal family?  For tradition and tabloid fodder?

Beckham, despite his most decidedly non-aristocratic origins, is as much a royal as any Windsor.  He’s the handsome prince, who married the beautiful Princess Posh.  (Like the Royal Family, the Beckhams are a fascinating mixture of class and classlessness.)  When England made its failed 2018 World Cup bid, three men went to the ExCo on behalf of England: Prime Minister David Cameron, Prince William, and Beckham.

When Beckham was injured, and could not go to the 2010 World Cup as a player, he was made an assistant of some kind.  Ostensibly his job was to be a mediator between the coaching staff and the players (given the way the tournament went for England and its aftermath, he failed miserably), but in reality his role was to look good in a suit on the sideline and be caught on television cameras.  His raised eyebrow during England’s woeful group stage performances featured prominently in every major newspaper in Britain and the United States

Yet Beckham worship was not always the case.  In 1998, Beckham was loathed by the English.  In the World Cup second round, he foolishly kicked the Argentinian player Diego Simeone (who had been trying to goad Beckham), and got sent off.  Argentina eliminated England in the ensuing penalty shoot-out and Beckham became the scapegoat for England’s failure, and his family even received death threats.  In a weird way, this only adds to the Beckham legend because of what followed.  The next season he helped United win the Treble, and then won his way back into the hearts of England fans everywhere, culminating in the 2002 World Cup, where Beckham (now England captain) scored the winning goal against Argentina in the group stage, eliminating the Albiceleste. A fairy tale redemption (so long as you forget that England lost to eventual champions Brazil in the quarterfinals.)

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Beckham’s career can be divided into the pre-Posh and post-Posh eras.  Before he got involved with Victoria Adams, the singer once known as Posh Spice, he was a talented footballer of some renown.  Together “Becks and Posh” became the ultimate celebrity couple, at the expense of his relationship with his manager/secondary father figure Alex Ferguson who despised Beckham’s newfound stardom (and Posh.)  Beckham was no longer just a professional athlete, he was “Golden Balls.”

The Beckham marriage reminds me of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage.  Whatever the personal dynamic is between the spouses (to which I am not privy), the marriage is a mutually beneficial arrangement that benefits and advances both parties in the public arena.  Alone they may succeed, but together they are an irresistible force.  Victoria may no longer have a singing career, but she is no has-been or tabloid-fodder WAG; she is a fashion icon with major media exposure.  Similarly, had Beckham never met Posh, he could very well still be playing for United like Ryan Giggs or, more likely, for some mid-table Premier League side.  He would not be the brand he is today (or the gay icon that he is so proud of being.)  There would certainly not have been a movie called Bend It Like Beckham.

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Beckham has transcended the sport, for better or for worse.  Because he is so much larger than life, the British media, which called for his head following the 1998 World Cup, gives him a free pass for basically everything.  Criticism of Beckham is simply not allowed.  This applies to both tabloids and serious sports journalists.  When Fabio Capello, quite correctly, said after the 2010 World Cup that Beckham should be thanked for his service to his country but that there was no longer a place for him on the England National Team, the media went crazy and called for Capello’s head for disrespecting Beckham (a frenzy fomented in part by Beckham’s people.)  Anyone who thinks about this logically for a moment would come to the same conclusion as Capello.  Beckham will be 37 at the next Euro and 39 at the next World Cup.  Is there no one younger and healthier in English football who can play in midfield?  Again, he is not one of the game’s all-time greats.

It is true that Beckham gave MLS real cachet.  But he also majorly disrespected the league and his fellow professionals, particularly with his loan spells to Milan.  On the World Football Phone-In, Sean Wheelock has ranted many times about how awful it was that Beckham abandoned his team training to attend Prince William’s marriage earlier this year  Neither of these actions would have been tolerated by a major European club.

The media (both British and American if we are honest) has completely whitewashed Beckham’s unspectacular career at Los Angeles.  On one hand, Beckham was the first major European star to come to MLS to play, which forced the world to take MLS seriously.  He trailblazed a path for other past-their-prime players (“Come to MLS, they pay big money for names.”)  None of these have been a smashing successes, including Beckham.  This too is part of Beckham’s legacy, and the part of his legacy that Team Beckham, MLS, and the media try to sweep under the rug.

