Saturday’s Major League Soccer final will mark David Beckham’s final match for Los Angeles Galaxy. Already an MLS Cup winner—he helped LA to last year’s championship against Houston Dynamo, who are also back in the title match—he’ll be off to Queens Park Rangers or Paris Saint-Germain or, if you believe the latest gossip, Monaco when the January transfer window opens in Europe.
In any event, his time in MLS will almost certainly draw to a close this weekend, and after earning several hundred million dollars over six seasons in North America’s top flight the question many people are asking is, “Was it worth it?”
Was the investment worth it? Was the time worth it? Was the hype worth it? Is football on this continent in a better place now than when he first arrived? And if so, how much did he have to do with it?
Personally, I prefer to leave the answers to the accountants and cultural critics who happen to dabble in football every now and then—like when there’s a big story. Like when a sportsman is generating so much puff that it requires analysing from a popular culture perspective.
I think David Beckham has more than fulfilled the mandate he was given when he arrived on these shores, and let me be the one to remind you that it wasn’t he who offered the wages and generated the mandate. One of those things was negotiated; the other was dictated to him by the league, the club owners and by many of the reporters who are now tackling these questions with enough cynicism to render their ultimate judgements absolutely worthless.
When I see David Beckham I see a footballer—not a pretty face whose lifestyle and arm-candy and overexposure have combined to make his critics jealous without knowing it, hateful without context. Is he overrated? There’s another meaningless question. Improperly rated, perhaps. Because when it comes to the rating of David Beckham, it’s extremely difficult to separate the set-piece specialist from the People magazine cover-boy.
Difficult, but of absolute importance.
Much of my admiration of Beckham was stirred during his final season at Real Madrid, where after completing the first half of the 2006-07 season he was banished from the first team by manager Fabio Capello following the Christmas break. Only four months prior he had been omitted from Steve McClaren’s first England squad, and while Capello’s decision was based largely on contract negotiations, McClaren’s was merely down to a greenhorn manager trying to appear ballsy. They both ate crow.
Capello recalled Beckham to his Real Madrid side for a February 10 game against Real Sociedad and, not surprisingly, the Englishman scored on his return, just as he had scored in his Champions League debut and again in the first match of his first full season at Manchester United. At the time Madrid were third in the Primera Division standings, but with Beckham back in the team they clawed their way into a share of first-place and, with the title race reaching its climax, Capello publicly ate his words.
“I told David the other day that I thought he has never been in such good form, either mentally or physically,” the Italian said. And then a hint for McClaren: “I can’t understand how a player who is playing so well can be left out of any national side.”
The very next day McClaren gave Beckham his England recall, and he was rewarded with a Beckham assist on John Terry’s opener against Brazil.
Eating crow has become customary for Beckham’s doubters, and Landon Donovan got a taste at the final whistle of last year’s MLS Cup when in the moment of victory Beckham, who had played through a hamstring injury en route to the title, lifted his teammate off the ground in celebration.
Less than three years earlier Donovan had heaped criticism on Beckham in Grant Wahl’s book, The Beckham Experiment, opining that Beckham was “not a leader…not a captain” and questioning the midfielder’s commitment. Then, a rather bizarre statement: “[Beckham] better be picking up meals, too,” he said when talking about his teammate’s wage packet, “or else I’ll call him out on it.”
Donovan, whose jealousy of Beckham’s success abroad when compared to his own futile attempts at a European career, might, in a way, have been a microcosm of all the resentment that had ever been aimed at the former England captain. But he certainly didn’t call anyone out on anything, and instead of a dinner tab it was Donovan, himself, that Beckham picked up after winning the championship.
In his post-match remarks Donovan praised Beckham for his demonstration of steel—comments that were quickly echoed by Bruce Arena.
“David is a champion,” marvelled the Galaxy manager. “I’ve been around great athletes and competitors in my life, and this guy is as good as it comes. [He has an] unbelievable desire to win. He’s a great teammate, a great person…He gutted it out tonight.”
Like I said, I see Beckham as a footballer. And as a footballer the qualities that make him special aren’t just the exceptional on-field vision and ridiculously over-acted, arm-swinging set-pieces. Sure, those things have always been part of the package, but what has continually set Beckham apart is his attitude, professionalism and commitment to personal training. As BBC pundit Sean Wheelock once told me, “He’s the fittest player in MLS. His fitness is as good as anyone’s in football.”
In 2007, the year Beckham moved to Los Angeles Galaxy from Real Madrid, the LA Daily news named him their “sports person of the year.” Their reasoning? “Because of his think-big spirit, the way he widened our view of sports, the commitment with which he took on both naysayers and unreasonable expectations.”
They might also have added the way he has, with a quiet dignity, withstood the fuss, the criticism and the outright dislike from those who have chosen to dislike him. Their minds might not be changed, but their thinking goes completely against that of Capello and Arena, and of the two managers whose quotes I’ll leave with you.
“I respect the fact that [Beckham] has always loved football, and he has always shown respect for his managers even when he was dropped. He didn’t come out in a silly way, a spoilt way. Also, he has always delivered when it was expected of him. He has shown toughness.” – Arsene Wenger
“David Beckham is Britain’s finest striker of a football, not because of God-given talent, but because he practices with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn’t contemplate. – Sir Alex Ferguson