James Lawton: Beckham's talent for playing the media will hit the wrong sporting buttons in US

He will have to line up at the back of an army of All-American heroes
Click to follow

Given that ever since he slipped into his first sarong he has been playing so much of it as if it was a Stradivarius, and he was Yehudi Menuhin, it is hardly surprising that so much of the media has gone along with the stupefying claim David Beckham yesterday made to a blank-faced interviewer on the coast-to-coast breakfast show Good Morning America.

The lady really wanted to know where David and Victoria would be doing most of their shopping but the new right winger of LA Galaxy insisted that he was there to discuss his "amazing challenge". It was to conquer something which for the last 40-odd years has been described, with ever growing desperation, "soccer's last frontier". First indications are that the chances of the former Real Madrid reserve becoming football's answer to Daniel Boone are already looking remote, the Los Angeles Times, which most days buries soccer in the vicinity of high school lacrosse, reporting an early attack of "Beckham fatigue".

Anyone who knows anything about America and its obsession with home-grown sports will tell you that when the distaff half of the population has been reminded of the "cuteness" of Beckham and the spending habits of Posh - neither are unique in a city where it seems almost every hairdressing assistant and gas station attendant is a veteran of at least one screen test - the prematurely faded soccer star will have to line up at the back of a vast army of All-American heroes.

Mega American sports figures cannot live by mere celebrity. Michael Jordan invaded the hearts of the nation with astonishing athleticism and not by hanging out for the benefit of the paparazzi - and nor would Dennis Rodman's habit of wearing slinky little cocktail dresses and make-up have earned him an inch of newsprint if he hadn't also led the NBA in rebounds for seven straight years.

Sports stars have to be precisely that. They have to shine at what they do best. They have to thrill and enchant with their deeds on the field. In America not even George Best, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Dennis Bergkamp - as a top draw in the 1994 American World Cup - have been able to do that. Where does that put Beckham after you have digested the "spin" and what yesterday were emerging as somewhat inflated financial numbers? Sooner or later it has to be in something of a cultural pickle.

"Soccer" has always been a long shot in America because it simply doesn't hit the right emotional buttons. American sport is territorial, high-scoring and ultimately macho. Beckham's advisers would be wise to seek out and destroy the footage which showed their man weeping so copiously when he was pulled out of the England team at a vital stage of the last World Cup. American sportsmen don't cry. The tradition runs back far beyond maybe the hardest man who ever played in the National Football League, the Chicago linebacker Dick Butkus.

One team-mate once said: "One day we were having a discussion in the locker room about who the CIA would line up if it was ever decided to assassinate the Russian president. Unsurprisingly, Butkus got every vote."

When some shell-shocked players were returning to O'Hare Airport after a thrashing at Soldier Field, a car drove into the back of the team bus. One of the vanquished groaned, "It's Butkus".

The old soldier Marshal Foch went straight to the heart of American sport when he watched a gridiron battle between the army and the navy at Veterans Field in Philadelphia. "My God," he declared, "it has everything. It's like war." Soccer, of course, is not a war game, at least it's not supposed to be and certainly isn't when Beckham plays it.

When Butkus gave a rare interview he didn't lard it with the word "amazing". Here is a typical, and rather unBeckhamesque fragment: "Every time I play a game I want to play it as though it is my last one. I could get hurt and that would be it for keeps. I wouldn't want my last game to be a lousy one.

"Some people think I have to get down on all fours to eat my couple of pounds of red meat every day. Others say my first coach taught me to walk upright and that I have an agent to do my reading and writing. But people who really know me know I can read a little. I move my lips sometimes but I can read things on a second-grade level - like newspapers. I don't need a rubber stamp to give an autograph."

Butkus may have had the odd psychopathic tendency but he understood what appealed to the hard-core American sports fan. It was vigour and pride and that hatred of being seen to give less than you have at the highest level of sport. This is the problem with Beckham's ludicrously hyped journey away from those places where the game is played at a serious level.

Nobody can blame him for choosing the softest and best rewarded option. It is his choice, his statement about what football means to him. But then not even Beckham can have it both ways. He cannot dress up a retreat into an "amazing challenge", however much drivel is shovelled behind his cause.

He says he has lived the football dream but the more you look at his track record the more you see that it is a perfectly crafted fantasy. His marketability declined in Madrid because it is a city which knows about football, supremely, which, sooner or later, was always going to draw a line between publicity and achievement. For Real fans, mindful of the tradition of Di Stefano, Puskas and Kopa, there was always going to be a point when Beckham had to put flesh on his personal legends, to do something more than display the last of his viable wares, his ability to strike the ball.

When faced with low-calibre defences, Beckham might indeed profit from such skill again, but then anyone who happened to be in America will remember how fleeting was the impact when Best, who was generally drinking himself insensible at the time, produced a flash of his old glory by running through almost an entire team to score.

Certainly, we can be sure that Old Trafford, Beckham's hunting ground in that time when his primary instinct was to play football to the limit of his considerable ability rather than develop the brand, will follow his American odyssey with no more than a regretful shrug.

One reason will be the preoccupation with revived challenges - authentic ones that will explore all the gifts of such likely lads as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and those of Beckham's old team-mates who have stayed the course, who continue to operate at the limit of their powers, the magnificently committed Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.

For the moment, though, the greatest fascination inevitably surrounds Henrik Larsson, who while four years older than Beckham, shares Butkus' distaste for the idea of playing one last lousy game. Larsson could have walked away more cleanly, more triumphantly than any major footballer in history, after his exquisite contribution to Barcelona's Champions' League final victory at the Stade de France last spring. Instead, he decided to have one last season in his native Sweden for his old club Helsingborgs, and now it seems certain United will press for him to stay at Old Trafford at least until the end of the season.

Larsson does not trot out the word challenge. He plays his game at the highest possible level, a fact which has been noted even by the New York Times, which reported from Paris: "What Larsson did was the result of craft and experience and a perfect understanding of what he had to do." The same could have been said after his brilliant debut for United last weekend, when apart from scoring a goal of stunning instinct and touch he suggested strongly that he may be the man to set Rooney going again, to coax back all the thrill and excitement of a talent which has slumbered too long.

Larsson has never paused, even when he was the most celebrated foreign footballer Scotland had ever seen. He has gone the distance, drawing everything he can from the gift of his talent. Will Beckham ever be able to say the same when he hops around the celebrity party circuit in dreamland? No. He has won a different kind of game, one that someone like Larsson would scarcely recognise. Why? Because he has been too intent on playing his football and meeting all its demands. It has always been the priority of the truly great players.

Comments