If all goes to plan, David Beckham will gain redemption on Sunday night. Victory for the LA in this weekend’s MLS Cup Final would represent the pinnacle of a tumultuous Galaxy tenure.
Only, it shouldn’t have taken this long. The blue-and-gold confetti that greeted the United States’ newest idol in 2007 was supposed to have inaugurated four years of revolution. Beckham had promised to stimulate soccer’s growth in America, to push the game into the forefront of previously dismissive minds. Instead, during his first four years stateside the London born star faced up to a grim reality: eradicating the American view that “soccer” is the exclusive domain of children under thirteen would take actual commitment, actual effort.
From the start those Americans who knew the game saw Beckham’s move for what it was: an artificial mission trip designed to perpetuate the fading career of a player whose celebrity had begun to outweigh his footballing talent. But for Mission Beckham the intended audience was the gullible and soccer-ignorant masses, the fans who knew Becks as Armani model first and Real Madrid winger second. A function of their quintessentially American, made-for-TV hysteria was a set of dangerously bloated expectations. They took it for granted that Posh’s husband would conquer America in style; scoring goals and racing past defenders. When instead all they saw was a second-rate version of a second-rate player slinging balls to no-name forwards in five-minute cameo appearances, disillusionment was only natural. The most enthusiastic consumers of Beckham-mania went back to their concerts, switched from ESPN to MTV, and began waiting for the next athlete-cum-movie star to roll in.
America’s under appreciated football intelligentsia shared the target audience’s displeasure. In his book The Beckham Experiment, Grant Wahl questioned Beckham’s commitment to the Galaxy; relayed the angst-ridden complaints of a bitter Landon Donovan and condemned the glitzy distractions of Beckham’s adventure.
Everyday soccer fans were also unimpressed. Having overcome an ankle injury that ruled him out for most of the 2007 season, Beckham made twenty-five appearances in 2008 (a number that he will match in Sunday’s final), but the Galaxy finished joint last out of the fourteen Major League Soccer teams, tied on points with California rivals San Jose Earthquakes.
Now fully aware of the enormousness of his task, Beckham abandoned bullish declarations of intent and temporarily forfeited his American quest, looking instead to salvage his future at the international level. When AC Milan offered the Galaxy’s number 23 a loan deal, it seemed the perfect opportunity. The legendary Milanello lab could tend to Beckham’s faltering body, while a setting conducive to the accumulation of England caps nurtured his sputtering career.
The plan worked all too well. After four overwhelmingly successful months at the San Siro Golden Balls was unwilling to leave; spending a third of a year in the company of world-beaters like Seedorf, Ronaldinho and Kaka made the prospect of slogging through pre-season with Alan Gordon and the rest of the Galaxy team look a tad mundane – not to mention detrimental to any World Cup aspirations.
Milan and the Galaxy managed to arrive at a compromise – Beckham would remain in Italy for the duration of that year’s Serie A, and only then report back to the States for MLS duty. In LA, the reaction was vitriolic. A general unhappiness was exacerbated by the publication of Wahl’s book, as millions of American soccer fans saw Beckham’s journey in a newly cynical light.
The Englishman had turned his back on the lofty promises of his first, over-hyped press conference when a renaissance in his international career suddenly looked feasible. The abandonment showed Major League Soccer up for what Beckham clearly thought it was – an incubator for young stars and a retirement home for grizzled veterans. MLS had no place in the career of David “England International” Beckham.
But, in July 2009, David “America’s Savior” Beckham returned to the Galaxy playing field. The occasion was fitting in a couple respects. First, the opponents were AC Milan, and second the match was the sort of commercial extravaganza that defines Beckham’s brand and, unfortunately, football’s twenty-first century personality.
“He’ll get booed, and it’s of his own making,” former Galaxy chairman Alexi Lalas, the man credited with brokering Beckham’s historic arrival, warned in March of that year. Speaking to the BBC, though, Becks remained calm. “The booing, the criticism, I’ve had it all before. That side of it doesn’t bother me,” he said. And, in one regard at least, he was right: he had had it all before. In 1998, Beckham felt the full brunt of the British press’ ire following his dismissal in a delicately poised World Cup Round of Sixteen match against Argentina. England went out on penalties, and Beckham, briefly, became the most hated man in the country.
So when fans taunted him at half time of LA’s 2-2 draw with Milan, he shouldn’t have been bothered. The banners in the stands (“Go Home Fraud” and “23: Repent”, to name just two) shouldn’t have moved him. But they did. At half time, Beckham directed a provocative hand gesture towards one particularly vociferous section of the crowd. The always clean, always unruffled-Becks had lost his cool.
Fortunately for LA, the incident didn’t prove costly. The Galaxy finished that year’s regular season with more points than anyone else and went on to reach the MLS Cup Final where they lost on penalties to Real Salt Lake. Beckham was at least partially responsible for those successes.
With the World Cup only months away, though, another loan move was inevitable. This time, however, Becks’ Italian sojourn finished sadly – a torn Achilles ending any England dreams and consigning the former Manchester United star to another year on the Galaxy sidelines. Well, occasionally on the Galaxy sidelines. “Coach Beckham” still found time to accompany his England colleagues on a short-lived campaign in South Africa.
After LA’s 2010 ended with playoff defeat at the hands of FC Dallas, Beckham was left to concentrate on the final year of his Galaxy contract. At long last, all distractions were removed. Milan weren’t interested, Leicester City’s audacious offer was never seriously considered and Fabio Capello had publicly announced that Beckham would no longer be considered for England selection. MLS, it seemed, had finally become Beckham’s number-one priority.
It showed. Dominant all season long, the Los Angeles Galaxy are odds-on to claim their first MLS Cup of the Beckham era. With fifteen assists in twenty-four appearances, Beckham is second only to Houston’s Brad Davis (nicknamed the “American David Beckham”) as the league’s top provider. Davis may miss Sunday’s final with an injury sustained during the Dynamo’s 2-0 win over Sporting Kansas City, but Beckham will be there.
And he deserves to be commended for it. A victim of the hyperbole that he naturally cultivates, Beckham could never realistically have been held to his initial promises. Nationally soccer still exists in the shadows of more traditional American sports, but after three years of delay, Beckham appears to have made the on-pitch strides expected of him since 2007. Better late than never.