His Royal Presence – David Beckham

By Paul Oberjuerge

David Beckham is making news again. But not quite the sort the English football international prefers. Typically, we’re talking about just how big a celebrity he is. Is he another Pele? Another Princess Di? Is he bigger than both of them? Put together? What is his wife, Victoria, aka “Posh Spice” up to? And what wacky names did he bestow on his sons again? Will there be a film career? Which is his latest tattoo? What is he doing with his hair now? And will he deign to speak to us in that nasal Cockney?

Hard to imagine that two summers ago he was being hailed as the potential prophet/savior for soccer on this side of the Atlantic, the man that the Los Angeles and Major League Soccer apparently had arranged to enrich to the tune of $250 million (in salary and endorsement deals) over five years — in exchange for His Royal Presence on the modest pitches of the United States.

And now? Beckham is back in MLS, and with the Galaxy, and the only sound louder than a sort of collective global yawn are the boos likely to rain down on his head when the Galaxy plays AC Milan in an exhibition on its home field, in Carson, Calif., on Sunday.

The onetime savior is still famous, but “infamy” is encroaching on that fame. Most of it centered around questions over whether this whole MLS gambit was 99 percent about burnishing Beckham’s star status, getting him and Victoria close to Hollywood and about expanding the Beckham brand into a consumer-rich milieu he previously hadn’t penetrated … and more like 1 percent for the sake of American soccer.

His mistake, it now is clear, is his lack of commitment to his American adventure. Which became clear when he coasted through the final months of the 2008 MLS season, escaped to AC Milan at his earliest convenience, decided not to come back in time for the start of the 2009 MLS season (buying himself out of that obligation) and then showing up with the Galaxy more than halfway through its schedule, with the criticisms of Galaxy captain (and American star) Landon Donovan ringing in his ears.

His return also comes the same week as a book entitled “The Beckham Experiment” was published. The author, Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, posits that the “experiment” referred to in the title has been a failure, one ruined by the Beckham entourage’s insistence on managing the Galaxy from behind the scenes, wrecking its chances of being a quality soccer side, never understanding the reduced standing of the sport in the country and then looking, quite openly, for an escape hatch not even halfway through the five-year deal.

And when Donovan famously suggested, in “The Beckham Experiment,” that Beckham was neither a good captain nor a good teammate from the moment Beckham-choice Ruud Gullit was fired as Galaxy coach, last August … well, the waters here are well and truly muddied, with Galaxy fans regularly debating whether Becks and Posh should take their slender posteriors back to the other side of the Atlantic and leave them there.

Beckham returned to an MLS pitch, Thursday night in New Jersey, and at least there were no fisticuffs between him and Donovan — or other Galaxy teammates critical of him in the Wahl book. The Galaxy rolled to a 3-1 victory against the New York Red Bulls, the worst club in MLS, and if
Beckham wasn’t a game-changing force he at least put in 70 minutes and drew the attention of the Red Bulls defense.

Meanwhile, Donovan — who Beckham had declared “unprofessional” for criticizing his play last season — scored one goal, assisted on another and clearly was the best player on the pitch. But they played nice, and if we didn’t know better we might think they perhaps even like each other, after some pro forma hugs and back slaps following Donovan’s goal. When, in fact, Donovan’s locker has been moved to the other side of the Galaxy locker room — after being right next to Beckham’s in 2007 and 2008.

The Sunday international friendly with AC Milan could prove a turning point in Beckham’s third (and presumably last) summer in Los Angeles. If local fans seem to have turned against him, well, he may as well pack up because the sales of those No. 23 Beckham Galaxy jerseys presumably are about to take a tumble. In the unlikely event fans rally around him, and the Galaxy continues to do well … we can’t say with any assurance Beckham will be playing with the club through 2011, as originally planned. But at least there remains the slim chance of it.

The world’s most famous striker of a soccer ball at rest was a bit off his form in the game against the Red Bulls. He bent a few balls but he didn’t quite get them where they would have been most beneficial, and he clearly was dragging after the first half-hour. Perhaps understandable, considering how many miles Beckham has put on his 34-year-old body while shuttling between continents and playing parts of two seasons in one year.

He played a sort of attacking midfield role, which isn’t quite normal for him. But his spot at right mid was taken by Donovan, who also has reclaimed the Galaxy captain’s armband from Beckham, a sort of twice-over tweak of the King David nose.

It appears the Galaxy, three years on, has regained control of its own operations and Beckham is seen as a very famous contributing player and not the be all and end all of the franchise. If New York is any gauge, his celebrity (in terms of MLS crowds) is on the wane.

In his first appearance in Giants Stadium with the Galaxy, in 2007, 66,237 tickets were sold. When Beckham and the Galaxy visited in 2008, 46,754 fans showed up. On Thursday night, the crowd was down to 23,238, indicating a two-thirds drop in “lookie-loo” interest for the erstwhile Golden Boy and whatever collection of modest Galaxy talent has trailed him onto the pitch.

Unless something odd happens, The Beckham Experiment seems very much finished. It was attempted. It failed. That happens a lot in the laboratory, too. Now all that remains is the conclusion of it all. He already seems to have overstayed his welcome. He is clear about wanting to return to AC Milan the moment the Galaxy season ends, and then hopes/intends to play for England in the 2010 World Cup, which would put him back in Los Angeles about in August of 2010 — or more probably, never.

So, there he goes, making a half-lap around the MLS for one last season, increasingly regarded by MLS fans as a sort of globetrotting carpetbagger, the bloom very much off the English rose. All we have left to see is how he exits, this fall. In a perfect world, it would be after the Galaxy has won the MLS Cup, but if he again becomes a divisive figure within the team, he could be freed as soon as Oct. 24 — the Galaxy’s last regular-season match.

It seems as if it would be in the best interests of everyone concerned if Beckham put Los Angeles in his rearview mirror. As soon as possible. For the Galaxy, which could free up some of the $4.5 million it pays Beckham on an annual basis and using it on players whose resolve is unquestioned. For Beckham, because worse than being unpopular, he is dangerously close to being irrelevant, and irrelevance is the greatest threat to the reputation of any global icon.

Paul Oberjuerge writes about soccer for the NY Times soccer blog Goal. He can be reached at: paul.oberjuerge@gmail.com