Beckham's U.S. mission

Beckham is by no means the world's best footballer, but he is no talent deficient mid-fielder who fluked it as a superstar. He has made a career out of silencing critics and overcoming challenges. It will be interesting to see how Beckham, an icon in the sporting world, does in a country, the United States, that doesn't see beyond its sporting world, writes Nandita Sridhar.

David Beckham is a subject removed from consensus. The brouhaha surrounding his $250 million transfer to Los Angeles Galaxy was not so much a consequence of the plot as it was the cast. The world's most recognised footballer with an image that smothered his dead-ball skills, an omnipresent prototypical celebrity wife replete with mammoth shades, and finally, wiping out all traces of neutrality, a Hollywood connection in Tom Cruise.

Trashing Beckham is always in vogue. His move from football to soccer — engineered by Cruise — has been called everything from a henpecked husband's compulsion to a ticket to Hollywood to a move designed to satisfy his avarice, and finally an irrational decision driven by desperation after both national and club-level failures. Such conjecture at this stage is pointless, now that the move has already been made. What is relevant now is what difference his move will make. What can the Beckham package deliver in a sporting nation that has its mind sufficiently occupied with American football, baseball and basketball?

America presents an irresistible combination of wealth and indifference. There is this challenge that it throws up; the need to catch its attention and enjoy the unending financial rewards that would follow. The insular sporting nation, passionate about its chosen sports, is equally quick in pushing the others to the periphery. But continuous efforts towards building a solid spectator and player base for soccer is bearing fruit.

The seeds were earlier sown by Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best who turned in for teams in the US in response to lucrative offers and seeking relative anonymity. Pele's presence was big, with his last match — an exhibition between New York Cosmos and Santos — played in front of a then unthinkable sell-out crowd. The huge participation among school children, the success of the women's international team in general and Mia Hamm in particular and the men's teams going deeper in World Cups have made an impact.

Financially speaking, soccer-specific stadiums in close proximity to soccer-crazy localities are slowly materialising, and TV rights and clothing sponsors indicate that things are not stagnating; but despite that soccer still remains in the periphery, which ambitious men like Galaxy manager Alexi Lalas are never going to settle for. Major League Soccer and Galaxy are both in need of an image change. Lalas has invested both in faith and in cash on Beckham. On the face of it, the move seems high-risk, with the initial euphoria seemingly doomed to die a natural death. But Lalas looks at it as a vital part of the bigger picture.

"Beckham is not going to change anything overnight but the hope is that this will be a big stepping stone towards the point where we see ourselves in 20 years. We want to emerge as America's first super-club, to compete with Madrid and Man United. Some might say that's a pipe-dream but I prefer to call it our vision," said Lalas in an interview to the Guardian.

Beckham himself has always looked at the US as his swansong destination. His was never the irrational impulsive move that people perceive. Having set up a football academy at Los Angeles a few years ago the idea was taking shape since then.

"I didn't want to go there at 34 years old and for people to say he's only going for the money. It's not what I'm going out there to do. I want to take soccer in the US to another level. I think it can go higher in America than anyone can believe. Soccer is huge all around the world except in America and that's where I want to make a difference with the kids," said Beckham earlier this year.

The Englishman's work ethic has never come under question. His time in the US would be well spent on the field. How much change he can bring to the fortunes of a languishing Galaxy is doubtful, but there's no doubt he will try. For a scoring obsessed nation, his dead-ball skills when translated into goals could prove an instant success. But there are no large-scale miracles expected from him or Galaxy. The league is physically demanding owing largely to the physical nature of American football which is ingrained in the American psyche. His 32-year-old injury-prone body will have it tough keeping up.

But off the field, Beckham is equally sincere in projecting himself as a globally recognised celebrity. He has an unquenchable thirst for publicity, and the US is possibly the only significant mass of land that has remained relatively detached.

It presents a chance for a different sort of a conquest. The vibrant lifestyle resonates well with his and his wife's. He will fit in very well, which is what matters.

By the looks of it, Beckham the personality and the celebrity will generate a lot of interest. Even if things wear-off after the first few months, he would have created a significant image change that could prove irreversible. There is little doubt that the big three (American football, baseball, basketball) will always remain on top, but if Beckham does succeed in widening soccer's base, then the Englishman's impact on worldwide soccer could get even more profound.

But Beckham the footballer will have challenges. Americans don't so much care for excellence as they care for homegrown excellence, which explains why Roger Federer is grossly under-marketed in the US. Beckham is by no means the world's best footballer, but he is no talent deficient mid-fielder who fluked it as a superstar. He has made a career out of silencing critics and overcoming challenges. It will be interesting to see how Beckham, an icon in the sporting world, does in a country that doesn't see beyond its sporting world.