By Jim Litke
The Associated Press
David Beckham is like that suit languishing in the back of everyone’s closet. It was too expensive when bought and too flashy by half when you tried it on. Every time you’ve thought about wearing it since, you wonder what possessed you in the first place.
The difference is that getting something for Becks now won’t be as easy as auctioning him off on eBay.
Still, Beckham’s desire to leave the Galaxy for AC Milan is something the people in charge of Major League Soccer should be able to work with — not to mention learn from. He still has some value.
Besides, his decision to leave says more about him than it does the state of the pro game in the United States, which, despite still suffering from the same inferiority complex that brought Beckham here, really isn’t half bad.
He was paid plenty to come, but when Beckham & Co. made his much-ballyhooed splashdown two years ago, he was 31 and already more a complementary part than a star. He did what he could on the field, for the most part. But he arrived hurt, wasn’t available for duty much during his first season, and wound up surrounded by a weak team the last one.
The Galaxy’s marketing team and the sponsors who kicked in the rest of the millions that lured him here on top of his $32.5 million, five-year contract turned out to be weaker still. They never held Beckham to his promises about being “an ambassador” and to be “part of the growth of the game in the States.”
We think American pro athletes are insulated, but it doesn’t compare to the cocoons Europe’s biggest soccer stars have built for themselves. Despite living here, it was almost like Beckham never left there.
His recent return to form while on loan to AC Milan shouldn’t be much of a surprise, either. In Italy, Beckham has better players on every side to handle the pressure, and more lethal finishers ready to pounce at the end of every delivery. He’s got more motivation, too, trying to earn his way back onto England’s World Cup squad in 2010, in no small part so he can take possession of the record for most appearances wearing the English national team shirt.
So despite what you hear from L.A. and MLS headquarters, he’s as good as gone. The matter has already been turned over to the lawyers, which prompted the Los Angeles Times to tidily sum up his legacy this way: “Thirty games played for the Galaxy. Five goals scored. A lot of squealing female fans. A lot of Galaxy jerseys sold. A few more fans in seats. A bit of media buzz.”
Anything beyond those modest accomplishments will have to be negotiated, and this is where the opportunity and the lesson for MLS lies.
When Beckham arrived, commissioner Don Garber insisted his league had learned from the mistakes pro soccer made in the past, specifically the rise and fall of the North American Soccer League — this country’s first real flirtation with the world’s most popular game.
During the 1970s, a few corporate moguls with influence and deep pockets spent lavishly to collect over-the-hill icons like Pele, Johan Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia and tried to sell the sport from the top down. After a heady few seasons marked by big crowds and rampant overspending, interest fell off, the bottom fell out and the NASL closed up shop in 1984.
It was another 10 years before America’s next flirtation with soccer, playing host to the 1994 World Cup, which gave rise to the NASL’s successor, Major League Soccer. The difference, as Garber never tired of saying, is that the MLS was building from the bottom up. It was holding down salaries and carefully targeting the millions of kids and their parents swept up in the tidal wave of youth soccer programs. Most important, it was keeping its fingers crossed until a homegrown American player or the U.S. national team broke through on the world stage.
“If there is a tipping point,” he said at the time, “that’s when it will come.”
Instead, he helped the Galaxy pull the trigger on the Beckham deal and kept his fingers crossed. Now would be the perfect time to uncross them and prove that the MLS has learned as much from the rest of the world about conducting the business of soccer as it has about playing the game.
If the Galaxy force Beckham to return March 9, as his contract calls for, and make him play one more season, he walks away at the end of it for free. Instead, it should make sure Milan pays more than the $3 million it’s offering and closer to the $10 million the Galaxy wants. Then it should get the guarantee of a summer tour — including a stop in Los Angeles — by AC Milan. Finally, it should take some of that money and invest it along with the dollars companies like Nike and Adidas have already plowed into player development.
The shame is not that pro soccer in this country isn’t advanced enough to hold onto a player like David Beckham. It’s that after all this time and talk of getting serious about soccer, a nation of 300 million with a wealth of resources hasn’t been able to peel off enough talented athletes from football, basketball and baseball to produce even one like him.