For Sale: One Awesome Soccer Player, Slightly Used
By Gerard WrightDecember 11, 2012
At 37, Beckham has entered the end game in soccer. But how many millions can he squeeze out of a few more matches?
Here comes brand Beckham. Representing Samsung, Armani, Pepsi, Motorola, H&M, Yahoo, Burger King — oh and for the last time, the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team. His boots are iridescent pink, with a dash of white and the three blue stripes of one of his lifelong sponsors. His face has the drawn, almost grizzled look of veteran professional athletes who somehow have held their playing weight even as middle age beckons. A nascent beard takes the edge off it. When later he removes his beanie, his hair shines the colour of summer wheat, its strands darkened by a liberal application of gel.
David Beckham is the world game’s ultimate rainmaker. Since his arrival in America, five-and-a-half years ago, he has conjured a quarter of a billion dollars, out of what then looked like thin air. This was what his new employers said he was worth when they signed him in January, 2007; back then it was dismissed as fanciful marketing speak. But Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes magazine estimated that Beckham had pulled in USD255 million since his arrival in LA in July of that year. That’s high stakes for a sport played and beloved in other countries but not, until recently, in the United States. It’s a psychological and physical burden Beckham seems to wear lightly. The single sign of stress, or nervous tic, evident over the years is how he plays with his hair; twisting the locks between his fingers then, constantly pushing it back off his forehead now.
The simplest part of Beckham’s life is the action he’s about to perform, on a damp expanse near the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, home to the Galaxy. The gentle coaxing into action of worn parts of his body — back, hips, knees, ankles and all the muscles, tendons and ligaments connecting them. It is three days before his last professional game in this country.
Celebrity sports stars come and go, their time in the public eye delineated by a fickleness few can understand let alone anticipate; their appeal can be affected by injury, by split-second events that cast the outcome of a contest, by ego, by teammates, by coaches. To transcend the sport, to become a franchise unto yourself, you have to have not only the ability and the will to keep playing, but the people still willing to pay to watch you play.
Seven new teams have been added to Major League Soccer (MLS) since Beckham’s arrival, a reflection of the overall impact of the world game, its relative affordability as a new sporting franchise, and the trend towards soccer-specific venues, new or re-purposed, for all MLS teams. That said, the Galaxy played to sold-out stadia in all of their away games through the first half of the 2012 season, one indication that Beckham remained a compelling drawcard. Most of these teams play in venues that seat 18,000 to 25,000 people.
Oddly, you don’t often see the word resilience in connection with Beckham. Yet across three decades, his career has spanned World Cup dummy spits, a rock-star marriage, his name as a movie title (Bend It Like Beckham), an eternity in the paparazzi cross-hairs, even a glide-on role in the opening ceremony of his hometown Olympics.
Beckham’s last official appearance as a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy, a foundation team of the 16-year-old MLS competition, was the MLS Cup Final on December 1 against the Houston Dynamo.
But while the legs might be weary, the Beckham brand is as strong as ever. Implicit in the announcement of his final appearance for the Galaxy was that he was bigger than the event, if not bigger — and he was still open for business.
Now the world’s most celebrated sports star is considering his next chapter; it's one which members of Australia’s A-League soccer clubs would like to ghost write. Central Coast Mariners, Perth Glory and Melbourne Heart are keen to get Beckham Down Under, but will need to fight off interest from clubs in Europe, Asia, Russia and Brazil.
SOCCER HAS LONG BEEN a mercenary game for clubs and players; the former driven by the need for results, the latter to be paid what they think they are worth. The sport’s first American boom years came on the boots of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best, who played in the mid-to-late 70s for the New York Cosmos and the Los Angeles Aztecs. No one doubted they were there for the money, and perhaps the sense of adventure.
There is the sense that soccer's foothold in American continues to be precarious — note the fate of the New York Cosmos, who flamed out after Pele’s two seasons with the team in 1975-77 — even as the game finds homes in such places as the Home Depot Center, fortuitously located near the junction of three freeways, with a soccer-specific stadium design and abundant car parking.
What David Beckham may not have realised when he began his Galaxy contract five years ago was that the club culture had begun to flourish in American soccer. Much of American high-profile sport revolves around college and professional gridiron, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. All are home-grown sports with their own peculiar fanatacisms. Soccer has encouraged in the US the tribalism that is part of the game worldwide, adding some American touches: the Portland Timbers celebrate goals with a chainsaw-wielding mascot laying waste to a log.
Soccer fans are, as a New Zealand writer once put it of the followers of rugby league, an audience that needs colour and movement to hold its attention. The smart MLS clubs worked this out quickly and encouraged the breeding of hardcore supporter groups who would become the backbone of their attendance. This was already happening when Beckham arrived. It may be that his presence had a transformative effect on casual fans who came to watch him and then wanted more of the whole experience.