It is easy to forget that Beckham’s MLS career was less than a smashing success given that the Galaxy won the MLS championship this year, and were clearly the best team.  Certain segments of the media have gone so far as to call this year’s Galaxy the best MLS team ever.  The truth though is that if anything the Galaxy have dramatically underachieved.  No one will remember them fondly in 40 years, the way that Pele’s Cosmos (the inevitable if faulty comparison) are remembered.  Given all the money and talent pumped into the Galaxy, Los Angeles should have won the last three titles and possibly four.  MLS has been pushing for a Galaxy championship (or New York Red Bull, who actually play in New Jersey) pretty blatantly.  Major media markets at all that.  No one will watch if Sporting Kansas City wins except for the Kansas City faithful.

A New York/Los Angeles duopoly (if New York can ever get its act together, which is doubtful) would also be a part of Beckham’s legacy, and one that I find particularly galling.  The so-called Beckham Rule (the Designated Player Rule) allows MLS teams compete on the international market for players, but it also creates a potentially major disparity in the league.  The top stars, the ones who had a major impact in their European careers, will only go to two places: New York and Los Angeles.  (Yes, Freddy Ljungberg went to Seattle and then Chicago, but that is the exception.)  Teams from unglamorous locations will be left out in the cold.  Beckham would never have moved to MLS if he had to join the Columbus Crew.  Those in the American soccer media who castigate La Liga for being a two-horse league hypocritically advocate for a league dominated by Los Angeles and New York–or more specifically the Galaxy and the improbable resurrection of the Cosmos, to which Beckham is constantly being connected.

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 So Beckham is probably off to Paris.  No doubt the British media and public will viciously attack the French for not appreciating Beckham when he inevitably fails there and is criticized for it.  It is amazing that one man is highly regarded.  Nevertheless, in a strange way it makes sense why Beckham is so beloved in Britain (and to British expats; World Football Daily’s current British hosts absolutely fawn over him).  Beckham is the embodiment of what the English want in their national team players–loyalty, dedication, and heart, limited skill, a famous WAG, and worldwide superstardom.  The English know they cannot win anything anymore.  Beckham is a consolation prize.  As long as there is a Beckham, the English game cannot be forgotten.

 

Footnotes: 

* The question of whether or not Donovan squandered his career by remaining in the MLS will have to be put aside for another time.

**  Mia Hamm is an official ambassador on behalf of FC Barcelona, although what that entails in beyond me.  Tennis players such as Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, and Andre Agassi have all taken on an ambassadorial roles at various points, but not so much for the sport as a whole as for their own (worthy) causes.

*** Not that looking like hypocrites matter to the British press.

A Question For Rugby Fans

To any Rugby union fans who read this blog, I have a series of question for you.  First a little prelude.  In football, there is a Club World Cup (which I just recently wrote about), a tournament in which the top clubs of each confederation play each other.*  Prior to the Club World Cup was the Intercontinental Cup where champion club of Europe played the champion club of South America.

My question is does Rugby union have anything similar?  My knowledge of Rugby union is faulty, so correct me if I am wrong, but there is the Heineken Cup for European clubs and Super Rugby for regional franchises in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.  Is there or was there ever a competition in which the Heineken Cup winner played the Super Rugby winner?  If not were there ever plans?  Are there logistical issues?  Do you think it would capture interest or make money?

 

 

Footnotes: 

*  Confederations roughly correspond to each continent, but there are exceptions, which is why Israel, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Cyprus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and Georgia all play in Europe rather than Asia, Australia plays in Asia rather than Oceania, and Guyana, Suriname, and the entirety of Central American play in North America rather than South America.

Sodade

Cesaria Evora died a couple of days ago.  I just found this out, and I feel an incredible sense of sadness.  Vaclav Havel also died a few days ago.  With his death, a titan of the 20th century now belongs to the ages.  I feel less than worthy to talk about Havel.

To two giants (in their own ways) I bid a fond farewell.   The world has lost so much light in so little time.

¡Campeones! ¡Campeones!

I had trouble sleeping the night before Barcelona was to play Santos in the Club World Cup.  As often happens before a big match that I am nervous about, I dreamt about the score after the match.  In my dreams Barcelona won 4-2, 4-1, and 3-1 (the score never stayed constant.)

