Thursday, January 11, 2007

David Beckham - A Beginner's Guide

David Beckham is Britain's finest striker of a football not because of God-given talent but because he practices with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn't contemplate. – Sir Alex Ferguson

He can’t kick with his left foot, he can’t head a ball, he can’t tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that he's all right. – George Best

A couple of summers ago I eagerly accepted an invitation to a rare sort of soccer match: a friendly wherein the Los Angeles Galaxy welcomed Real Madrid, indisputably the most successful soccer club in the world. This was Madrid at Full Metal Galactico, with Beckham, Owen, Figo, Raul and Zidane all in the side (Ronaldo was injured and did not dress). Despite the requisite cavalcade of stars, the lion’s share of the post-game discussion was about only one of them: Beckham.

Typical, really. It was Zidane who had had the best game of the bunch, by far; he had spun and delivered with the hypnotic consistency of a lazy susan; but Beckham was all we talked about. He’s all anyone talks about.

My friend Larry got the four of us the tickets was acquaintances with the president of the Galaxy, who dropped in to say hello. After he had left, Larry let us in on the scuttlebutt: it was only a matter of time until Beckham, Goldenballs himself, would be exchanging the life of the Galactico for the life of the Galaxian. We all know guys who, feeling flush with the thrill of discussing whatever sport they like to talk about, say some crazy shit. This heady hypothesis certainly would have seemed to fit that category, but what can you say when your crazy friend just shook hands with the team president?

So we went on to discuss what impact the move would have; not so much on the Galaxy, a franchise in which we had only a passing interest (I’m a Chivas man, me), but on the sport as a whole in the country. We were in agreement that such a move would be good for the game, that the arrival of so mega a star, regardless of the fact that his talents didn’t quite match his fame level (unmatchable anyway, that), would only garner more headlines and more attention. If he didn’t wait too long, he’d arrive while his famous crossing and free kick skills would still vex and befuddle the limited MLS defenses. He’d probably score more goals than he had previously in his career and the Galaxy would an instant contender.

And now it has come to pass, and my opinions formed that night have not wavered. It’s a great move for MLS, a great move for the Galaxy and, at $50 million a year for five years, a pretty decent move for Becks as well.

Major League Soccer, with their intrepidly executed plan of slow and steady expansion and growth, is doing this right; as opposed to the willy-nilly days of the North American Soccer League, beautifully described in the wonderful documentary “Once In A Lifetime” (put it at the top of your Netflix queue post-haste; it’s a great movie).

The NASL is coming up quite a bit in the Beckham articles; fair enough, as the move does echo Pele’s signing by the New York Cosmos in some ways. But they are not identical bookends. They key differences are these:

- The Pele signing came out of nowhere. The Becks move has been a subject of considerable media speculation for some time now, at least since he stepped down as England captain after the World Cup.

- Beckham and the Galaxy will not be expected to carry MLS in the way that Pele and the Cosmos ended up doing. He is part of a continuing plan to expand the sport, not the end-all be-all cash-cow they shortsightedly made of the Brazilian No. 10.

- A galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system that consists of stars, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and an unknown dark matter; but a cosmos, in its most general sense, is an orderly or harmonious system. So you see, they’re totally different.

Let me repeat something that readers of this column are probably aware of, but most of America may be confused about: Beckham is not one of the world’s best players. I have heard him compared to Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan today, and that is a laugh. He is a tireless worker for the team, has the drive of a winner and remains a phenomenal striker of the ball, both from free-kicks and, most importantly, crosses from the right. (Having said that, it remains to be seen if Galaxy will play him on the right or in the center of the midfield; I expect the latter, though is best position has always been the former.) That is what he always has been; more than solid, less than transcendent.

So why the fuck is he so fuckin’ famous?

Without getting into it too much, Beckham is the world’s most famous athlete due to a confluence of things: he has very much been in the right place at the right time.

First off, he’s right pretty. Secondly, there’s the wife; she’s easily mocked but she is a huge reason for his fame. When they started dating in 1997, the Spice Girls were at their zenith, with a truly global fan base. As such, anything any Spice Girl did was news, most definitely including dating a member of Manchester United.

There’s the third reason: Man. U. Beckham had the good fortune of being an important part of a phenomenally successful period for the team, who were also fortunate to undergo this period just as they were becoming a global brand. With the Rupert Murdoch-led worldwide explosion of satellite tv, English soccer was everywhere, most notably (and profitably) Asia; and for all intents and purposes, Man. U was English soccer for the people around the world discovering it for the first time. Beckham, on account of being prettier than his more-famous-than-him girlfriend-cum-wife, was its smiling face.

