David Beckham's Failed American Adventure

Based on today’s news, David Beckham’s relatively short stint in the MLS appears to be over, as AC Milan director Umberto Gandini plans to fly to Los Angeles tomorrow with a team of lawyers aimed at securing Beckham’s services for at least the next year.

If that deal goes through, which seems likely given Beckham’s resolve to stay in Milan, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see Becks playing soccer here in the States again, unless it’s on tour with Milan or some other high-profile European club.

And so ends Beckham’s big Hollywood gambit. By all accounts, it has been an enormous bust, for Beckham, for the Galaxy, and for MLS.

To get a panoramic view of the whole saga from start to finish, I turned to the most knowledgeable soccer expert I know, Mark Young, a writer and producer who is a two-time Sports Emmy-winner.

Mark has worked for ESPN at four World Cups and for NBC at the past five Olympics. What’s more, he was the producer of “David Beckham’s Soccer America” on the Fox Sports Channel, one of the many parts of the multi-headed hydra that was Beckham’s attempted media onslaught here in the U.S.

That experience, combined with his overall soccer expertise, gives Mark a unique, insider take on the entire debacle. Below is our lengthy conversation on the tangled web of David Beckham’s American adventure.

LARGE: Mark, let’s go back to the beginning. What do you think was the general expectation when Beckham first came to play in the U.S.?

MARK: The initial media take here in the U.S. was that he was going to be the next Pelé. He was going to be this big name who was going to boost TV ratings and put people in the stands.But when he came to the States, he was very upfront in saying “I am not Pelé.” He said that he might have been the most famous player in the world, but he has never claimed to be the best player in the world, in the same way that I don’t think that, say, Brad Pitt claims to be the best actor in the world.

LARGE: But isn’t there some natural comparison to be made between Pelé and Beckham just in terms of making a big splash about coming to the U.S. towards the end of their careers?

MARK: That was certainly the European perspective and I think it was the function of ignorance on the part of the European press. I don’t think they’re really aware of how far American soccer has come domestically since 1977 when Pelé came to the Cosmos. When Pelé did that, he was the most famous soccer player in the world, the greatest ever, but he was ... I don’t remember how old he was, but he was in his mid-30’s, and he hadn’t played too much in a couple of years. He was definitely at the end of his career.

But Beckham -- he wasn’t 37. What was he -- 32? That’s still a fairly young man in soccer terms. He wasn't at the end of his career -- we’re seeing that now. I think he was at the low point of his career. And he was at a crossroads. It’s January 2007, he hasn’t won with Real and he’s been there three and a half years. He’s coming off the 2006 World Cup where he was hobbled out of the tournament again. He’d been dropped from the England team. At the time, no big team in Europe was interested in him -- which is solely my take, by the way, nobody has ever said that to me specifically. But I suspect that if he’d gotten a big offer from Inter Milan or AC Milan or Barcelona or Arsenal in January of 2007, he would have taken it.

LARGE: He must have been able to go somewhere in Europe, though, right? Just cause Barcelona doesn’t want you doesn’t mean you have to head to the MLS.

MARK: Well, that’s where there’s some fairness to the way the European press covered the whole thing. They saw him without any options to make a big splash with an elite club in Europe, and so, being the master of marketing that he is, he and his agents and PR people said, “let’s go sell underwear, let’s go sell fragrance, let’s have a reality show.” All those sorts of things. And, of course, the place to do that is Hollywood.

LARGE: So he makes the decision to come to L.A. and at first, at least in my memory, it felt like a Pelé moment for the MLS. How did it all fall apart?

MARK: He was injured, first of all. That was the big problem to start. I was at the media event at the Home Depot Center to welcome him, and the following week they had this game set up against Chelsea. It was going to be his first game, it was on ESPN, and they’re playing the English champions. The hype machine was really grinding for that match. Tom Cruise is going to be at the game, Katie Holmes, Schwarzenegger, that whole scene. And yet, Beckham was injured.

LARGE: But he played in that game, didn’t he?

MARK: Yes. I mean, this is a very competitive guy, you know. He understands the marketplace, he understands the hype. He knew he needed to play. So he sits on the bench for I don’t know how long, and it’s ridiculous too because they actually had a Beckham Cam at the game, which for most of the match is mainly focused on him sitting on the bench.

But he went in at 70 minutes or so and makes a go of it, and then in stoppage time, Steve Sidwell [Chelsea midfielder at the time], who’s just trying to make a name for himself, comes barreling in on Beckham and whacks him right on the ankle where he’s got the injury. After that, Beckham is just hobbling around for the rest of the season in LA.

LARGE: You were with him a fair amount at that point. What was his mindset like?

MARK: Well, yeah, I was producing “David Beckham Soccer USA” at the time. He was the host of the show, of course. And he was always very cooperative, gave us the time every week that we needed. But it was clear that the guy had a serious injury. He was aware that people had very high expectations of him and I think he knew initially that it just couldn’t be done. And he was trying to explain to people, look, I’m not Pelé. I’m not going to score a hat trick every game. That’s not my game to begin with and now I’ve got this injury. And in America, look, the press is very much of the sentiment that if you’re on the field, don’t tell me that you’re injured. In England I think the press is a bit more sympathetic. Over there, it’s more like, “oh how heroic, he played with an injured ankle.” Here people are like, “no, score goals.”