Of course, Barcelona won the match 4-0.  It was probably the most flawless Blaugrana performance in a big match since the 5-0 result last year against Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.  (When will non-Madrid teams learn not to wear white when playing Barcelona?  It only enrages the Blaugrana.)  Even the Champions League final against Manchester United, beautiful as it was, was not quite that perfect.  To the naysayers (who tend to be British) the Club World Cup is inconsequential.  Martin Rogers of Yahoo Sports and World Football Daily is particularly vociferous in his dislike for the tournament.

The critics do have a point.  The Club World Cup is a FIFA invention, and like all FIFA inventions, it is deeply flawed and designed primarily to make FIFA money.  For example, although confederation champions, the likes of Aukland City and Al-Sadd would not be competitive in the Copa Libertadores let alone the Champions League (not that clubs from San Marino and Malta are world beaters.)  Calling Al-Sadd the third best team in the world is grating when the club is at this tournament solely by accident of geography.

Nevertheless, that does not negate the value of the Club World Cup.  What the critics don’t get is that there is a larger world outside of Europe.  Just because non-European clubs compete at a lower level than the European super clubs, that does not make them worthless.  The South Americans feel this snub most acutely because the success of the Champions League is built largely on the shoulders of their best players at the expense of the South American leagues which lack the money and resources to keep the best players.  The Club World Cup is a a way for the non-European leagues to get a foot in the spotlight, even if just for one or two matches.  Sometimes there is even a pleasant surprise.  Remember TP Mazembe?  Internacional of Brazil will never forget them.

The Mazembe upset aside, the Club World Cup is otherwise just an updated version of the old Intercontinental Cup, the champion of Europe against the champion of South America but with some preliminaries.  The real difference though is that during the International Cup era sometimes the world’s best teams really did play in South America, especially in the early years of the competition.  The Europeans (specifically the Northern Europeans) gave up on taking the Intercontinental Cup seriously, but the South Americans never did.  The Intercontinental Cup was a way for them to prove that football was their game and the Europeans were only playing it.  The Europeans’ disdain for the Intercontinental Cup and the Club World Cup enrages the South Americans.

The recent results however, have only proven the European correct.  The European clubs have won the last five Club World Cups.  The two before this run, won by the Brazilian clubs Inter and São Paulo, were both won by lesser sides.  The Brazilians parked the bus, waited for the right counterattack, got their one goal, and then parked the bus again.  It was their way of acknowledging their opponents’ technical superiority.

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Ever since it won the Copa Libertadores, Santos planned for the final against Barcelona (not an unusual tactic for a Brazilian side after it wins the Copa Libertadores).  Unlike its recent–successful–predecessors Santos wanted to play Barcelona the “right” way because it believed it could beat Barcelona.  Santos let its Brasileirão form suffer safe in the knowledge that already qualified for the next Copa Libertadores.

Santos bought into its own hype, probably because of all the historical coincidences following the Peixe on this campaign.  Santos won its third Copa Libertadores title ever, the first since Pele played.  The opponent in the Libertadores final was Peñarol, whom Santos beat for its first title way back in 1962.  Next year is Santos’s centenary year (as Tim Vickery is so fond of saying, the club was founded the day the Titanic sunk).  And in O Fauxhawk, the Santos faithful believe they finally have an heir to Pele (a real one this time, not some false messiah.)  The Brazilian press (followed by the world press) went overboard in its estimation of Santos for reasons I have explained previously.  Pele himself opened his mouth (never a good thing), and claimed Santos was better than Barcelona and Neymar was better than Messi.  Neymar, of course, was Pele’s stand-in for himself, for Pele is a jealous god who sees Messi as a false idol.

Santos made a fatal error; it underestimated how much Barcelona wanted this title.  This was not an unreasonable assumption because the European teams have historically not cared about the tournament.  It also came a little over a week after the most significant match of Barcelona’s season.  This assumption was even made by Tim Vickery, perhaps the most astute observer of football anywhere.  Last week in his BBC column, Vickery wrote:

Barcelona… have been in competitive action right up to Saturday night. Compared with the trip to Real Madrid, this tournament in Japan is almost an afterthought. For Santos it has been in every thought.