But what about on the field? We can cover that on its own merit, thanks to good ol’ You Tube. Here are some key footballing moments for our tattooed friend.

1. SELHURST PARK, 1996. His first bit of worldwide notoriety came from a rather notable goal he scored in the second game of the 1996-97 season at Wimbledon. Man. U were up 2-0 and injury time was ticking away when Beckham decided to do this.

Goals from the half-way line don’t happen too often; coming as this one did in the new age of Sky Sports’ global feeds, the highlight was literally shown around the world.

2. FRANCE, 1998. He was selected for Word Cup ’98 and had a pretty good group stage, scoring a memorable goal against Colombia. He was getting a lot of attention, some of it snarky, for being a pretty boy, but his play was starting to back it up. In the second round, against Argentina, it was his pass that set-up Michael Owen for one of the greatest goals of all time.

In the 46th minute, Argentina tied it 2-2. In the 47th, the 23 year-old Beckham got suckered by some good ol’ South American gamesmanship. Can’t find any video of this online unfortunately… well, except in what might be Thai. Down to ten men, England held on all the way through extra time before losing on penalties. Beckham was the scapegoat and was mercilessly attacked by the never-restrained English tabloids; they had been waiting for this fancy dan to fail, and did he ever. They merrily and convincingly painted him as the villain. For Beckham, it was a very dark period.

It must be noted though that the incident, coming as it did on the world’s biggest stage in a match between two of the sport’s biggest rivals, only escalated his worldwide fame.

3. THE TREBLE, 1999. The best way for Becks to rehabilitate his precious image was to get awesome. So in the season following that World Cup, he got about as awesome as he could as Manchester United won the league, the FA Cup and the Champions League, known collectively and mythically as The Treble, an unprecedented feat. That Champions League Final was one of the most exciting finales in history, Man. U scoring in the 91st and 93rd minutes to shock Bayern Munich 2-1; I’ll link you to the long version of the highlights, it’s worth watching. The Red Devils had already secured the league and the cup; to have failed here would have been massive anti-climax. And though Beckham didn’t score a goal in the game, the goals did come from his corners. Again he was in the middle of things and again papers and magazines around the world had a totally justified reason to boost their sales by putting him on the cover.

4. QUALIFYING, 2001. In 2000, an interim England manager named Peter Taylor, whose reign would last one game, made David Beckham captain of England for a friendly in Italy. He seemed a surprise choice, having been photographed flipping the bird to some particularly shitty England fans after a loss to Portugal at Euro 2000, but he did well enough that new manager Sven Goran Eriksson let him keep the job. History may end up saying this was a bad decision, but it got off to a pretty good start.

To qualify for the 2002 World Cup, England needed to beat lowly Greece in Manchester on the last day of qualifying. It was supposed to be a cake-walk. Greece didn’t get the memo, or if they did, it was (not) Greek to them. Wakka-wakka.

Greece went ahead 2-0. England scored (off a Beckham assist) in the 67th minute, but overall looked terrible. Beckham had something like eight free kicks during the game, missing on all of them. In the second half, he was a man possessed. He was all over the pitch, running tirelessly at any Greek with a ball. It was the kind of scattershot, undisciplined running that coaches hate but fans love. Then finally, in the 93rd minute, Beckham lined it up from 30 yards and drilled it into the corner. England would be going to the World Cup and Beckham, with his 100% effort, his 100% English display, was unanimously hailed the hero. His image rehabilitation was nearly complete.

5. REDEMPTION, 2002. England played Argentina again in the group stage of that next tournament. Beckham, returning from a broken foot, scored the only goal of the game on a penalty (meaning it’s easily the most boring highlight in the article, enjoy). This exorcised the demons of his ’98 sending off. He was no longer the cockney wide boy; he was a full-on English hero,

It was downhill from there, of course. The allegations of adultery. The incredible choke of the shootout at Euro 2004. And his failure to win any silverware in three years in Madrid. But those five moments listed went a long way toward making him a particularly modern star.

The thing is, he cannot afford to be a bust. MLS can’t afford him to be one, either. Their last media blitz was over Freddy Adu, and so far he’s disappointed. Now MLS has the nation’s attention a second time, and they cannot afford to go 0 for 2.

Get used to Mr. Beckham, folks. You’re going to be seeing a lot of him, whether he earns it or not. I suspect he will.

-Brendan Hunt

(Administrator's note. If you enjoy the soccer writing here, you can read more past work from ThrilloftheHunt here.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh Hunt, your love for soccer is one for the ages. Go Bears!
Jolly Fingers
aka Shelto