Three US cable networks vie for soccer followers, who now have their choice of matches from the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, and Spain’s La Liga, with a side order of Mexican games. This means the committed American fan generally follows a second, European, team and also has a working knowledge of the world’s best players, what makes them exceptional, and how that compares to the expensive imports on many MLS teams. These fans’ loyalty is with the team, not the individual player.
Beckham, in his early years with the Galaxy, seemed to think he could reverse that order.
From the first, there were mixed feelings between the Galaxy and Beckham. At his first LA game, the Riot Squad — a Galaxy supporters’ group several hundred-strong — greeted him wearing faux-hawk wigs.
The Riot Squad bestows its own celebrity. The Squad rewards loyalty, as was well illustrated after the Cup final on December 1. Galaxy captain Landon Donovan had undergone a public crisis of confidence and motivation in the weeks leading up to the game, and then missed a simple goal inside the first 15 minutes of the final. After the trophy presentation, he walked to the Riot Squad's corner, waving, blowing kisses, mouthing "thank you", while giving every indication of meaning it. As he walked away, one of the Squad’s de-facto emcees — armpits shaved, pale, massive arms adorned with tattoos — tapped his heart and pointed at Donovan.
The Riot Squad likewise looks very poorly on those who, in its eyes, diminish the team.
In the summer of 2009, this was David Beckham. He was 34, and angling for his fourth World Cup for England. He insisted he be released on loan to AC Milan, so he could show his wares on a larger and more exacting stage than any in America.
In return AC Milan agreed to play a friendly match against the Galaxy, in LA, a guaranteed turnstile spinner.
Regardless, for the diehard fans of the Galaxy, Beckham’s trip to Milan was an insult and the Riot Squad chose to focus on the story of a player who had deserted his team.
At this exhibition match against AC, Beckham, in his Galaxy jersey, left the field at half-time chatting amicably with a former AC teammate. That’s when someone in the Riot Squad yelled down to the celebrity turncoat, “Who the fuck do you play for?”
As recalled by Riot Squad founder Tommy Mack, the sledge was delivered by a fan known as Angry Dave, shirtless and well-built.
Mack remembers Beckham’s reply, too: “You, motherfucker… You come down here, right now.”
Mack is clear. “Beckham challenged the guy to a fight.”
Deploying its crack squad of lip-readers, The News of the World claimed that Beckham’s intent and invitation were unmistakeable on a video clip posted on YouTube. “Come on down,” the subtitles have Beckham yelling. “Yes, you — down, yeah, yeah, you. You watch it, you fuck. I’ll show you if you come down.”
Angry Dave declined the invitation. His friend Josh Paige took it up though, jumping the elevated fence and advancing towards Beckham, who had placed his foot on the advertising hoardings, as though to climb over them.
With Beckham’s foot already on the hoarding, Paige was swarmed by security guards. One of the last clear images from the various videos of the confrontation shows Beckham reaching his right hand across in the direction of Paige.
Asked about the incident afterwards, Beckham said he only wanted to shake the intruder’s hand. Pressed over what had prompted the advance and exchange of words, Beckham said it had begun with a comment about his wife.
Tommy Mack still maintains to The Global Mail that there was no such personal provocation: “Dude, you lied,” he says of Beckham. “You have no credibility with us.”
The Galaxy performance was patchy during Beckham’s first two seasons, a reflection of management turmoil and Beckham’s fractured relations with the captain, Donovan. The combination of Italian tryouts and subsequent injury meant Beckham played only 18 of a possible 60 games for the Galaxy during the 2009-10 seasons. Among them were the 2009 MLS Cup play-offs, where the Galaxy lost in the final.
AT HIS PRE-MATCH PRESS CONFERENCE before the 2012 MLS Cup final a reporter’s smartphone buzzed two-thirds of the way through the inquisition. Beckham, natural born spruiker, quipped: “Shall I answer it? It's not Samsung sorry, I can’t.” Samsung is a contributor to Beckham’s estimated USD37 million worth of annual endorsements.
This was a spontaneous marketing high-wire act, with Beckham stepping daintily along the narrowest of lines separating team and league sponsors, and his own brand. MLS, for instance, has AT&T as its telco sponsor; for Beckham, that role was split between Samsung and Motorola.
The Forbes estimate puts Beckham’s total annual earnings, including his USD6.5 million MLS/Galaxy salary, at $46 million. Thus, whatever team owners in the United Arab Emirates, Russia or China may offer him is not the point; Beckham clearly doesn’t need the money. As with his last choice, his next one will be influenced by the potential growth it offers him for sponsorship, current and future.
Other teams have been mentioned — such as London’s Queens Park Rangers currently in the English Premier League, and Monaco — but at his age and with his history of injury, the best Beckham could hope for with those teams would be starting on the bench.
“He’s going to want to play at this stage of his career, I would have thought,” NBC and former BBC commentator Arlo White said. “I don’t think he would want to ride the bench.”
