Touching America

It was the debut we all expected? The celebrity entrance, the immaculate outfit, the thirst for publicity. Then Victoria Beckham made way for David to save US soccer, writes Kevin Mitchell.

A Los Angeles TV station, KTLA, on July 12: “Tonight, we show you what modern-day rock stars kinda look like as David and Victoria Beckham landed in LA on a flight from London, just after 8pm...”

Exterior, night, airport: A blizzard of flash-popping as subjects turn to wave at dumbstruck crowd.

Interior, night, TV studio, crisply dressed presenter: “There they were, the power couple, Becks and Posh, the superstar soccer player and his former Spice Girl wife, LA’s glam king and queen, getting the full press and paparazzi treatment at LAX. Meantime, in a new steamy photo strip, they bear it like Beckham...”

Exterior, night: Helicopter shot of Beckham and entourage, toting designer label luggage, moving into $22million mansion in Beverly Hills. This is Hollywood. This is the script. This is Beckham The Movie. The Haircut and Mrs Haircut could not be more at home.

It may not be the journey he envisaged when he was ferried up to Old Trafford, Manchester United’s home ground in the north west of England, from the East End of London by his dad as a tiny teenager. Nor would he have dreamt of the scenario maybe even a couple of years ago as a full-blown galactico at Real Madrid. But this is his life now for the next five years — if he sees out his $5.5m-a-year basic contract (plus $1m marketing bonus if he keeps his gorgeous face in front of America) with LA Galaxy. He will be 37 and London will be embarking on the 2012 Olympics when he finishes his commitment, probably $250m to the good.

That is the storyboard as it stands; in this town, the rewrite men make more than the scriptwriters.

There is no denying the Beckhams have made a very American, very Hollywood start. It is their shtick, as seasoned celebs, but this has been an impressive entrance.

At dawn on the big day, NBC are even more agitated than their rivals. “We are just hours away from the arrival of David Beckham, folks,” shouted the slickly groomed young man standing in the otherwise empty Home Depot Center in south Los Angeles. “And over there five hundred media outlets from around the world have gathered for what is being described as a milestone in sports marketing history!”

He holds up Beckham’s designated No 23 LA Galaxy shirt and his make-up threatens to run into his smile as he informs LA: “Guess what? They have had 250,000 requests for these babies already! At $80 apiece!”

It has been like this for days. What started as curiosity in January, when LA Galaxy announced he was coming, has morphed into media frenzy. The transfer of a soccer star from Europe to a local, underperforming team who play in front of 15,000 or so fans in a 27,000-seat stadium most weeks has Hollywood buzzing. Not to mention the rest of Major League Soccer. Ticket sales, according to the MLS, are up substantially at all but one the 12 teams he will play against this summer. Toronto, the new franchise where Beckham is expected to make his competitive debut next month, are sold out for two seasons, at 20,000 a home game; DC United have doubled their gate to 37,000; New York Red Bulls are up from a season’s average of 10,729 to 31,496. Most clubs are hitting home gate figures of 20,000-plus, some substantially more. There is no escaping the first-wave Beckham effect. The Galaxy have already felt the commercial heat rising: $20m in ticket and shirt sales and a new five-year sponsor kicking in another $20m. How did this happen — and why?

Whatever our cynicism, Beckham has touched America. In a recent survey, 90 per cent of Americans could not name a single MLS player; 51 per cent knew Beckham. But a lot of them knew him because he is married to a pop star whose thirst for publicity makes her the most desperate housewife in Hollywood. Certainly in her street.

Soon, though, reality will kick in. Two things are virtually certain about Beckham’s arrival as the Messiah appointed to save American soccer: heretics will dismiss him as an impostor before he kicks a ball and, if he fails, if someone steps on his precious metatarsals, if he gets the living daylights kicked out of him by jealous rivals working for a hundredth of his wages, those same disbelievers will send him on his way as loudly as the frothing enthusiasts greeted his descent from the clouds recently.

