America, resist the Beckham bandwagon

For all the British sneering at Yanks who don’t ‘get’ football, there are aspects of sport that the US do far better than us.

Duleep Allirajah

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This week the Beckham circus pitched up in La-La-Land in a blaze of publicity. Beckham has been on the front covers of Sports Illustrated and USA Today, as well as style monthly W magazine, and a 60-minute reality TV show titled Victoria Beckham: Coming to America has been aired by NBC. But is the mass of column inches generated by Beckham’s touchdown in California a sign that the football-sceptic Yanks are finally beginning to appreciate the beautiful game? Don’t be freakin’ daft. This is yet another typically Beckhamesque triumph of style over substance.

David Beckham is the personification of hype: a good-but-not-quite-great footballer who has been elevated to global icon and über-celebrity largely thanks to his pop star wife. So, little surprise that his arrival at the LA Galaxy this week should attract such frenzied media attention. But scratch the surface and you’ll find that hype is all there is. ‘He is clearly showing up not as an athlete, but a celebrity’, wrote Bill Plashke in the Los Angeles Times. ‘He is being chatted up not in sports bars, but star blogs. Folks are viewing him not as a leader of men, but as the husband of Posh…. Beckham’s appeal is as a tourist attraction, the latest Disneyland ride, the hot new Pantages musical.’ (1) After the initial novelty wears off, will Beckham succeed in spearheading a soccer revolution in the States? The answer, in short, is no – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let me explain why.

It is an undisputed fact that most Americans don’t really like football. This failure to ‘get’ football is often interpreted by Brits as a sign of American insularity and philistinism. Exhibit A, m’lud, is that the Yanks don’t like draws. They want to see a winner. They want shoot-outs to settle games. Exhibit B is that Americans don’t like low-scoring games. The only thing that Americans hate more than 0-0 draws is Osama bin Laden. So short is the average American’s concentration span that, unless there’s a goal every two minutes, they’re trotting off to the catering stall to buy another chilli dog. Exhibit C is the fact that they insist on calling it ‘soccer’. M’lud, I rest my case.

If we look beyond this kind of crude anti-Americanism we find a rich and sophisticated sporting culture in the US. American sports fans are every bit as knowledgeable and passionate about the sports they follow as European or Latin American football fans. Indeed, like it or not, despite our instinctive antipathy towards the Disneyfication of English football, there are some US sporting prototypes that have successfully made the transition across the Pond (and no, I don’t mean big furry mascots or cheerleaders).

This week, for example, a ‘personal invitation’ from Alan Hansen appeared in my email inbox to subscribe to the Daily Telegraph’s fantasy football league. These leagues, which have turned a generation of British football enthusiasts into stats-obsessed nerds, were originally invented by US baseball fans. Americans are also ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about sport. Long before Nick Hornby penned Fever Pitch, American writers such as Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo showed that serious writers could ‘do’ sport. Americans also make far better sports films than the Brits. They can produce works of cinematic splendour like Raging Bull while we just make rubbish like When Saturday Comes.

It’s not that Americans are genetically incapable of understanding the subtleties of football – enough of them play it at college in order to grasp the offside law. It’s just that they prefer other spectator sports. Principally, that means baseball and gridiron; but even sports like boxing, basketball, and golf rank above football. Invariably, if you browse through US websites you’ll find plenty of Americans sounding off about how ‘soccer’ is dull or too low-scoring or else that it’s a ‘girlie’ game unlike gridiron. These opinion pieces are a bit like my occasional tongue-in-cheek articles about sports that I don’t follow, such as cycling, curling or rugby – that is, they are, in part, intended to wind up aficionados of those sports.

Of course, if I applied myself, I’m sure I could learn to understand the laws of rugby or appreciate the finer points of baseball. Hell, if there’s a bottle of claret and some good cheese and saucisson on offer, I could even get into the Tour de France. It’s just that, well, life is too short and there are only so many sports you can watch before your missus walks out on you. So, for that reason, I limit my portfolio of sports to a manageable handful – football, cricket and tennis with the occasional foray into athletics or boxing. I’d imagine American sports fans are much the same. They simply don’t have the time or inclination to immerse themselves in yet another spectator sport. That doesn’t mean they’re too stupid to understand football, just too preoccupied with other sports.

Indeed, much as I love football, I think it’s a good thing if American sports fans don’t clamber aboard the Beckham bandwagon. It shows that ordinary Americans, so often ridiculed as dumb and suggestible, aren’t easily seduced by marketing hard sell. The US sporting public has doggedly ignored previous attempts to flog soccer to them, such as the ill-fated North American Soccer League and the big promotional pushes that accompanied the1994 World Cup and the 1999 women’s World Cup. The fact is that a football culture cannot be mechanistically transplanted or imposed on to other societies; it has to develop organically.

Undoubtedly Beckham’s pretty-boy good looks and toned physique, which were salaciously showcased in the W photospread, may serve to attract a female and gay following. Alexandra Gillardo, for example, bought tickets for an LA Galaxy game on the strength of Beckham’s sex appeal alone: ‘I hate soccer. It takes forever to score a goal. It’s boring. But he’s something nice to look at. He’s got a great body, a great butt.’ (2) But, unless there’s a mass homoerotic awakening amongst male sports fans, I can’t see how Becks is going to succeed in selling soccer to America where Pele, Eusebio, Beckenbuaer and Georgie Best – not to mention Brandi Chastain’s sports bra – all failed in the past.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Beckham buzz off, LA Times, 13 July 2007

(2) Everybody’s got an opinion on that Beckham guy, Associated Press, 12 July 2007

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