The fall & rise of David Beckham
He’s a mediocre player for a failing team in a terrible league. But the Galaxy star’s American adventure is not the disaster everyone foretold. In Los Angeles, Guy Adams reports on how he’s filling stadiums and winning friends – despite losing on the pitch
Saturday 04 October 2008
To use one of the many clichés that tend to be sprinkled through his perfectly nice but ever so slightly anodyne press conferences, David Beckham's visit to Chicago with Los Angeles Galaxy last week was best summed up as a game of two halves.
The first involved a football match against the local side, Chicago Fire, in which Beckham spent 90 minutes trotting slowly and ineffectually up the right wing. Sometimes, he paused to examine his knee; occasionally he kicked the football; most of the time, though, he just looked bored. Galaxy lost 3-1.
The second took place later that night, at a local nightclub called the Underground, when Beckham attended the birthday party of Jermaine Dupri, a hip-hop producer best known as the fiancé of Janet Jackson. He pressed celebrity flesh, danced somewhat sheepishly, and was patted on the back by all and sundry. According to the gossip magazines, wife Victoria was nowhere to be seen.
All told, it was a fairly typical evening in the life of David Robert Joseph Beckham, the world-famous footballer who now lives in a country that cares little about the game, yet nonetheless celebrates his standing as a member of the global show-business elite.
It also was an evening that highlights the weirdly schizophrenic existence of England's best-known sporting export.
Since he moved to the US with his family nearly 18 months ago, one half of Beckham's life has revolved around playing football. Recently it's been going almost unthinkably badly. The other, however, has revolved around what you might call living the Los Angeles dream – and by all accounts, that bit's been going very well indeed.
Unfortunately, this weekend, David Beckham's sporting career is going to loom the larger of these two preoccupations. Tomorrow, LA Galaxy travel to Columbus Crew. They are currently sixth, out of seven, in the Major League's Western Division, five points behind the fourth spot that would secure a place in the end-of-season play-offs. Just four games remain. Put bluntly, it's a game they have to win.
The omens don't look good. Since mid-June, Galaxy have managed just one win, with seven losses and six draws. Columbus, for their part, are sitting pretty on top of the league. If gambling were legal in California, bookies would be offering short odds about the local side losing, heavily.
As captain, Beckham will soon be forced to shoulder the burden of having led LA Galaxy to their second year of failure running. It's an especially galling statistic, given the side's track record of success prior to his arrival, which saw them top the division five times in a decade.
And trouble also looms for him on the British side of the Atlantic. Tomorrow will see Fabio Capello unveil England's squad for this month's World Cup qualifying matches against Kazakhstan and Belarus. The likelihood is that he will remain in the squad, but Beckham will be as aware as any other England fan that Theo Walcott's hat-trick in Croatia appears to have changed everything. The teenager is certain to be picked ahead of Beckham on the right wing and, with Shaun Wright-Phillips at last refinding his form, there are plenty who would describe Beckham as England's third choice, at best. His enthusiasm for playing for his country has never been in question but the time is surely approaching when he wonders whether the 11,000-mile round trip is worth it just for the pleasure of training with some old friends.
At 33, the best years of his career are behind him, and his move to California in 2007 was a tacit admission that his life was entering a new phase. But the speed of his subsequent professional decline, and the ungainly manner in which his club and international careers are now disintegrating, may have caught him by surprise.
Nothing in professional football is certain, of course. Galaxy could beat Columbus, then produce an unlikely run of form that propels them into the play-offs. And Walcott could easily suffer an injury which might see Capello grant Beckham a short stay of execution. But in the long term, the writing is on the wall: like Gary Lineker, who wound up on the playing fields of Japan, David Beckham is entering the teatime years of his playing career in a state of mild disarray.
To understand what exactly went wrong, you need to head south on the 405 freeway from Beverly Hills, where Beckham lives, to the Home Depot Center, where Galaxy play their home games before a crowd of roughly 20,000. The ground is in south Carson, an unloved district – which represents, pretty accurately, where soccer (to use the local vernacular) sits in the pecking order of American sport.
The side play in white, a strip reminiscent of Beckham's last club, Real Madrid. Their captain and most valuable player also wears white boots, an affectation which on English terraces would see him subjected to no small degree of ridicule. In Los Angeles, however, things are different: the club's surprisingly noisy core supporters, The Riot Squad, have many songs. But none are about Becks.
Plenty has been said, and plenty written, about the standard of football in the Major League. In truth, it is akin to the lower half of the Championship. This almost certainly makes Beckham the most skilful player among his new-found peers; but does not make him the best. He can still produce telling crosses and pinpoint passes, just like in the old days, but two crucial things have now disappeared from his game.
The first is speed. He was never the fastest, but is now simply slow. The second, rather more serious problem is that he seems to have lost his passion. During his peak Beckham exuded swagger and intensity, a player who supplemented his obvious talent with a ferocious will. These days, he's reduced to a bit-part role: marooned on the right wing, waiting for passes that often never come. And when Galaxy tried moving him into the centre of midfield this season, the experiment failed.