Yes, last week was the latest installment in the eternal struggle between Barcelona and its arch-nemesis, and yes, there was much at stake for Barcelona.  But the Club World Cup was never an afterthought for Pep Guardiola; it is a tournament he is obsessed with.  If you doubt that, watch his reaction to Barcelona’s victory over Estudiantes de la Plata two years ago.  Granted, Guardiola is not a taciturn man.  Once a match begins he scowls and yells, and gesticulates until it is over.  Barcelona could be up 5-0 and he never loses that intensity.  Only after his team wins the trophy does he smile.  He never cries though.  Nevertheless, after Barcelona beat Estudiantes, Guardiola broke down and sobbed.

Before 1992, Barcelona had never won the European Cup, the predecessor of today’s Champions League.  In fact, Barcelona was probably the best club never to have won.  Barcelona had won European glory elsewhere but never the biggest prize of all (although it lost in the final round twice).  All the more galling was how many times Real Madrid won.  In 1992, under the guidance of Johan Cruyff, Barcelona finally won the European Cup.  Among the players on the field was an elegant Catalan midfielder named Josep “Pep” Guardiola.  That year, Barcelona lost the Intercontinental Cup to São Paulo.  In 2006, when Barcelona (sans Guardiola) finally won the Champions League a second time, again it lost the Club World Cup, this time to Internacional.  Knowing that Real Madrid won three such titles only added salt to the wound.  Without the title, Barcelona could never truly call itself the world’s best team.  Ergo, Guardiola craves this title and what it represents.  What he wants his devoted players (particularly those who, like him, were brought through La Masia) want so badly to give to him.  He was, after all, the childhood idol of several of them.

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Guardiola is utterly devoted to Barcelona.  He may even be the apex of the Barcelona system.  He was a ball boy for the club, a youth player, a senior team player, team captain, youth manager, and finally the manager of the senior team.  As both player and manager he brought the club titles and trophies.  Now he is Barcelona’s most decorated and greatest manager, winning a supernatural 13 of 16 possible trophies in a mere three and half seasons.  He has given his all to the club, and each year he looks tremendously older, like the United States President.
In as much as the media loves to compare Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, the media also loves to compare Guardiola to Jose Mourinho.  Stylistically the two managers are near polar opposites (a subject that I have written about before) and currently they are each other’s primary rival.  That was before Mourinho arrived in Madrid.  Prevailing opinion (at least according to World Football Daily) is that right now Mourinho is the better manager.  Any armchair analyst has his own explanations for why Guardiola cannot be considered one of the greats yet: he hasn’t been a coach long enough, he’s only been with one team/country, he took over Frank Rijkaard’s team which any fool could manage, etc.
One has to put Guardiola’s accomplishments in context to understand why it is so unfair to disrespect him this way.  It is true he has only managed one team, but, excluding his apprenticeship in charge of Barcelona B, this is his first coaching job.  Ever.  If one’s criteria for greatness is coaching in more than one place, then wait for Guardiola’s second job before talking about him.  Otherwise, discussing his merits is akin to building a straw man simply to knock down (and to extol Mourinho.)
The Rijkaard criticism is especially galling.  Rijkaard was sacked because he had let the team fall apart and the inmates run the asylum.  His final season was disastrous for the club, and the final match at the Bernabeu was a humiliation that no doubt still burns the players who played that day.  Worse, Ronaldinho, once the hero of Catalonia, had become a dressing room poison and the symbol of everything wrong with the club.  Guardiola came in and got rid of Ronaldinho, Deco, and Giovanni Dos Santos, players he deemed not committed enough.  Guardiola has used the Barcelona reserves to perhaps its greatest effect; of the 13 players who were on the field in the Club World Cup final, 11 came through La Masia.  Most importantly, he refined and perfected Barcelona’s identity and ethos.  Under his watch, the team is everything, and all individual brilliance is a way to serve the team.  No matter how expensive a player (Zlatan Ibrahimovic), if he puts himself above the team, then he is out.  This is not Rijkaard’s team even if many of the players are the same.

