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Friday, January 12, 2007

Beckham in America

David Beckham

A Soccer Star Heeds Lure of Hollywood

David Beckham has never been simply a sports star. He is a brand, and one who briefly lived at the spot where fashion, celebrity and soccer met. The soccer component of that equation has eroded, but his star power still reverberates worldwide, so much that Major League Soccer has lured Beckham to Los Angeles.

Beckham will make the move from Real Madrid, the most glamorous team in Europe, and the United States’ top professional soccer league will try to cash in on his celebrity appeal — and perhaps that of his wife, Victoria, the former Posh Spice of the Spice Girls pop group.

The Los Angeles Galaxy announced the move yesterday, saying that Beckham would make $250 million over the five years of his deal, including endorsement income; the team did not release his actual salary from the club. Beckham will join the Galaxy after his contract with Real Madrid expires on June 30, coming to a league that has struggled for 11 years to gain prominence on the American sports landscape.

For Beckham, whose time as a world-class midfielder has passed, the move may be a savvy exit strategy from the intense European soccer spotlight. The British news media, ever eager to pounce on weakness, have been particularly savage about Posh and Becks, as they are called in Britain, since his meager performance as England’s captain in the World Cup last summer.

Although at 31 he is a step or more behind the world’s elite players, he still has a deft right foot that serves him especially well on free kicks and crosses. That, coupled with his celebrity, may be enough to capture the attention of sports fans in the United States — even if some of them know his name only from “Bend It Like Beckham,” a 2002 film whose title played on his pop-icon status.

“We want people around the water cooler talking about M.L.S.,” Don Garber, the league’s commissioner, said. “But David Beckham is not going to bring soccer to the next level in this country. It’s going to take a lot of things, but I hope his arrival will be an important step.”

The move had been long rumored. Beckham and his wife opened a soccer academy in 2005 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., which is also the Galaxy’s home stadium. The M.L.S. board of governors voted in November to relax salary restrictions and allow each team to sign one player for any amount. The rule became widely known as the Beckham Rule.

“David Beckham wouldn’t make that kind of money in Europe,” Bill Girdner, 56, a soccer fan, said yesterday at Lucky Baldwin’s English Pub in Pasadena, Calif.

“The other thing is jerseys is the way teams make a lot of money these days,” he said of the potential marketing windfall Beckham brings.

Beckham emerged as an international sports star in the 1990s during his tenure with Manchester United of England’s Premier League. As long as he kicked the ball into the net with that golden right foot, his fans could forgive his excesses: the outfits that ranged from sarongs to leather suits to store-ripped designer jeans and shirts open to the waist; the smirking ads for razorblades, sunglasses and perfume; the sulking and occasional histrionics; the fancy parties and A-list friends.

It's weird. I can describe the intricacies of civil war in Iraq off the top of my head. But it took me all day to consider this.

First, let's understand something, David Beckham, while in decline, could have stayed in Europe and had nine teams after him. Beckham, unlike Bonds or Jordan, was always regarded as a team player.

Was he the best player of his time? Hell no. But he is the guy who made Man U work and brought them championships. He grew up in the ManU system and was a lifelong fan. Trading him to Real Madrid really marked the end of his club career, stuck on a team with too many stars and too much money.

And maybe only Pele has been a better ambassador for the sport. He has been eager to work with kids, and his team tours put tons of money in both ManU and Real's pockets when they hit the US and Asia.

Oddly, what drove people nuts about him was not his lifestyle, but his bad decision making on the pitch in international games. Time and again, Beckham would lose his temper or mak a bad decision and cost England a crucial game. But despite his off-pitch lifestyle, he was no prima donna on it.

Sure, he was the guy who defined metrosexual, but he got away with it because people knew that when it came crunch time, he was there.

Unlike the NASL, the MSL is in a far different position, with players already migrating to Europe. It didn't need Beckham to grow, but it needs Beckham to transform. And Beckham is leaving Europe when he still has some skills.

Beckham has long wanted to come to the US, not because he wanted the money, he has tons of endorsement deals which will go long beyond his time on the pitch, but because he can be an ambassador for soccer in the US.

What Beckham wants to do is sell soccer to the people who play it, but drop the sport and help raise the level of the youth game. I mean, if he wanted to play in Europe, he could. But the fact is that he can make his biggest impact by moving soccer to the next level.

He cannot do this alone, but as the level of play in MSL grows, he can help it gain exposure.

posted by Steve @ 5:43:00 PM

5:43:00 PM

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