Beckham the footballer has it in his twinkling toes to confound what local columnist Christine Daniels (a fan) calls the ‘Soccer Haters’. If, as Beckham says himself, “it’s just about the football”, his progress may be relatively easy, after so many years at the top. And from what I have seen of the MLS this month, Beckham at his vibrant best could do a lot of damage to most defences.

As Gary Richards, the former English soccer league player who has an internet radio soccer show here, said: “They stand off, they are programmed. They are super-fit, but they spend most of their time passing out of trouble.”

I saw this in Chicago the other night, when Toronto, coached by former Scotland striker Mo Johnston, struggled to break down a desperate Fire defence, ragged, committed but appallingly naive.

At the Galaxy, Beckham has as a target for his curving crosses a smart, sharp forward in the Honduran Carlos Pavon. He stood out when he came on late to make his debut for the club against Chicago Fire recently.

Landon Donovan is classy, as is Cobi Jones, perhaps the two best American footballers of the past decade, but they are fading. Both are in the home stretch and Jones rarely plays more than 60 minutes.

This is a team that would struggle against lower division sides in England. There are one or two other half-decent players but the coach Frank Yallop, formerly of Norwich (UK) and Canada, has some task in marrying Beckham’s class to these disparate parts. As Dave Herman, spokesman for the Manchester United Supporters Club of America and a huge Beckham supporter, says: “The team he has joined are crap.” Second from bottom, Galaxy are in no position to argue with these assessments. At least there is no relegation here.

Beckham is 32 and, stretching the blasphemous metaphor of God-like intervention, he has no more than a year to save his backside and that of the sport in the US — otherwise they will crucify him. Pele was the first putative saviour, in the 1970s, and he had as his right-hand disciple Franz Beckenbauer. If Beckham fails, if his success is not sufficient to persuade other genuine ‘live’ stars to join him in the MLS within at least a couple of seasons, it is hard to know where American soccer goes from here.

The last Brit to grab the American sporting consciousness by its frontal lobes with the sheer force of his charisma was the boxer Naseem Hamed, who has since spent time in jail. If Beckham is not to follow in the path of the Prince’s magic carpet ride, he would do well to avoid the boxer’s formula of providing more entertainment with his prolonged ring entrance than his performance.

It is, he emphasises, “all about the football”. No doubt Beckham meant that when he addressed the multitude after his arrival, but he knows that this move had serious input from his wife, whose dormant singing career has suddenly been re-juiced. She was loving it to death in the stadium that Friday, all tight pink dress and shades, pouting and posing for her screaming audience, a weird warm-up for her David, whose entry in brilliantly cut grey was as dignified as we have come to expect.

Later, he said what was expected of him, polite and charming as ever. For all the protestations this week of Alexi Lalas, formerly of the eccentric hair and now the president of the Galaxy, raising football from the dead is precisely what Beckham’s mission is. There is little point, otherwise, in MLS and the drooling sponsors shovelling so much money his way.

As befits a Messiah, Beckham ignored earthly superstitions and chose to descend among his new flock on Friday the 13th. He told an Austrian journalist: “They’d tried to move it, but I said there was no problem about it for me. So today’s the day.” Grinning and charmingly gormless, as ever, the man who would be king of American soccer — if only people would stop watching other sports — declared himself excited to be playing out the sunset of his golden days here. Beckham has a financial cushion that will help to make life cut along quite nicely for him and his beautifully browned partner from the planet Comeback and their three lovely children in a street in Beverly Hills inhabited by their pals Tom and Katie and who knows what other celebrities.

