The Beckham Experiment
Just like the creative minds who work in Los Angeles’ thriving movie industry, David Beckham too knows how to play out a story.
Very rarely has the 37-year-old’s life been devoid of drama. A massive fan favourite right from his early days at Manchester United, Beckham’s exit story from the Red Devils back in 2003 was one right out of a script, of his father-figure dispelling him for wavering from his focus on the game, despite having played a major part in wresting back the Premier League title from Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’. His tenure at Real Madrid saw him walk out a winner and a hero, having managed to change the opinions of a headstrong Italian manager named Fabio Capello, and along with it, turn a flogging season around for his star-studded side.
Therefore, it was rather apt that his ballad at Los Angeles played out a fitting finale as well, as Beckham and co. defeated Houston Dynamo in in the finals of the MLS Cup on Saturday to win the coveted trophy a second straight year in the US, thereby ending the 37-year-old’s sojourn in Southern California.
With Beckham, you always know that you would get polarising opinions. Throughout a career that took him to the world’s biggest football destinations, many saw him as one of the sport’s premier luminaries, whose unmatched set-piece and passing abilities set him apart, while others saw him as merely that, an overrated pretty-face who could just kick the ball long distances.
Therefore, it certainly didn’t come as a surprise when Beckham’s sudden move to a previously unheard of club in an even more obscure league raised varied opinions and reactions from England’s sensationalistic media. Many saw ‘The Beckham Experiment’ as a brave move, one which attempted at breaking the monopoly of ‘American sports’ in North America just on the weight of one man, who unlike most of his compatriots, had dared to step out of the Premier League more than once in the past. Many, many others however saw it as nothing but an early retirement, an easy and unnecessary escape for a player who could have done so much more in a continent where the ‘real football’ was still being played.
Beckham’s induction to the Americas were anything but calm, as the global superstar realised that American fans were not as easy to win over as ones in Asia and Africa, what with their innate propensity to shun the game they called soccer.
There were questions raised about his dedication to the club when Beckham travelled half the way around the world to play for his national side, or spend loans spells at AC Milan, thereby missing games for the club that had broken its salary cap to get him playing for them.
Landon Donovan, American soccer’s golden child and the other big name in LA Galaxy then, was not enamoured by Beckham’s acts either, suggesting that the England star was not a good teammate, and did not show the commitment that a pay package of more than twice anyone else’s in the league deserved.
However, as time wore on and Beckham slowly stopped chasing his eluding England dream, opinions started changing too. Soon enough, Beckham was being lauded for his on-field performances as the Galaxy started collecting wins on a more regular basis, while praise was even afforded for his off-field demeanour, things that only months ago were matters of intense scrutiny.
A little more than five years into his stint, and the figures are now clear for all to see. Having worked his spell on the MLS, the progress, not just for his franchise but for the league on a whole, makes for great reading. The league’s average attendances have gone from 15,000-odd in 2006 to around 19,000 now, numbers that, incredibly, are higher than the massively more popular NBA and NHL. There are 19 teams in the league now, as opposed to the 12 that there were when Beckham arrived. There have been eight new stadiums built, and most importantly, a change of perception about the premier ‘soccer’ competition in the country, which was until recently considered a Sunday league by many in Europe.
Outside the financial numbers too, Beckham has spelt success, reaching three MLS Cup finals and winning two of them. Galaxy has played host to the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Tottenham Hotspur, each of them powerful names in the football fraternity who doubtlessly picked the Los Angeles club based on the existence of one man on their roster.
By the end of it all, Beckham, tellingly, was able to win back the respect of Donovan, who only recently suggested that Beckham had been ‘an inspiration’ for him for the way he had conducted himself during times of trial and triumph. The Brit has also paved the way for other international stars like Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane to grace the MLS, with both of them crediting the England star for their readiness to leave Europe and play in America.
“He put the MLS on the map and made players like myself want to come over and play here because the league has grown massively. That’s down to David.”
- Robbie Keane
But more than the stars, tickets and trophies, Beckham helped make the Galaxy and the MLS a household name, not just in the country, but also around the world. Before 2006, not many people around the world would have been caught following the fortunes of a club that called the world’s most popular sport by a different name, something that MLS commissioner Ron Garber alluded to in his tribute to the second-most famous number 23 in the country:
“There’s arguably not a soccer fan on this planet that doesn’t know the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer, and David played a significant role in helping us make that happen. He was an unbelievable ambassador for the league, for the Galaxy.
“I don’t think anybody would doubt that he has overdelivered for us.”
Having decided to leave his high-profile friends and the glitterati of Los Angeles, Beckham is expected to make one final stop before ending his quest for world domination, but he surely couldn’t have played out a better Hollywood script for the end of this chapter.
After his swansong against Houston Dynamo, Beckham, with the Union Jack wrapped around him, went on one last photo-op, staying out much after the rest of his team had left the field to celebrate their victory, to soak in the adulation of the fans who had well and truly been turned on his side. Placards which pleaded with Beckham to stay on were a far cry from the ones that insisted that he leave a few years back. For he had made a mark on the club’s fans, and the MLS. For he was leaving a country, once again, a hero.
For the LA Galaxy, it was clear that the name on the back of the shirt was far more important than the one on the front. For Beckham, and the baggage of his 37 years, certainly did not make him the best player in their side.
But they weren’t ones to mind. After all, David Beckham was not brought to American shores just to win trophies, was he? For the LA Galaxy were not just a club in the MLS anymore. They were the side that had David Beckham.
For ‘The Beckham Experiment’ had well and truly succeeded.