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The real difficulty with comparing managerial greatness is that (unlike for players) there are different criteria to becoming a great manager.  Titles are the most obvious way to judge greatness because of their quantifiable nature; managers like Mourinho, Carlos Alberto Parreira, and Alex Ferguson will go down into history for their success at winning titles.  Generations from now they will be remembered for their dazzling array of silverware, although not much else.  Although commentators repeat it as though it were a mantra, it is simply not true that fans forget how the trophy is won.  Fans may not care, but they never forget.  For managers like Mourinho, there was no unifying philosophy beyond victory at all costs, no aesthetic to boggle the eyes, nothing to excite the pulse or caused the jaw to drop in wonder.  Judging by titles though can only really be done properly once a career is over.

The other way to judge managers is qualitatively.  What were their teams like while winning?  What imprint did the manager leave on the game?  This is how to best judge managers such as Rinus Michels (considered by many the greatest ever), César Luis Menotti, Béla Guttmann, Herbert Chapman, Hugo Meisl, Valeri Lobanovskiy, and Johan Cruyff to name a few.  As managers, they were successful, but as thinkers, innovators, tacticians, and philosophers, they were in a class by themselves, and the game remembers their contributions.  The football philosophers offers something beyond a full trophy case.  Rather than just being remembered, they will be studied.  Most importantly, they touch the heart of the football romantic.

It is the football romantic who remembers the beautiful losers as much as, and sometimes more than, then winners.  Everyone knows the Hungarians of 1954, but who outside of Germany remembers the winners?  It is the same with the football philosopher.  We want Marcelo Bielsa to succeed because he is so innovative.  He singlehandedly gave Chile an identity.  That same romantic impulse is why Arsenal fans still adore Arsene Wenger even though they have gone so many seasons without a solitary title.

 However many trophies Guardiola ends up with, he has already joined that second group.  He is the Aristotle to Cruyff’s Plato and Michel’s Socrates.  Guardiola’s Barcelona is steeped in Dutch perceptions of space, yet it is radically his own.  The midfield is the kingdom, and possession and passing are rule of law.  This season Guardiola has pushed the boundaries of his philosophy even further by experimenting with a three-man defense and a more expansive midfield–as much Bielsa as Cruyff.  The fruits of this labor paid off thus far in Barcelona’s two most important matches of the season; in the match against Madrid last week he outthought and outwitted Mourinho by adapting his tactics.  Yesterday Barcelona side demolished Santos.  So thorough was his side’s domination, that after the third goal, just before halftime, Guardiola allowed himself a smile.  On his watch, Barcelona joined the legends, teams who like the Ajax of the early 1970’s, Milan of the late 80’s, and Pele’s Santos, are spoken of with a hushed reverence.  (Yes, I know.  Wednesday night.  Stoke.  Funny.)

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Guardiola’s legacy as a philosopher is already being felt, and in the most unlikely of places: Brazil.  Even before the destruction of Santos, and the resulting horror of Brazilian fans and media, Barcelona had been on the minds of the nation’s football cognoscenti.  Tim Vickery described the scene:
The emergence and consolidation of the Catalan school has shaken Brazil, robbing it of something seen as a birthright – Brazil’s place as the spiritual guardians of the beautiful game. Be honest now – who would you prefer to see – the Barcelona of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, or the Brazil of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo which Dunga took to the last World Cup?

Last week Rio played host to the eighth annual version of Footecon, an annual conference of coaches organised by Carlos Alberto Parreira. As a veteran of all eight, I can confirm that this one was different.

Last year Parreira gave a splendid lecture dissecting the football of Barcelona – inspired by the excitement the team generated in the players he had been coaching with the South African national side. This year Barcelona’s presence was not confined to one lecture. Their shadow hung over the whole event – a process enhanced by the fact that one of the club’s directors had crossed the Atlantic to explain their philosophy of youth development.

It was a lecture that packed the hall, and to which Brazil coach Mano Menezes paid special attention. The debate afterwards – indeed much of what followed over the two days of the event – focused on similarities and especially differences between approaches in Barcelona and Brazil.

The whole article is a fascinating read, and it’s a theme he continued this week in his column for the BBC.  What Vickery did not mention, and what I would love to bring up with him if I ever get the chance is whether he thinks Santos’s defeat to Barcelona will be a turning point in the evolution of the Brazilian game the way that the loss to the Netherlands in 1974 was.  Following the latter, Brazil abandoned its ethos as the guardian of the beautiful game.  Perhaps now, Brazil will try to reestablish it.  What better compliment could a club and its manager be paid than understanding that they changed the football culture of the world’s most prominent football nation?