LARGE: Do you think that’s been part of the problem with the whole Beckham experiment, the fundamental disconnect between the American fans and press and the reality of soccer?

MARK: I think the American soccer public is educated enough about the game to know what Beckham brings to the field and what expectations to have of him. And they should have been high, those expectations. He’s an international caliber player, a big-time player. But the real issue is that Beckham transcends soccer, and so then you’ve got all sorts of American media interested in him to an extent that has never happened before here with a soccer player, with the possible exception of Pelé. You know, he’s on the Tonight Show, ET is following him around, his wife has a reality show. And that segment of the population is judging him on a different set of criteria, basically. They’re saying, “are you scoring goals, are you winning?” Beckham came to the Galaxy and he was promoted as the guy you’re all going to want to see, and that was true. But the next step from that is that he’s going to be a guy who’s going to win championships. In the United States, if you are a superstar that’s what you do. You put the team on your back and you win championships. Whether it’s Jordan in basketball, or Kevin Garnett going to Boston last year. It’s that kind of thing. It’s where A-Rod is a failure in so many eyes. He’s gone to the Yankees and they haven’t won.

LARGE: And as we all know, Beckham didn’t win in L.A.

MARK: No, he didn’t. You can give him a pass on 2007, because of the injury. But the real litmus test of the whole situation was the 2008 season. The media crush had died down a little, the players weren’t dealing with the Beatlemania phenomenon quite so much wherever they went. And Beckham was healthy starting the season.

But then you run into the salary cap issue for the Galaxy. They signed Carlos Ruiz, and now you’ve got three guys -- Donovan, Beckham and Ruiz -- who are chewing up 60 or 70 percent of their salary. They just can’t surround Beckham with solid pros, they can’t bring anyone in from Europe like the Cosmos did. So it’s Beckham, Donovan and Ruiz and essentially a college team around them.

LARGE: So you think it’s unfair to lay most of the blame for the Galaxy missing the playoffs last year on Beckham’s shoulders?

MARK: Well, yes and no. He certainly has quite a lot to answer for as far as last season is concerned. You have to remember that the Galaxy got off to this crazy start last year where when they were scoring lots of goals and they were winning. But then Beckham got recalled to the England team. At which point, he clearly lost his focus, because he was trying to beat the England caps record of Bobby Moore, right? And for all he can talk about how he’s used to traveling around the world, if you get on a plane, fly from LA to London and back again, it takes a toll on you. And that was just for a friendly with the Czechs mind you -- he didn’t have to be at that match by any means. And then, THEN, God help us, he flies to Beijing for the closing ceremony to kick one ball off a bus into the crowd while by the way his general manager and his head coach are being fired back in L.A! To me that was the ultimate indictment of Beckham’s commitment to the Galaxy and MLS. When the team began to plunge in the second half of last season, what does he do? He’s going off to play in England, he’s going off to the Beijing Olympics, traveling around the world while there’s this huge upheaval going on with the club he claims to lead. That was where my feeling was, this guy wants out.

LARGE: And now he’s halfway out the door. Do you think this whole thing is a black eye for MLS?

MARK: It’s absolutely a black eye for MLS. It’s the same issue as when they tried to make Freddie Adu the face of the league. They hyped him up and it didn’t play out. So then Beckham comes in and they hang the league on him as a poster child. That’s two in a row. The anti-soccer guys here, the anti-MLS guys, they’re like, you gave us Freddie Adu, and then you gave us Beckham. That’s two in a row that have been a bust. This will just be cannon fodder for those guys.

LARGE: Do you think Beckham himself underestimated what he would be up against here in the States in terms of the press and gaining widespread stardom?

MARK: I do. David is a tremendously competitive guy and he does a lot of things very well, but what he’s not going to do for you is score a lot of goals. Other than free kicks. And that’s the other thing that worked against him here. Everybody was expecting him to score every time he took a free kick. Because … well, basically, Beckham’s main claim to glory is this very popular movie that used his name in the title, right? He was in the title of a blockbuster movie. If that film had been titled Bend It Like Best, or Bend It Like Ronaldo, would the Galaxy even have bothered to sign David Beckham? I think perhaps not. And that movie led a lot of casual observers to expect him to score a lot of goals on free kicks. I think he scored maybe two or three, but that’s the nature of taking free kicks. You could be the best free-kick taker in the world and ... well, look at Ronaldo. He takes incredible free kicks. But how often does he score? See, that’s a nuance of the game that perhaps didn’t get across here.

LARGE: It looks now that he’s going to stay in Milan, at least through 2010. What are your thoughts on that?

MARK: Honestly, the second he signed that loan deal to go to Milan, I said to myself, he’s never coming back. The only reason he would come back is that his contract with the Galaxy is so complicated and he isn’t willing to give up whatever money he would have to give up to make it happen. In the world of sports, as in all fields, contracts are made to be broken. The pace of Serie A [premier Italian league in which AC Milan plays] totally suits him, the style suits him. He doesn’t have to run as much. The game is played at a much slower pace, counter-attacking football, so it totally suits him to play for AC Milan, and it’s working out very well. So why on earth would he want to leave?

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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