Jemima Lewis: It's not his money that bothers me

There's a real danger that Beckham might succeed in his misguided mission

Saturday 13 January 2007 01:00 GMT

The British, who once considered it the height of rudeness to discuss other people's personal finances, are these days an openly covetous race. There was, therefore, much sniggering scepticism when David Beckham insisted this week that he is not moving to America for the money.

The former England skipper is set to become the world's highest-paid sports star, after signing a five-year deal worth £128m with the US Major League team LA Galaxy. That, as the press was eager to inform us, works out at £500,000 a week, or £70,000 a day, or £3,000 an hour. It's still not a patch on what he might have earned if he'd gone into hedge fund management, but more than enough to activate the nation's drool glands.

Some might wonder whether Beckham really needs the cash. He is already worth some £130m, and his ex-Spice Girl wife doubtless has a few pennies stashed away for a rainy day. Even allowing for the sliding scale of financial anxiety - the more money you have, the more you think you need - there must come a point where life simply cannot get any more luxurious. What could the fur-lined, gold-plated first couple of Hello! hope to do with their £500,000 a week that they couldn't do before?

Nevertheless, we must hope that Goldenballs is motivated by cupidity, because the alternative is just too horrible to contemplate. What if, as he claims, Beckham is on a genuine mission to turn America into a soccer-loving nation? "Soccer is huge all around the world except in America," he said this week, "and that's where I want to make a difference. I want to take it to another level."

It is a prospect to strike dread into every patriot's heart. Throughout all the bitter years of Britain's decline - the fall of empire, the selling-off of our industries, the countless humiliations of the special relationship - we have always had this to cling to: we're better at football than the Americans.

Admittedly, so is everyone. Being better at football than America is the one thing that any nation, however tiny and beleaguered, can aspire to. From Cameroon to Côte d'Ivoire, Romania to Uruguay, we insignificant peoples of the world can take succour from this one, modest, exception to the rule of American superiority.

The fact that America, with its wealth, competitive spirit, and huge population of potential athletes, has yet to win a World Cup is something of a miracle. Mainly, it is due to lack of trying. Americans have for years wilfully refused to join in with the sports that the rest of the world plays. When they do, it is in a spirit of condescension. In America, the word "soccer" is chiefly used as a prefix to "mom". It is mostly played by children - and girl children at that. The game's lack of prestige can be measured by the fact that 70 per cent of major league soccer players earn less than $100,000 a year.

As the most successful cultural exporter on earth, the US no doubt imagined that the rest of the world would eventually start playing its sports. Instead, the world looked on and scoffed. American football was dismissed as rugby for wimps; baseball as cricket for dunces. America was ridiculed for holding the baseball World Series at which no other nation was invited to compete - with the sole exception of fellow North Americans Canada.

This may explain why - very slowly, like an ocean liner changing course - America is rethinking its attitude to soccer. It isn't nice to be the odd one out in the playground, especially when you are accustomed to competing, and winning.

In 1989, the US national team had not qualified for a World Cup for 40 years. It has now qualified for the past six. There used not to be a single dedicated soccer stadium in the country: now there are five. My male friends, who know more about these things, tell me that it's too early to panic. Americans, they say, are congenitally unsuited to team sports: just look how badly they do in the Ryder Cup. Even baseball is largely concerned with each player's statistics. It is, apparently, a by-product of American individualism.

Even if this is true - and it sounds a bit fishy to me - Beckham may be able to buck the trend. He is, after all, a big hit as an individual. He is very handsome and spangly; the P Diddy of international sport. He is being paid a fortune, and women drool over him. He may not be quite as beefy as most US athletes (and the sarong will certainly raise eyebrows), but American sports fans have quite a camp streak: witness the rednecks singing "YMCA" on the terraces.

There is a real danger that Beckham might succeed in his misguided mission. As Don Garber, commissioner of the US Major League, declared this week: "David Beckham coming to MLS might be viewed by some as one of the most important moments for soccer in this country - and perhaps the history of professional sport."

Forgive him, England, for he knows not what he does.

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