Becks needs to conjure some magic

David Beckham’s return to MLS highlights low attendances and his football is simply not good enough for Fabio Capello or England, writes Dominic Fifield.

David Beckham’s uneasy relationship with Major League Soccer has been resumed. The England midfielder departed the turf at the Giants stadium some 20 minutes from the end of Los Angeles Galaxy’s embarrassingly comfortable victory at New York Red Bulls with a smile and a clap for all corners of the colosseum, though the boos rang out regardless. The pantomime villain of the moment has returned.

The jeers had pursued him all night, erupting at his every set-piece and chorusing any significant involvement. He was showered in ripped up newspaper whenever he took a corner, every misplaced pass prompting whoops of derision from the home support though, in truth, he hardly seemed to notice. Beckham has been through worse than this and, having missed the first 17 games of the current US season after extending his loan spell at Milan, would not have expected anything else.

Another public relations exercise lies ahead if he is to convince the American public that his heart is in what remains a rather pedestrian league — certainly when compared to the standard of football Fabio Capello has insisted the veteran needs to be playing if he is to retain an involvement in the England set-up — and not more pointedly fixed on a return to an elite club in Europe.

There were plenty of aspects of Beckham’s return that were utterly predictable.

His was a metronomic performance in a deep-lying midfield role, his only real opportunities to influence the game coming from set-pieces and link ups spreading the play to Eddie Lewis and Landon Donovan down the flanks. He drew a foul from the Red Bulls’ Macoumba Kandji in the first minute, and celebrated pointedly with Donovan — the man restored to the captaincy who had publicly questioned the Englishman’s commitment and professionalism in a recently published book — when the US international emphatically volleyed the visitors two goals to the good.

Similarly, the boos had been anticipated. It is hardly unusual for home supporters to tear strips off the visitors’ star player. Beckham has experienced hostile receptions at the Giants stadium before, and could draw inspiration from the obvious reality that he is still considered a threat. Neither was this abuse comparable to, for example, the vitriol afforded the midfielder upon his return to the Premier League after his infamous red card against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup finals.

What will be far more intriguing is how the Galaxy fans treat him when he returns to Los Angeles — ironically for a sell-out friendly against Milan shortly — given that a sense of betrayal apparently still smoulders amongst their ‘hardcore’ support over his willingness to prolong his stay in Italy. The ‘LA Riot Squad’ have taken to bellowing “We don’t need no David Beckham”, adapting Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, and he must convince them that he is committed to life at the Home Depot Centre rather than in San Siro.

Yet, the scepticism surrounding the viability of the ‘Beckham Experiment’, the title of Grant Wahl’s book which featured Donovan’s comments, will remain. Two years ago, some 66,237 fans attended the Red Bulls’ 5-4 victory against the Galaxy, Beckham’s first MLS start. There were almost 50,000 last year despite the New York club averaging under 14,000 for home games. Some 23,238 turned up for this match, a smattering in such a massive stadium. As a barometer of a nation’s enthusiasm for soccer, that fell rather short of encouraging. The Beckham effect was supposed to put fans on seats, yet this game was played out beneath vast deserted tiers.

Beckham wondered post-match whether the dip in the crowd figure reflected “the recession”. Certainly, this fixture would have attracted more supporters had it been played at the weekend rather than on a Thursday night, though more would also have flooded through the turnstiles had the local team shown any kind of form at all this term. The Red Bulls have now failed to win any of their last 11 MLS games. Those fans who remained celebrated Juan Pablo Angel’s late penalty, but still departed downbeat after the former Aston Villa striker had a second spot-kick saved by Donovan Ricketts in the last minute.

One reporter pointed out to a dumbfounded Beckham after the game that Galaxy had just beaten “a really, really bad team”. More troubling to Beckham, 34, would surely have been the poor standard of so much of the football, scrappy and lethargic if illuminated by the visitors’ trio of wonderful goals. Alecko Eskandarian’s early volley took the breath. Lewis’ glorious third, thumped in from the edge of the area, opened a chasm between the teams.

This league needs such flashes of brilliance to retain the locals’ enthusiasm and continue to develop. Beckham, for his part, insists he has had a positive effect on the MLS, despite seeing his impact hampered by an ankle injury and, more recently, his absence in Serie A. “I think what I’ve done for the league so far has been very successful,” he said. “It seems to have had a successful effect on the league: eight new franchises, new stadia going up, attendances up wherever I’ve played. The league has grown over the last two years, and that’s the reason I wanted to be a part of this. We’re interested in this development.” The fact that television audiences remain so small reflects just how much work is still to be done.

For now, Beckham has people to win over. The figures trumpeted at his unveiling two years ago suggested that, with commercial opportunities, the midfielder could net more than $250m from the five-year deal in Los Angeles. Up to now, there have been five goals, 12 assists and 31 games. The Galaxy will only forgive him his apparent divided loyalties — LA, England, Milan — if he conjures some magic to dazzle them on the pitch. There is work to be done to transform the jeers into cheers.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009