When David Beckham announced he was quitting the Galácticos of Real Madrid to sign for the provincial Los Angeles Galaxy team, the transfer was lambasted – despite the player's protestations – as a move from the football pitch to the showbusiness premier league. He and Victoria would mix with the likes of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Will Smith, Eva Longoria and Governor Schwarzenegger. It seemed to be the ultimate realisation of celebrity dreams. The couple's children were looking forward to playing on Malibu beach, Mrs Beckham told this newspaper at the time.
The only problem has been the football. The standards in Major League Soccer are, not to put too fine a point on it, below those enjoyed in Europe. Since arriving in July 2007, Beckham's on-field performances have failed to set alight his teammates. With one game remaining, Galaxy is the second-worst team in its league, and has won just two of its 15 games since July. He remains an important fringe player for England but often looks tired after long transatlantic flights.
So a winter move to the prestigious Italian team, Milan, held an obvious allure. Yesterday, Milan's president confirmed that Beckham will join them in January on loan from Galaxy "for a few months". The player's advisors categorically deny he will turn his back on Los Angeles. Rumours nevertheless persist that this will be the end of Beckham's American footballing dream – what Americans might call a permanent vacation.
Beckham moved to the showbusiness capital of the world just over a year ago, saying that he hoped to be "part of history" by helping to finally popularise "soccer" across the pond: "I'm coming over there to make a difference [and] play football."
But yesterday, in what would become a blow to LA Galaxy's pride and finances were he not to return when the American league kicks off again in April 2009, Milan's president, Adriano Galliani, confirmed speculation that he will join their playing staff in January, to help him keep his place in the England squad for 2009's World Cup qualifying campaign. "We'll sign him for a few months, and then he'll go back," Mr Galliani told a hastily-assembled press conference. "Beckham has chosen Milan. Our team is very competitive and will remain as is but Beckham is something different and intriguing... He will bring more fans."
Beckham, 33, will join a stellar if slightly long-in-the-tooth squad at the club, including the Brazil superstars Ronaldinho, Kaka and Alexandre Pato, plus Italian internationals Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso.
The England manager, Fabio Capello, has said that he will not pick players who are inactive, so Beckham's decision to spend time with Milan – who are not paying a transfer fee, and may even escape paying his wages – could be an attempt to extend his international career.
At present, he boasts 107 caps, just one short of the outfield record set by England's 1966 World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, and is anxious to have a role, however peripheral, in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Quite where all of this will leave Beckham's $6m-a-year relationship with Galaxy remains to be seen. The club recently appointed the former US coach Bruce Arena as manager, and may now have to embark on a close-season tour of the Far East without its most lucrative "name".
News of Beckham's loan deal with Milan was conspicuous by its absence from Galaxy's website, and a spokesman had failed to respond to inquiries about the Milan loan by time of going to print. Beckham has played 24 of the club's 29 games this season, and scored just five goals, with nine "assists".
Though he has often been a peripheral figure on the field, Beckham's presence leaves the club with little spare cash to spend on other players, since Major League rules limit the total amount they can spend on wages. Most of his teammates earn salaries under $50,000 (£30,000).
Equally unclear is how a move to Europe will affect Beckham's family life. His wife Victoria is firmly settled in Los Angeles, where she forms part of the local showbusiness aristocracy. They have recently refurbished their home in Bel Air, and their three children are settled in local schools.
If Beckham's stint at Milan is indeed to be temporary, then his family will most likely remain on the west coast . However, his last attempt to work away from home, when he joined Real Madrid in 2003, ended in tears amid reports of an affair with his assistant, Rebecca Loos.
Ironically, in July, Beckham released a statement thanking Californians for their hospitality, and suggesting that he would remain in America for the long haul. "It seems like only a few weeks ago I arrived in Los Angeles with my family ready for the next chapter in our lives," it read. "A year later and we feel so settled here, everyone loves California and everyone has made us feel so welcome. I can't imagine being anywhere else in the world right now."
Milan: A guide for the Beckhams
* All the Italian stereotypes come to grief here. It's got dreadful weather; the locals are buttoned up and serious, and the architecture is dourly middle-European.
* Living: a strong contender to host the Beckhams is the San Siro, to the north-west of Duomo, the city's cathedral. It is the location of both the city's football teams but also home to elegant villas.
* Shopping: A short limo ride from San Siro is Via Monte Napoleone and Piazza San Babila, right, the city's Knightsbridge equivalent.
* Eating: Via Marghera is noted for its superb restaurants.
* Nightlife: The location of choice is the tangle of picturesque lanes in Brera, full of trendy bars. Socialising is like the city itself: private, wealthy, super-elegant, and a little uptight.