There is also the fact — how to say this kindly — that American Major League Soccer is not the European Premier League, nor Serie A nor the French first division, where the competitor in Beckham would like to see himself. But both his body and his game have adjusted to a treadmill set at a certain pace. The cost of picking up speed was spelled out for him in Italy in 2010, when his Achilles tendon gave way under the strain of its owner’s attempts to prove himself worthy of another English cap.
And yet, all through his rehab from that injury, Beckham seemed to have entertained hopes that he could reclaim the Three Lions jersey of England.
Then barely a fortnight before his September 2010 comeback, he was interviewed on the Galaxy practice field. It was late morning in Los Angeles.
Beckham — handsome and plain-spoken, with great muscle definition and a winning tan— sounded like a man who had re-connected with a long lost love. He had watched the World Cup from the sideline, he’d been out with injury. “It’s made me miss it, like I missed soccer when I was 20-years-old and I couldn’t wait to get back to training,” he said. “It made me realise how much I love the game again.”
The Galaxy squad went through its paces on a damp Wednesday morning, three days before the MLS Cup final. To watch Beckham then was to see someone still enjoying what his body could do, still revelling in his skills, still carrying himself like someone who was certain he was better at his craft than just about anyone in the world.
After jogging, stretching and mild calisthenics, the team split into pairs, to practice passing the ball to each other. Beckham and Robbie Keane, the Irish international forward, stood about 25 metres apart. There is something mesmerising about watching the best athletes in the world go about their everyday duties.
This morning, both soccer players shuffled side to side, occasionally a half-step forward or back. Keane delivered swerving passes with his right foot or his left that drew or faded as unerringly as a professional five-iron. Beckham cocked his right leg, his toe pointing towards the ground, “catching” the ball on the fly with the side of his foot and then passing it back. It was a master-class of casual, absolute skill.
“I suppose it surprised me a little bit,” Beckham said of being back on the pitch, in this 2010 post-practice interview, “because some people say at my age you kind of start not loving football as much as you did when you were 21. But I still do.”
He declared, several times over, his availability for national selection. “With England, I’ll never retire.”
Unbeknownst to Beckham, the English coach, Fabio Capello had made that decision for him. A pre-recorded interview with Capello was about to be broadcast before an international match in Britain. “I say thank you very much [to Beckham] for helping me at the World Cup,” Capello said, “but probably, he is a little bit old.’’
The two interviews were about 20 minutes apart; their mixed signals, of optimism and finality, passing each other somewhere over the Atlantic. The end of a chapter of David Beckham’s career had just been written, and he didn’t even know it.
THAT MOMENT WAS ONE of the occasional exceptions to the rule that everything about David Beckham’s public persona is carefully controlled. Spontaneity belongs on the pitch. Otherwise, Beckham is meted out in expertly calibrated doses — just strong enough to make a public appearance away from the soccer pitch exciting, while skirting controversy.
Capello’s 2010 dismissal of Beckham marked the beginning of an unequivocal commitment to the Galaxy — at least when not spruiking for England during its bid two years ago to host the 2018 World Cup. Over the next two seasons, he would play 50 of a possible 68 games for the American team, during the course of which it won two MLS Cups.
There were moments during his final match with the Galaxy when Beckham showed why he is who he is. One in particular, though it did not even result in a goal, emphatically demonstrated Beckham’s mastery of a set-up.
Deep into the second half, facing the Galaxy (defensive) goal, Beckham watched as a ball from a clearing header looped towards him. Half-turning to his left, he let the ball pass over his chest and bounce, then poked it as the ball rose again to shin-height. The 40-metre pass to a sprinting Robbie Keane, led him away from a pair of Houston defenders, and gave him time to advance in space for a shot at goal.
It was a split-second masterpiece of touch, vision and geometry that could hold its place in any company, at any venue in the world.
Galaxy general manager/coach Bruce Arena watched from his customary position, standing on the sideline, arms folded. “Twenty years from now,” he said later, “we’re going to look at this league and still talk about David Beckham as the one who helped turn us.”
In the closing stages of the match, Beckham squatted on his heels outside the box as Keane lined up a penalty kick. When the Irishman scored to make it 3-1, Beckham sank to his knees, his first sign of overt emotion.
Barely a minute later, four minutes into extra time, he was substituted, a sort of cameo exit to allow for a proper farewell.
The chant rose:
And rose again. Even the Riot Squad was clamouring. David Beckham had redeemed himself.
The epilogue, with its dollar signs and plausible denials, may take place in China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, maybe even Australia. He doesn’t need the money, but, at 37, he still needs the game, as much as it needs him.
“I think he could do for the A-League in Australia a little bit of what he did for MLS,” the Riot Squad’s Tommy Mack said.
“No one knows you guys have a soccer league. Wherever he goes, it will be for two seasons… for a big paycheck. And then [he’ll] model some underwear.”