The Nick Townsend Column: He'll love LA but will they love the game he plays?

Click to follow

He will be remembered as The Man Who Fell to Earth. But landed, oh so fortuitously, apparently with the help of the Spice Girls and TV's Pop Idol originator, Simon Fuller, in the soft and welcome embrace of a footballing La La Land.

David Bowie's character in the film of that name arrived to save his dying planet. In Beckham's case his descent to another Galaxy, in both senses of the word, it is to provide succour to a dying career, that of Planet Beckham. And by doing so, pursue that Great British Dream, one which can be traced back to the early pioneer Phil Woosnam's endeavours in the Sixties and Seventies, to penetrate an obdurate American psyche. One which essentially says soccer is safe and fun for kids, and women. But, hey fella, no way is it a proper sport. Even hosting a World Cup couldn't enhance its appeal; nor could the significant progress of the national team in recent World Cups.

True, there have been excited giggles from anchors in American TV studios at the impending arrival of the former England captain, like a teenager bringing her first boyfriend home to mom, not certain what the reaction will be. But as one American newspaper commentator put it succinctly: "His job here is not to win, but to give his sport one last chance to work in the biggest place where it doesn't. His success will be defined not by corner kicks but by converts."

On Friday, the concept of big bucks and celebrity - possibly as much the effect of Victoria, that model of spending power, as David - ensured the schedulers of the coast-to-coast TV show Good Morning America gave the story prominence. Whether Beckham can sustain that interest is a different matter entirely. Or, in a year's time, will it be Wake Up America?

In the summer he embarks on a soccer Star Trek, his mission to boldly go where so many have failed to impart the wisdom that football is the world's most complete, most enthralling sport. In doing so, he has eschewed a future at the Reebok. And White Hart Lane. St James' Park. Upton Park. And all the other clubs who coveted him - except, most crucially, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, the only ones whom he may just, just, have considered as he contemplated life as a failed galactico.

Can you honestly imagine him scrapping for Uefa Cup qualification, or worse, maybe relegation, against earnest youngsters with iconoclastic tendencies, determined to assert themselves? Did anyone seriously believe he would accept such a pronounced career decline, one which would possibly have culminated with a stint as reality TV trash. Maybe on Love Island along with Rebecca Loos? Instead he has issued a mission statement that, effectively, he plans to influence the sports-going habits of the world's most powerful nation.

Los Angeles Galaxy's head coach, Frank Yallop, last seen here booting a clearance at Blackpool's Bloomfield Road, where as a full-back he was on loan from Ipswich a decade or so ago, claims that Beckham "wants to help the game grow in this country". But we're not talking about organic sweetcorn. Football runs counter to US sporting culture, one which demands big scores, no draws and time-outs. NFL grid-iron games are occasions for the family to bond, and luxuriate, in a protracted series of plays. They love their stats, TV replays; all the peripheral matter that goes with it. The contrast with a compressed 90 minutes of frenetic activity, in which pom-pom girls are greeted usually with disdain, could not be more pronounced.

Soccer in the US is big among kids, mostly middle-class kids, and European expats. A British friend out there, working in Arizona, plays in a league. Sometimes he takes his girlfriend along. Not for her to watch, but to play. Because, well - perhaps better not to mention it to Mike Newell - it's regarded as a soft kinda game.

Inevitably, there is scepticism on both sides of the pond. Before the news came through on Thursday, the BBC's Breakfast programme screened a library clip of Beckham emerging on a catwalk through dry ice, modelling a blazer. Somebody jokingly suggested he was bound for Maplins, the fictional holiday camp of Hi De Hi.

There will be those who contend that is precisely what he is doing in Hollywood's equivalent, a kind of footballing fantasyland, designed to entrance "the kids". The ubiquitous Max Clifford reflected that he is in the right place to pursue an acting career, "as long as it's not a speaking role".

Clifford may scoff, and so will many here at the prospect of Posh and Becks enchanting their hosts-to-be; yet, in a land of smooth-talking, persuasive salesmen, it could just be a refreshing change that this guy from the mother country is not blessed with perfect Queen's English and has never quite got his head around correct syntax. He's a Regular Joe, who has succeeded through dint of his own talents and labours.

There is still a fundamental misunderstanding of the Beckham phenomenon. "A true genius ruined by his greed", one headline on Friday crabbed at his decision. He was never a football genius; only to those who mistook celebrity for greatness. He was (it is somehow inevitable that we should use the past tense), within his well-chronicled limitations, a fine performer, blessed with a sweet right foot which he often employed with destructive force. He was also a man who would rarely stand and admire those seams of excellence; he was always prepared to dirty his hands at the coal face. As for his supposed avarice, well, it is about as cheap an insult as you can buy. In America, making bucks tends to be regarded as an admirable trait. Only here is it envied and ridiculed.

They say Beckham will earn $250 million (£128m) over five years. That sounds rather too precise, as if it is a figure arrived at after a lengthy and pleasant lunch.It is more likely to represent his potential earnings. Nevertheless, the sum has been flung into the mix to allow this week's development to flex its marketing legs more than it might other-wise have done. Even if the basic is only, say, a fifth of that amount, it is still mega-bucks in anyone's judgement.

There can be little doubt that, though he would have headed west eventually, his move has been hastened, as Arsène Wenger suggests, not so much by an unsatisfactory season, the culmination of four unsuccessful years at the Bernabeu, as by the rejection of Steve McClaren's new England regime. On succeeding Sven Goran Eriksson, whose obsession with his captain's celebrity and failure to recognise his decline almost certainly cost England dear during his tenure, McClaren recoiled from the midfielder like an arachnophobic spotting a Black Widow. Though cast aside in a particularly disrespectful and crass manner, it was a necessary step, and Beckham knew in his heart that he would never achieve that ambition of 100 caps.

The Home Depot Center Stadium, with its 27,000 capacity, will be a strange location for his footballing bow. You can imagine him humming the words of the Mamas and Papas hit as life in Madrid winds down: "I'd be safe and warm if I was in LA".

But this is more about Beckham's preparedness to preach the gospel, and, for all their reported contretemps at the conclusion of his United career, surely that gospel will be according to the teachings of Saint Alex of Old Trafford.

It is just conceivable that this fabulously paid piper can perform his work successfully in the Hamelin of football. Certainly he will be determined to prove that this is more than California daydreaming from the Leytonstone boy.

Comments