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'There's this delusion that the Premiership is gre


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'There's this delusion that the Premiership is great'

Alexi Lalas bristles at talk of a second-rate league and says LA Galaxy offer a new world to David Beckham

Donald McRae

Tuesday June 19, 2007

The Guardian


"We may be Americans but we're not stupid," Alexi Lalas says wryly as, in his role as the president of LA Galaxy, he leans back in his boardroom and strokes the smooth and gleaming jaw-line which used to be covered by the most famous ginger beard in world football. "We know when we're being patronised and I get so irritated when I hear the experts in England talk about David Beckham as if he's going into semi-retirement by leaving Real Madrid for Los Angeles.

"That's ignorance of the first degree because almost every one of those critics has not even seen a single MLS [Major League Soccer] game. It's insulting to us and to our sport to say Beckham is on his way to Hollywood when he's coming to play in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. There are a lot of stars in European football who would struggle over here. But Beckham has done his homework on this league, and his team-mates, and he recognises the merit of American soccer."

Beckham will play football in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Carson rather than Hollywood. The 60ft palm trees may sway gently in the breeze along Avalon Boulevard, leading to the Galaxy's Home Depot Center, but even on a summer morning they are shrouded in smog, an image that chimes with Lalas's reminder that a significant part of Los Angeles is still a blue-collar town, driven by immigrant industry as much as the glamour of the Hollywood hills.

When Beckham begins the next stage of his career, playing for the Galaxy on a five-year, $250m (£128m) deal from mid-to-late July onwards, the football is likely to lack much of the skill and creativity he experienced at Manchester United and Real Madrid. Lalas inadvertently confirms as much: "The MLS is much more physically challenging than people expect. There is a lot of running and hard tackling, a lot of heat and travel."

The image of Lalas as a wild-haired copperknob from Detroit, trying to hack it as a footballer in Serie A, has been replaced by a highly quotable spokesman for US soccer. If he makes much of English football's apparent decline he also puts a notable spin on the MLS's credibility.

"English football now has the haves and the have-nots, and even the top four in the Premiership may be narrowing down to two. But because of the structure of our league and the salary cap our competition runs deep. It's just that the Premiership have become so skilled in presentation. They took a page out of American football and now have Saturday Showdowns and Super Sundays. I love it. This is high-calibre marketing: taking an inferior product and improving it through packaging."

He laughs at the irony that an American soccer executive should accuse the Premiership of being all style and no substance. "You know," he says with a mischievous glint, "there's no accounting for bad taste. The fact that a segment of the world worships an inferior product in the Premiership is their business. In England our league is considered second-class but I honestly believe if you took a helicopter and grabbed a bunch of MLS players and took them to the perceived best league in the world they wouldn't miss a beat and the fans wouldn't notice any drop in quality."

Even a helicopter at the disposal of the Galaxy's president would not be large enough to hold more than a few MLS players, which probably explains why it is Lalas's chosen mode of transport for his fantasy excursion. He argues instead that the United States' performances over the past five World Cups can be compared favourably with England's.

"There's this delusion that if it's English then it's great. But a whole world exists outside of England. That's reflected in the difficulties they had when everyone ran to the Premiership. Maybe it's OK for the fan but for the average development of the English player the game is struggling. And in terms of pure football I would choose La Liga. That's why I've been thrilled at the way Beckham turned everything around at Madrid."

Lalas insists that, even when Real Madrid were making their most optimistic noises that they might hold on to Beckham, "we've left him alone. First off he was still part of Madrid and we respected that - and last week was one of the most important weeks in his life. Winning La Liga has been a fitting end to an incredible ride for him but I never had concerns about him not coming here. I've come to realise that there is always a tremendous amount of theatre whenever you deal with Madrid. I know they'd love to keep him but we've signed a very good player and a very good person."

He cites as a measure of Beckham's character his reaction to being told by Fabio Capello early this year that he would never play for Real Madrid again. Beckham stood up in a packed dressing room and, speaking in Spanish, forced Capello to address that statement. "He's just been very impressive all the way through. The craziness around him gets bigger and bigger but he focuses on what he's best at: playing football."

Beckham's enduring ability to hit raking passes and pinpoint crosses has resulted in a near-hysterical reaction to some competent performances on his return for England. Lalas concedes that it has now become unthinkable for Steve McClaren to do another u-turn and exclude Beckham simply because he is playing in America. "While it is going to challenge us from a business and a competitive standpoint if he's flying 6,000 miles to play games for England, I'll back him all the way. I told you a few months ago I'd drive him to the airport if he got picked for England and that promise holds. If you sit down and talk to David you quickly understand how representing his country has meant so much to him. It has nothing to do with money or prestige. It's simply the honour. And, listen, it's also a great tribute to the Galaxy to have one of our players representing England."

Yet McClaren and Lalas must both be concerned about a schedule which the Galaxy president describes as "ugly". Apart from representing LA Galaxy, Beckham is expected to visit every MLS club in his first few months and he will probably shake as many hands as he will fly tens of thousands of miles. "We can discuss things with England and look at the situation because it affects us all. But we will always abide by Fifa regulations and release him."

The swiftness with which Lalas moved in signing Beckham six months ago illustrates his pragmatism and vision. "We had a very small window of opportunity in January and we made it happen. Tim Leiweke, the head of AEG [which owns LA Galaxy], sat down with me and we said this is a guy who can help us win games and transform our image. So the machine started up and we did everything we possibly could to make it enticing to David because we knew this was a unique opportunity. There is a risk but this is a growing business and you need to do big, bold things to get to that next level.

"Beckham is not going to change anything overnight but the hope is that this will be a big stepping stone towards the point where we see ourselves in 20 years. We want to emerge as America's first super-club, to compete with Madrid and Man United. Some might say that's a pipe-dream but I prefer to call it our vision."

Part of that ambition extends to the idea that a world club championship might eventually rival the Champions League, with the likes of Manchester United playing LA Galaxy and Barcelona meeting River Plate on a regular basis. "In this global economy I'd say that's almost inevitable. It's what we're working towards."

Lalas, at 36, has come a long way from the bearded, guitar-playing wizard. Did all the grunge and madness disappear the day he shaved off his notorious beard? "I cleaned up on the outside but I'm still a mess on the inside. For a long time it conveyed a certain immaturity and I milked it all the way. And then I shaved it off in 2000. I was in Sydney, doing some TV work for the Olympics, and it was the end of a long night for me and Anne, my then girlfriend and now my wife.

"We all do strange things when we come in late at night so there's me, the beard, a hotel bathtap and a razor. It looked like surgery. We actually filmed it because it felt like an iconic moment - never before in the history of football has so much been made of so little facial hair. We should probably put it on YouTube, maybe on the day David arrives in Los Angeles. But it'll be Beckham, rather than the beard, that will give us a million hits and more . . ."

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