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.

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