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  • Review: The Beckham Experiment


    David Beckham.

    David blessed Beckham.

    David blessed Beckham of the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer in the United States of America.


    Here’s the quote – direct from Milan, back in the spring, where Beckham famously stayed to play in Serie A rather than rejoin the Galaxy for training camp:

    “I’m committed to the Galaxy and my teammates there,” Beckham said. “But at the moment, I need to play my football here.”

    The quote comes late in “The Beckham Experiment,” the all-new inside-out expose of Beckham’s MLS flirtation, ably chronicled by Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl.

    It is a tale of commercial success – and catastrophic on-field failure.

    And while there are many fingers that can be pointed (and flipped) over the awful crumbling ruination of a once-proud and successful MLS cornerstone franchise, the book makes – and dutifully backs up – several serious charges:

    - Beckham quit on his teammates.

    - Beckham failed as a captain.

    - Beckham and his handlers were solely responsible for the disastrous 2008 hiring of Ruud Gullit as Galaxy coach.

    - MLS, in its present strait-jacket of salary and roster restrictions, is no fit place for a global soccer superstar to ply his trade.

    Much has been made, in the run-in to publication, about Galaxy striker Landon Donovan, and the public criticisms he lays on Beckham in the book. Bad attitude, lack of commitment, last to arrive, first to leave – Donovan runs through a battery of condemnation … over a lovely lunch of lamb, cheese and wine at a swanky Greek bistro in La-La Land.

    But by the time we get there, Wahl has already made all those points – and more – down to the finest details. Donovan’s comments not only seem reasonable, they effectively summarize everything we’ve read up to that point.

    Man, I am not in the habit of feeling sorry for Landon Donovan. He’s just a little too Disney-Corp and “We’re Number One” for me to ever take seriously. But when he talks about teammates making less than $20,000 (U.S.) needing an inspiring word from Captain Beckham, and getting only silence and frustrated arm gestures instead, I can certainly sympathize.

    To summarize, Beckham in America was dreamed up largely by Simon Fuller, Becks’ top handler and the man who gave us all American Idol. As an exercise in jersey selling, ticket hawking and making the world aware of MLS, it’s actually gone pretty well. The Galaxy are a whimpering disaster on the field, but their bankers and backers are not complaining.

    What we didn’t know: After L.A. missed the playoffs in 2007 – Becks’ first MLS season – Fuller’s entertainment conglomerate took over the team in a silent, unpublicized coup. G.M. and president Alexi Lalas (another guy I’m not in the habit of shedding tears for) was reduced to a figurehead, but still allowed to take the blame for what happened next.

    That would be – the hiring of Dutch soccer legend Ruud Gullit as Galaxy coach. Gullit wanted nothing to do with MLS roster restrictions, disbelievingly butting up against them time after time. The most incredible charge? In the two months he had to prepare L.A. for what turned out to be a horrendous 2008 campaign, Gullit never once drilled the team on free kicks.

    Think about that. You’ve got a roster made up largely of fringe pros and raw rookies – and one of the all-time greatest dead-ball specialists the sport has ever seen. Wouldn’t it make sense to let those well-meaning journeymen and kids see what bending it like Beckham actually looks like? Wouldn’t it make sense to let Becks kick a hundred balls at them, so the great man himself could get a read on how his teammates would respond to the actual ball in the air?

    No. And everyone blamed Lalas, even though he had opposed the hiring from the start. Gullit was actually brought in by … David Beckham’s best friend.

    There’s a lot in this book, folks, but it is a little slow getting started. The opening chapters read like People magazine pablum, and the soccer fan in me was wondering if the game itself was ever going to matter.

    No worries. Wahl’s soccer writing is deep, and incisive. He takes apart game after game, going into quite satisfying detail as the Galaxy pancake painfully on runway after runway after runway.

    In the end, “The Beckham Experiment” is a useful handbook in how to make lots of money in American soccer – and utterly gut and destroy a cornerstone franchise.

    In just three days – on Thursday night – Beckham returns to the Galaxy, in a much-hyped Jersey Swamp match with New York Energy Drink (speaking of gutted and destroyed cornerstone franchises). It’s the third year of his five-year deal with L.A., and the man himself has already made it clear his only real focus is making England’s roster for the 2010 World Cup.

    Major League Soccer, for all its naivety and strangeness, would be far better served if this whole mess ended now. David Beckham has proven he lacks the emotional commitment to endure the odd and chronic backwardness of Our Little League.

    I think we’d all be better served if Galaxy coach Bruce Arena – who was hired by the team, not by Beckham’s entourage – invited Becks to watch as many MLS games as he’d ever care to … in a suit, on the Galaxy bench.

    In this matter, the league has far more pride than the player. It would be lovely if MLS showed it.


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