"I would just like to see David Beckham get angry," says Grahame L Jones, who follows the side for the Los Angeles Times. "I've seen goals go in recently where he's looking at the player with the ball and not bothering to go back and tackle him. I don't know if that's because he's always been defensively weak, or if it's a fear of being injured. But that's what's disappointed me most about him.
"It's been the same when I've gone to interview him: he's always positive, always saying Galaxy must try harder. But I'd like to see him actually get upset and tell his team-mates to get off their arses. At the moment, there's no pressure on him to win, no heat from the media, or the fans, and no intensity in his game. I've seen him snarl at the odd ref, or an opposing tackler who comes in a bit high, but somehow he doesn't look like he wants it any more." In effect, Beckham has been reduced, whether by accident or a lack of desire, to a dead-ball specialist who sets up the occasional goal.
The other enduring problem with Beckham's current playing situation is Los Angeles Galaxy itself, a club with myriad on-field problems summed up in their rotating cast of senior coaching staff. Earlier this season, Ruud Gullit walked out following a run of poor results, along with general manager Alexi Lalas, to be replaced by the former US international coach, Bruce Arena.
Apart from Beckham, the side boasts just one noteworthy player: striker Landon Donovan, the United States all-time leading scorer, who has knocked in 19 goals this year, and been credited with nine assists. Abel Xavier enjoyed a brief, inglorious stint at the club, but was fired in July.
Galaxy's remaining line-up, however, is almost comically shaky. In the absence of a strong captain the team make a habit of allowing leads to slip away in crucial games, and their defence is horrendously porous, having leaked 54 goals in 26 games, eight more than any other team.
In normal circumstances, that state of affairs might persuade the club's owner, Philip Anschutz, to dig out the chequebook and sign fresh talent. But the Major League has a complex system of regulations which – give or take a few complications – means teams are severely constrained in the total amount they can spend on annual salaries. With Beckham earning $6.5m (£3.2m), and Landon Donovan $900,000, the salary cap means the club have almost no resources left to spend on other players. The result is a widely skewed roster where several members of the first team earn less than 0.25 per cent their captain's salary. Goalkeeper Steve Cronin gets $42,227; defenders Troy Roberts ($30,000) and Mike Randolph ($17,700) even less.
The effect on team morale must be odious: several players, on the minimum wage, can barely put food on their family breakfast tables, and arrive at training in beaten-up station wagons, only to watch Beckham pull up in one of his fleet of luxury cars.
Arena arrived in August saying "As a coach, I look at this roster, and we have Landon Donovan and David Beckham as a starting point." Since he took the helm, Galaxy have won just one of six games.
But though David Beckham the footballer will almost certainly never play in another major tournament and seems to have fallen lower than a Wall Street banking house, it would be a mistake to dismiss his move to California as a complete failure. Indeed, it would arguably be a mistake to dismiss it as any sort of failure. That's because if you look at his family life, and remove football from the equation, suddenly it all makes sense.
Off the field, the good-looking boy from Leytonstone might have been purpose-built for life in Los Angeles. He loves the warm climate and the big cars, and being feted by the local media. His children go to good schools, and he's at the centre of a colourful, starry and exciting social set.
Beckham's interests also dovetail nicely with the local scene. In LA, he has endless opportunities for shopping, and can live in a large and swanky house without anyone mocking him. The celebrity party circuit is starry, but relatively sober, and allows him to be early to bed.
In Los Angeles people still treat him as a style icon: the English sneer at the selection of tattoos that adorn his body; on the coast of southern California, they consider them the height of fashion.
A couple of months ago, Beckham released a personal statement on his website which seemed to sum up his childish brand of unquestioning enthusiasm he retains for his adopted country. "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."
This may, of course, be a personal PR stunt. But you get the feeling that, behind the flat superlatives, David Beckham really is happier in Hollywood, a town where the general attitude to celebrity is several degrees more positive that back home.
Life out here is good for the ego, too. In the UK Beckham is ridiculed by the chattering classes and dismissed as a vulgarian. On television, he suffers the indignity of being portrayed as a halfwit by people like Alistair McGowan. But in the US, there is no class system. When Beckham opens his mouth (and Brits hear purest Essex) Americans think they're talking to a cultured Englishman.
Neither, in pure financial terms has Beckham actually been bad news for Galaxy. The team might be struggling on the field and in the dressing room, but outside, the terraces are virtually full. Their shirt sponsor, Herbalife, pays $4m a year (twice the going rate for other teams) and Beckham No 23 replica strips can be seen in every corner of the land: 300,000 were sold last year alone.
Last month, Forbes magazine published an investigation into the fortunes of Major League Soccer which valued LA Galaxy at $100m, making it the most valuable and profitable club in the country. And it laid almost all the credit at Brand Beckham's door. The club now play pre-season friendlies abroad, in lucrative places such as Korea, China, and Australia. Its sponsors include American Express and Delta Airlines. Corporate suites at the Home Depot Center go for up to $150,000 a year, while season tickets fetch as much as $4,500.