Tom Cruise, it was rumoured recently, was going to put $40m into the Galaxy. That will make for an interesting chat at their next barbecue. It is a long way from other real life in LA, where a lot of people hold down two jobs to get by. My cab driver to the ground — along Victoria Street, as it happens — also works for security at the hotel I am staying in. “This is the city,” as Sergeant Joe Friday used to say in Dragnet, the cult 1950s TV cops classic. But Los Angeles is no place for innocent angels now. And it is a lot farther from Beverly Hills to the tough streets of south Los Angeles, Galaxy’s earth base, than you would gather from any map.

Compton — the drive-by shooting gallery the tennis-playing Williams sisters left behind — is a gunshot away (although Carson itself is a drab stretch of malls, warehouses and chain stores). At a game there on July 4, against Chicago Fire, nearby fireworks might have had the soccer moms a little jumpy. Not that attending a Galaxy match is hell once you get to your seat after having the valet slide your car into a well-guarded slot in the car park. The discomfort comes from watching a team crabbing about the sea-bed of the MLS’s western conference.

Dave Herman, the Manchester United-mad Beckham fan from Chicago who went to seven matches at Old Trafford last season and is about as hard-core an American soccer fan as you could imagine, would love Beckham to succeed but doubts he has gone to the best club.

“The people there are good property owners, but not smart football people,” he said. He reckons that the club would be buzzing had they been placed more centrally. As it is, it is a trek to get there and you would never dream of trying it by public transport. He doubts, also, if Americans who crave the ‘seven-minute effect’, a thrill between hot-dogs, have yet to be persuaded that soccer is the game for them. The Galaxy folk, though, are smart enough businessmen to pay the rest of the staff nowhere near what they are shelling out for Beckham. Chris Albright, 28 and a fringe US team player, is on $142,500; goalkeeper Joe Cannon, 32, earns $192,000; Donovan, the only player who comes remotely close to Beckham’s wages, is on $900,000; Jones took a paycut from $180,000 to $95,000 to eke out one more season.

Elsewhere in the squad, the rookies get peanuts: Ty Harden and Mike Randolph $17,700, Kevin Harmse $40,800, Troy Roberts $30,000. Beckham will know these numbers. But he batted away suggestions that any disparity in earning power would create tensions in the team. He may be right; some of these young footballers will be thrilled just to be on the same plane going to away games — even if they are down the back of the bus. American soccer now, Beckham said, is more stable than when Pele and George Best lit it up briefly in the 1970s. It may be. But it is a long way from perfect, a long way from eating into the mainstream of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.

Life for the Beckhams is surreal right now. It will even out when the novelty wears off, when the Galaxy can carry on in virtual obscurity at the back end of the sports pages.

“We’ve had three-and-a-half weeks’ holiday and we’ve just wanted to get here, settle,” the main man said. “It’s nice.”

And he is nice. Beckham, remarkably for all he has been through, remains immovably decent. He can see hard questions coming, but he never hides. He does not make the mistake of pretending that his arrival has not been one big hoopla, one nod to Hollywood and another, ever so small nod to football.

“People were questioning the reasoning behind me coming to America, but to me it’s always been about the soccer — football to you guys (nodding at the considerable British press corps in attendance). That’s always been behind the reasoning of every move I’ve made in my career, from playing for Manchester United to moving to Spain and now moving to Los Angeles to play for the Galaxy.”

What mitigates against unreservedly accepting such a view is the presence here, there and everywhere of Posh. She could not contain her excitement about the move to the sunny, glitzy, hyped West Coast, to move among her celebrity friends, to soak up the attention of every pap, of every reporter and every fan.

David has done well to move in the same direction as his wife. Their life in La-La Land from this point on will be as much about her as it will be about him: and who is to say that is such a bad thing?

It is just that some people do not have a handle on that. They think, as David says, this is “all about the soccer”. No. It is about a rare collision of fame and talent, of sport and showbiz, of money and more money. Beckham hopes that he can do what people expect of him, but he warns that he might not. He knows, deep down, it probably will not happen. But, as Posh said when he was sent off against Argentina during the 1998 World Cup: “At least your hair looked nice, babe.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007