David Beckham is a man who knows his own mind and has the courage of his convictions.
And that’s why, instead of heading back to LA to help revive the struggling Galaxy, he’s fought tooth and nail to stay in Italy to pursue la dolce vita with AC Milan. The fact that his Italian swan song will be temporarily interrupted by a mandatory half season back in LA, starting in June, in no way disguising the fact that he is gone! Is that a surprise The answer is no, because Beckham and the Galaxy were always a rather odd couple. He agreed to join the club during a vulnerable time at Real Madrid, in which he was out of favor with then manager, Fabio Capello, and looking to escape the humiliation. Do you think American soccer has a future Let us know. Subsequently, of course, Capello changed his mind about Beckham, recalling him to Madrid’s title-winning team of 2007 and offering him the chance to stay. But by then the Galaxy deal was done. The former England captain, who prides himself on regretting nothing, moved out west, putting a positive spin on his hasty decision by saying he was off to America as a football ambassador to raise the profile of the game. Nobody bends it like Beckham. Of course, people will point to the multi-billion-dollar deal he signed with the Galaxy as the consolation — if not the motivation — for his move. But, remember, Beckham was already the richest footballer ever to walk the turf: he did not need the money. So, while he may have found the money, the fame, and the ambassadorial role mildly seductive at first, the level of football was always going to be the deal-breaker.
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And, as we now know, it came up well short of Beckham’s expectations, especially when Capello, now the England manager, dangled the carrot of selection for the 2010 World Cup in his face should he be playing in a sufficiently competitive league. Obviously the culture shock would have been less for Beckham had he done his homework about Major League Soccer, which he apparently did not. When I interviewed him in LA just ahead of his first full season with the Galaxy, he told me that the standard of football in the MLS was “higher than most people think.” Not “high,” you understand, but, essentially not as bad as one might expect. The standard of soccer in America is on the rise but the leagues that the MLS aspires to match are more than a century old. In addition, for all the talk of building a dynasty around Beckham and creating a legacy in his name, the Galaxy, somewhat ailing on the field, did not sign him for football reasons. They signed the world’s pre-eminent celebrity footballer to attract media attention and casual fans, as well as to create more merchandising opportunities.
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It’s not like the United States hasn’t been down this road before. When Beckham signed, the question was asked as to whether the MLS was following the failed premise of the North American Soccer League (NASL), which imported international superstars in the 1970s. That was a huge but short-lived success. The league burned brightly in their reflected glory for a few years, then fizzled once the money ran out and the aging stars left. To be fair to Beckham, though, he was much worse off than the medallion-men of yesteryear. For a start, there were more of them. And, back then, the NASL didn’t just bring in foreign superstars but also bought numerous seasoned pros from overseas to support Pele, Cruyff, Chinaglia, Best and Beckenbauer. Beckham, by contrast, was marooned in a sea of naivety and relative mediocrity. It’s no wonder that his team-mates’ lack of professional savvy is a source of extreme frustration to him. There was also the problem of expectation among the Americans, who’ve been raised on a diet of great individual sporting talent — marquee names who can win games with their own brand of genius. But while the MLS and its fans wanted a Michael Jordan, a Babe Ruth, a Brett Favre to be a star on the field, what they got was the best supporting actor in the game. So, the Beckham experiment was a gamble that failed to pay off. Maybe not commercially, but certainly in terms of the image of the MLS, which has been confirmed as simply not good enough for a player with world-class credentials. That will come as no news to the skeptics worldwide or the naysayers in the U.S. who try constantly to put the game down. But it might be a wake up call to the MLS itself, which made the adolescent mistake of wanting everything yesterday. After all, this is the little league that can, not the little league that has. And, as they say, patience is a virtue.