Beck where he belongs

Los Angeles is filled with people who are more famous than talented. David Beckham should fit right in.

Duleep Allirajah

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So, farewell then David Beckham. You took a mean free kick, you always looked good on camera and, er, that’s about it. Becks hasn’t actually croaked but the tone of reaction amongst British sports journalists has been decidedly obituarial. By opting to move to the land of Walt Disney and play in a Mickey Mouse league, Beckham’s football career is effectively over.

The size of Beckham’s pay deal with LA Galaxy, which is said to be worth £128million over 5 years, has raised eyebrows this side of the pond, largely because the Brits are still unused to the idea of top sportsmen getting movie star salaries. Beckham somewhat unconvincingly protests that he’s going for a new challenge. ‘I didn’t want to go there at 34-years-old and for people to say he’s only going for the money,’ insisted the Real Madrid bench warmer. Personally, I’ve got no problem with Becks chasing a fistful of dollars but, let’s be honest, this isn’t about football. As former England striker Gary Lineker said, ‘It’s tantamount to semi-retirement’

Beckham’s new employers would have us believe that his mission is all about selling soccer to the Yanks. ‘Vend it like Beckham,’ as the LA Times put it. ‘We want him to help us to be the top team in MLS and maybe, one day, become the top team in the world,’ claimed LA Galaxy general manager Alexei Lalas. (I always had Lalas down as a stoner and now my suspicions have been confirmed.) Can Beckham succeed where Pelé, Beckenbauer and Best failed in the 1970s? I very much doubt it. Despite several attempts to market the game Stateside, American sports fans still regard ‘soccer’ as a soft, girlie game. Beckham might help sell sports shoes to soccer moms but the notion that he will lead a cultural revolution and convert the Yanks to football seems rather fanciful.

Beckham’s decision to move to Los Angeles has dominated the news agenda all week, a testament to the 31-year old’s enduring celebrity status. However, whereas the gossip and entertainment columnists can’t contain their excitement, sports journalists have generally accused him of copping out and cashing in. The divided reaction reflects his two distinct personas: Beckham the footballer and Beckham the mega-celebrity. These two facets have always co-existed somewhat uneasily. Beckham himself said he wanted to be remembered as a great footballer but he has never quite shaken off the charge that he was merely a ‘clothes horse’ who was signed by Real Madrid in order to sell replica shirts to Japanese schoolkids.

Women and gay men have always adored him but his esteem amongst English football fans has ebbed and flowed. He went from pantomime villain, whose sarong-clad effigy was strung up outside a pub after his dismissal against Argentina in 1998, to national hero after his last-minute free kick against Greece secured qualification for the 2002 World Cup. His broken metatarsal on the eve of the tournament became the iconic sports injury of the decade and inspired a spate of copycat broken toes.

But although he was the most marketable player on the planet, there were always question marks over his ability. As George Best memorably quipped: ‘He can’t kick with his left foot. He doesn’t score many goals. He can’t head a ball. And he can’t tackle. Apart from that he’s all right.’ Even diehard Manchester United fans will tell you that he was only the fourth best midfielder in the 1999 treble-winning team after Keane, Scholes and Giggs. Now, by quitting top flight European football for an uncompetitive league, any flickering hopes of being admitted to the soccer pantheon have been extinguished. Ultimately, it is Brand Beckham that will benefit from the transfer rather than Beckham the footballer who is, in effect, being put out to pasture.

The thing that’s always struck me about Beckham is that, for a man who has shelled out a king’s ransom to managers and advisers, he seems to have been very poorly advised. I mean, who on earth told him to go to Real Madrid? Anyone with half a footballing brain could have seen that Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s policy of stuffing the team with overpriced galacticos was a disaster waiting to happen. Madrid have not won a single trophy since Beckham arrived at the Bernabeu in 2003.

Then there were the threats of legal action and the stage-managed ‘happy family’ photo-ops which were designed to counter the tabloid rumours of extramarital affairs. It was even reported that the couple had ordered their friends and families to sign gagging agreements in order to staunch the flow of tabloid gossip. But, far from making him appear like a regular family man, his brand managers have only helped to create an image of a narcissistic and increasingly paranoid individual.

And now we hear that he sought Tom Cruise’s counsel before opting to move to LA. ‘Tom Cruise is a very wise man. He’s a very good friend of mine,’ revealed Beckham. ‘I was on the phone to him for about an hour the other night and an hour the night before that. It’s going to be a big help to us to have friends when we arrive in Los Angeles.’ Oh dear. Admittedly Cruise has reached Operating Thetan level 6, which is the Scientology equivalent of a Champions League place, but I’m not sure he is qualified to give career advice to footballers.

That said I’m not sure that his latest decision is particularly ill-advised. Some commentators, like Daily Mirror columnist Brian Reade, have blasted Becks for squandering the potential for greatness. ‘Why are we hailing David Beckham’s retreat at 31, into the American world of sportertainment, as a magnificent personal triumph, instead of labelling him a fool and a waster,’ asked Reade. I don’t agree. Beckham’s qualities as a footballer comprised a sublime right foot that could bend it like, well, nobody else allied with a tireless workrate. And that was about it. He never could dribble or skin a defender for pace but he had the stamina of a middle distance runner. However, with his stamina starting to desert him, it has been clear for some time that his best days are behind him.

With hindsight I think he did realise his potential but that, even at his peak, he was never within touching distance of greatness. And that’s why, instead of winding down his career at Bolton or Newcastle, the Beckham circus is pitching up in Tinseltown to cash in on his celebrity.

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