David Beckham has returned to America. But unlike most British immigrants, the greatest celebrity in world football knows that the gun-toting officers at border control are only the first in a series of hostile reception parties.
The former England football captain arrived in Los Angeles yesterday to fulfil his commitment to the local side. In addition to those 13 games, he has at least three awkward meetings in the coming week.
One is with the LA Galaxy manager, Bruce Arena, on whom he unceremoniously walked out weeks before the start of the 2009 MLS season, having negotiated a "time-share" agreement that saw him spend the first half of the year with AC Milan. Second up will be Beckham's team-mates, who were left high and dry by his move and will use a new book to complain that he was a lousy, lazy captain, who for all his fortune was surprisingly tight-fisted off the field.
Third, he must face the wrath of Galaxy fans, who are halfway through their third disappointing season since January 2007 when Beckham arrived with a lucrative, five-year deal that would supposedly propel "soccer" to the top table of US sport. Instead, the Englishman stuttered through two injury-ravaged campaigns, before flicking a professional V-sign at the MLS by spending several million dollars of his own money to buy his way out of the contract to play in Europe.
The US Soccer Federation president, Sunil Gulati, last week said hostility was "inevitable" at Beckham's return match, against New York Red Bulls on Thursday night. "I'm sure there will be some negative reaction from some fans," he told Bloomberg last week. "That's inevitable. In the end he's a good player, and I think he'll help his team and the league. But are there going to be some people that are upset? Sure."
Quite how upset Beckham's former fans are will only truly become apparent at his home debut next Sunday, a friendly against AC Milan, the club he joined to increase his chances of playing in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Since his move, LA's attendances have been down 7,000 to around 19,000, the worst since 2002. However, performances have improved and the team is now mid-table in the MLS West Division.
Fans writing on forums affiliated to Galaxy's website yesterday variously described Beckham as a "bum" and a "limey idiot". One asked: "Do you think it would be appropriate to bring a Beckham scarecrow to his first home game back, and put the scarecrow in a noose?"
The criticisms have been sharpened by the publication of excerpts from The Beckham Experiment, a book by the Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl, who spent months with the Galaxy team. It details simmering tensions in the locker room, fuelled by a clash of personalities with the long-standing star player, the US international Landon Donovan, who was stripped of the captaincy when Beckham arrived.
Team-mates, some of whom earned as little as $12,900 (£8,000) to Beckham's basic wage of $6.5m, were further upset by the Englishman's failure to observe the tradition of star players picking up the bill during team social events. Donovan even went on the record to criticise Beckham's work ethic and his commitment to the club, highlighting the fact that he failed to turn up to watch games when he was suspended. "If someone's paying you more than anybody in the league, more than double anybody in the league, the least we expect is that you show up to every game, whether you are suspended or not. Show up and train hard, show up and play hard."
After the quotes made headlines, Donovan said he would have clear-the-air talks with Beckham this week. "David and I will sit down when he gets back and just talk it through," he told the LA Times. "Something happened at some point last year where a switch went off, and that's what I want to talk to him about, and we'll figure that out man to man."
Beckham's return may also serve as a reminder that his only success in LA has been off the pitch. A chapter of Wahl's book is devoted to the Beckhams' friendship with Tom Cruise. The footballer used interviews with Wahl to venture into the choppy waters of Cruise's relationship with Scientology: "It's something I respect. But he's never said, 'that is what you should be doing'. He and Katie have their beliefs... but me and Victoria have also got our own." They may need a little faith to sustain them in the coming days.Reuse content