The Beckham fiasco

AP

It is hard to make any sense, other than from David Beckham's own point of view, of the ludicrous contract he has been given by the Los Angeles Galaxy Club. A five-year contract alleged to be worth �128 million, making him the richest footballer in the world. This at the very time when his international career with England has ground to a belated halt, and he cannot even find a regular starting place with Real Madrid. Moreover, the capacity of the Galaxy's little stadium is a mere 87,000. Gone are the days when the Los Angeles franchised club, first the Aztecs then the Galaxy, played in the huge, all too open spaces of the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl.

Beckham in the USA will retain his so called image rights, one of the alleged causes of his rupture with Real being that they were not prepared to sustain the promise of their previous President, Perez, that he could keep them all, but wanted to cut it down to 50 percent. Since Beckham is already a multi-millionaire, he will doubtless be pretty unperturbed that his "image" in the States, where professional soccer remains essentially a marginal sport, can scarcely be worth what it was in Europe and in the Far East.

I have been following the development, or the lack of it, of professional soccer in America since 1967, when it was re-launched after many decades of absence. In fact that had been a brief efflorescence in the 1920s when well-known Scottish players such as Alec Jackson, outside right in the so called Wembley Wizards team which thrashed England 5-1 in 1928, decamped to the States where money was more attractive. But he and others did not stay for very long.

In 1967 two separate competing pro Leagues were launched, and I found myself out there covering both for the New York Times each Sunday. One, the official League, was not yet fully up and running, since it consisted of "franchised" clubs competing under the names of the putative American teams. Thus, the so called New York Skyliners were in fact the Cerro team from Montevideo, Wolves, whom I managed to acquire for the sports tycoon Jack Kent Cooke, played for Los Angeles, Cagliari for the Chicago franchise.

This league was blessed by the recognition of FIFA. The supposedly "rebel" League, including the so called New York Generals, was not. It put together teams of foreign players, many in their veteran years, including as famous a figure, but a somewhat slow and heavy one now, as the triple international ex-Barcelona star, Ladislao Kubala, who played for Toronto in the same team as his son. The following year, the Leagues amalgamated.

But support was severely lacking, till in the 1970s, after the league had faced permanent extinction and the NASL emerged, the Ertegun brothers, Ahmed and Nesuhi, devoted soccer fans and proprietors of Atlantic Records, together with Steve Ross, the head of Warner Communications, poured fortunes into the New York Cosmos team, playing out at Giants Stadium, in New Jersey.

The coup of all coups was to bring the incomparable Pele out of retirement. For all his protestation that he had come to put soccer on the American map, the truth was that he was bankrupt, having dropped some $4.5 million through being innocently involved with the collapse of a company called Filolax, which he had joined at the behest of his former Santos and Brazil team-mate Zito. The man who, many years earlier, had introduced him to an agent called Pepe Gordo, who made off with all his money.

For a short and golden while, the Cosmos put together a glittering team which played before huge attendance, but completely unbalanced the NASL. Carlos Alberto, 1970 Brazil right back and World Cup captain, played. So did the powerful and versatile Dutchman Johan Neeskens. And Italy's ex-centre forward Giorgio Chinaglia not only played, but thanks to his friendship with Steve Ross, actually became the club President.

The NASL even achieved television rights of its matches on ABC TV but it was all too good and too top heavy to last. The League predictably collapsed, but when the USA was allocated the 1994 World Cup, hopes and plans were revived. Writing at the time for the New York Post, I predicted that the World Cup would be a supreme success, which indeed it was, but that its effect on the planned national league could be only deeply negative. Having seen the best American sports fans, used only to the best in other sports, wouldn't tolerate the second or third rate football with ageing or inexperienced players which would be all the new so called Major League soccer — when at last after a couple of years it got going — could offer them.

I still had vivid memories of visiting the incomparable George Best when making a television documentary; he was playing in the NASL for the Los Angeles Aztecs and living by a beach. "They'll be saying," he told me, "who is George Best? But not long ago, they'd be saying, what is soccer?"

Beckham rightly points out that vast numbers of American youths and boys, not to mention women, are playing soccer, and hopes to bridge the gap between them and an MLS which they steadfastly fail to support. I don't see how he can do it. Playing at junior level is one thing, going to watch the frankly second rate soccer which is all the MLS can offer — the best American players regularly set off for Europe — is something else entirely. And if Pele couldn't do it, what hope has Beckham, who could never be compared with the maestro, even when he was at his now remote best?

George Best himself, to be fair, was somewhat past his meridian when he came to Los Angeles. Now Beckham is talking of bringing Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and the like to the Galaxy. But even were he to do so, what would this do but unbalance the League, just as the Cosmos did in their brief days in the sun?

Alexei Lalas, an impetuous centre half in his day and now a seemingly impetuous general manager of the Galaxy, is already burbling nonsense about conquering the world. It could even be quite difficult to convince the Galaxy's largely Latino, knowledgeable, support that Beckham is the great star which the club, the MLS and the wealthy Anschutz backer expect him to be. Overall, it does look a glorious deal for Beckham. But for the Club? For the MLS? For American soccer?