Rupert Cornwell: American revolution is beyond Beckham

Can the world's most famous footballer change the sporting landscape in the US? Our man in Washington has his doubts
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The Independent Football

Looked at one way, the import of David Beckham to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy is proof that America doesn't get soccer, and never will. For most of the rest of the universe, he is an over-familiar and fading commodity, his on-field limits increasingly evident. Not so in America, the land convinced that no trend or novelty is truly earth-shattering unless it has deemed it so.

That has duly happened. Iraq may be going to hell in a handcart, but the American advent of Beckham was front-page news in every newspaper, and a top item on every TV news bulletin yesterday - "Summer 2007. Beckham comes to America. Be a part of history", trumpeted a full-page advertisement in The New York Times. The message has been unmistakeable. The most famous sports star on the planet had found his rightful place at last, in the biggest, richest and most powerful country on the planet.

For a moment MLS, the league in which Beckham will be plying his trade, seemed to have metamorphosed to the NASL of old, the North American Soccer League that died in the mid-1980s despite (or perhaps because of) being graced by the likes of Best, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Pele - all of them superstars in the twilight of their careers, paid vast salaries that used up resources better used to develop home-grown players and build an infrastructure for the sport.

Is the new league making the same mistake with the gadzillions of dollars being lavished on Beckham? The answer, happily, is no. Major League Soccer, which began life in 1996 as part of the deal that brought the 1994 World Cup to the United States, is here to stay, with or without Beckham. Unlike the NASL, an exotic top-down operation imported into a country that then hadn't a clue about soccer, its successor has carefully and thriftily constructed itself from the bottom up, starting with 10 teams in 1996, and subsequently expanding to 12. This year the number will swell to 13 as FC Toronto makes its debut.

The environment for soccer in North America has improved immeasurably since NASL's day. Millions of schoolchildren play the game, there is a fast-growing Hispanic population with soccer in its blood. Top European games are now regularly shown on cable TV, while the national team have achieved passing success in the World Cup (in 2002 at least, if not last year in Germany). Above all, MLS has been careful not to run before it can walk. Salaries are modest - an average $100,000 (£51,000) - and there are strict curbs on imported players. Beckham is the exception, not the rule. It is not so much that he is the most famous foreign player to join professional soccer's latest incarnation in America. He is the only truly famous foreign player to do so.

In short, MLS ticks along quietly, before crowds that rarely reach half the 40,000 average attendance Pele once attracted to New York Cosmos games. The soccer on offer is skilful, often pretty, but rarely exciting, lacking the passion and entrenched rivalries that have woven the game into the cultural and historical fabric of other countries.

In the US, soccer fans can be likened to the Mac users who see themselves as a small, enlightened minority that eschews the industry giant Windows. The real question is whether Beckham and his celebrity can lift what at the professional level remains a cult sport to a new level in America's consciousness.

"MLS now has the financial foundation, with more and more new soccer-specific stadiums and a loyal fanbase," says Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant. "It clearly feels that the [Beckham] move in the long term will be more significant than NASL. He may not be a "Top Five" player anymore, but he's still "Top 20", and ought to be the best player in the League. Make no mistake, people will be expecting him to turn in good performances. Even so, MLS are relying more on his off-pitch celebrity to make this work." In other words, the Beckham "brand" - the whole package from friendship with Tom Cruise to the body-beautiful Gillette and Pepsi ads, the changing hairstyles and the separate saga of his wife - is intended to give MLS the name recognition, the TV-screen presence, and the persona it has not had before.

But Ganis warns: "Will this catapult soccer up with baseball, football, basketball and car racing? No, it's not going to happen. It's a cultural thing. Americans have grown up with a different set of sports." Like baseball and American football, MLS has used the model of post-season play-offs to determine its champions. But its championship game will never rival the Super Bowl or the World Series, in attendance or the public consciousness. Beckham may add a few thousand to Galaxy crowds, and those at other grounds across the country when he plays. But the atmosphere (and level of play) will be Championship, not Premiership. The crowds of 20,000 - less at some of MLS's more modest outposts - will be tiny. Hollywood may be close by, but the 27,000-capacity Home Depot Center stadium where the LA Galaxy play is not exactly a temple of the sport to rival Old Trafford, the Bernabeu, or the San Siro where Beckham might have gone. In terms of celebrity, he may have arrived too late.

On this side of the Atlantic, his fame reached its zenith in mid-2003, when he was the cover story in USA Today and interviewed by Barbara Walters, and when the surprise smash movie Bend It Like Beckham briefly turned him into America's latest metrosexual icon. He was about to arrive in person for a pre-season tour by Manchester United. Then came the move to Madrid, and the magic moment passed. But in terms of his sport, Beckham has come too soon. Soccer will only have finally arrived in the US when a top-tier young prospect from Africa, not a 31-year-old former England captain and Real Madrid reserve, tells Arsenal, Barcelona or Milan, thanks but no thanks, and abandons the old world for the new. That has not happened yet. It probably never will.

Dallas hold talks to tempt Davids to join dollar bonanza

Edgar Davids is another high-profile midfielder who could be playing football in the United States soon.

The FC Dallas coach Steve Morrow - who famously broke his arm in front of Wembley's Royal Box when he was dropped by Tony Adams as Arsenal celebrated winning the League Cup in 1993 - admitted his interest in Tottenham's 33-year-old former Dutch international midfielder.

"We are actually in negotiations with Edgar Davids - we've been speaking for a couple of weeks," Morrow said. "We were excited to hear about his availability, so we spoke to his agents and have been told he is available."

Morrow, who took over as manager of the Western Conference side last month after playing 44 games for them in 2002-03, added: "It appears Tottenham are willing to listen to offers. It's the transfer window in the United States now - and if a deal is going to happen it has to be done before the end of the month."

David Beckham will leave for California at the end of the Spanish season, and is set to make his debut for LA Galaxy against Morrow's side. "That would certainly be a big occasion," Morrow said.

In what may be a reference to Davids' arrival, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, Don Garber, said another big-name player could sign next week, adding, "There is more excitement and interest in the league than there has been in quite some time."