Most impressively of all, when Beckham plays, average gates at away games increase by 10,000. In New York last year, 66,000 turned out to see him at the Giants stadium, a record for Major League. Win lose or draw, the locals love him.
"People genuinely think he's actually a nice, interesting guy," says Beau Dure, soccer correspondent for USA Today. "That's because when he comes to games, he's always impeccably polite, and does the press conference thing afterwards, and I don't think it's just an act.
"There's another three years on his contract and I'm inclined to think he will see it out. There's on-field frustration, of course, but I don't see any evidence that he wants to leave LA Where else would he go? People in Qatar would pay a fortune for him to go there, but I don't think he came to the US for money. It was for other reasons."
Those other reasons may ultimately represent the most important legacy of David Beckham's career. Because when push comes to shove, he may be on the verge of succeeding where generations of iconic footballers (and the organisers of one forgettable World Cup) have failed – and making professional soccer a viable entity in the US.
Regardless of what goes on when Beckham takes to the pitch during the remaining three years of his contract, and whatever happens to his international career, or the Galaxy's league form, that may ultimately represent the greatest achievement in the topsy-turvy CV of this most famous, yet vulnerable, player off our times.
A lot of friends in LA
Since America doesn't have a class system, the locals don't understand what Mrs Beckham's nickname means. And that's not the only reason she loves LA: aside from excellent shopping, it boasts restaurants that know how to make an egg-white omelette.
Brooklyn & Romeo & Cruz
In the UK, posh schools frown on celebrity parents, as they're prone to remove children in term time. But in Los Angeles, they have no such reservation. Legal protocol forbids identification of the school where the Beckham brood is educated, though they are known to have rejected the upmarket and famously academic John Thomas Dye in Bel Air.
Tom Cruise & Katie Holmes
The couple (below) have been official best friends of David and Victoria ever since the Beckhams arrived in town. The two couples often double-date at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, and rarely miss an opportunity to tell the press how well they get on with each other. Said Holmes recently: "Victoria is sexy, smart, and a great mum."
Elton John & David Furnish
Everyone loves a gay godfather (especially when he's extraordinarily rich) and Britain's premiere glamour couple both fulfil that role for Brooklyn. Although Elton doesn't spend as much time in LA as he did, he's frequently playing Las Vegas, just an hour's flight (or four hours' drive) into Nevada.
The prospect of coaching Beckham is what the former US manager says brought him to LA Galaxy. Despite an ignominious start to his spell at the club, Arena is likely to spend the close season reorganising his playing staff, and deserves until the end of next season to turn things around.
Having opened his first restaurant in LA this year, Ramsay (above, who is often wrongly described as a former professional footballer) is buying a house in town and expects to see plenty of old friends. Recently revealed he is opening a restaurant with Victoria.
Prematurely balding at 26, Donovan is the real star of the Galaxy line-up. He's played in 21 games, scoring 19 goals with five assists this season, and is one of the few attackers in the side with the ability to connect with Beckham's crosses.
Eva Longoria & Tony Parker
Eva, a star of Desperate Housewives, is frequently photographed with Victoria, who is often described as her best friend. Their husbands get on like a house on fire: Parker plays professional basketball, David's favourite spectator sport.
Jermaine Dupri & Janet Jackson
Beckham likes his hip hop, and his friendship with Dupri emerged when he was invited to the producer's birthday party in Chicago last week. For Dupri, the evening ended in disaster, though: in the early hours of Friday, he was reported to have vomited in Ms Jackson's lap.
The German supermodel met the Beckhams at a Victoria's Secret fashion show last year, and they've become firm friends. Klum has been photographed in Victoria's brand of jeans. Mrs Beckham has repaid the compliment by appearing on Heidi's TV show, Project Catwalk.
Bryant, star player for the Los Angeles Lakers, is the David Beckham of basketball: good-looking, talismanic, and said by critics to be a little bit dull. The two attend each other's fixtures with touching loyalty and usually dine out together after a game.
Losing streak: One win from 14
LA Galaxy 3 Columbus Crew 3
DC United 4 LA Galaxy 1
New Eng Revolution 2 LA Galaxy 1
LA Galaxy 1 Chivas USA 1
New York Red Bulls 2, LA Galaxy 2
FC Dallas 4 LA Galaxy 0
San Jose Earthquakes 3 LA Galaxy 2
Chivas USA 2 LA Galaxy 2
LA Galaxy 0 Chicago Fire 1
New Eng Revolution 2 LA Galaxy 2
LA Galaxy 2 Real Salt Lake 2
Kansas City Wizards 2 LA Galaxy 0
LA Galaxy 5 DC United 2
Chicago Fire 3 LA Galaxy 1
Today: Colombus Crew (a)
12 Oct: Colorado Rapids (h)
18 Oct: Houston Dynamo (a)
26 Oct: FC Dallas (h)
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