Saturday, July 21, 2007

David Beckham - Bend It Like Pele

Not more than a half hour ago, history was made in Los Angeles at the Home Depot Center. With a capacity crowd including a not-too-shabby 11,000 season ticket holders, a large and eclectic mix of A-list celebrities, and no less than 19 ESPN TV camera's mounted around the stadium, the suspense and speculation came to an end. The hype, however, may be far from over with this one, especially if it has legs. It being he. He being David Beckham, the former English, Manchester United captain, and most recently a member of the Spanish League champion squad, Real Madrid. He being the biggest star to play professional soccer in the United States since Pele retired for the final time. Anyone with a little knowledge of professional soccer in the US knows how soccer fared with that go around, but this is different. In 1975, Pele signed the biggest professional sports contract in history to play for the New York Cosmos of the North American Professional Soccer League. The million dollar signing was unheard of at the time in sports, but the Cosmos were trying to establish a brand in a country that was enamored with Football and Baseball. Here we are 32 years later and Beckham has signed one of the biggest sports contracts in the world to play for an American league that is inferior to every league he's played in, but listen very closely when the Major League Soccer officials whisper: "Beckham was not brought here to save soccer. Soccer doesn't need saving."
I couldn't agree more. The MLS has already lasted far longer than any other outdoor professional soccer leagues and it's star players are younger and better than the men who came before them. Soccer is a niche sport in the US and comparing it leagues like MLB, the NBA, and the NFL isn't fair. Now Beckham might not be a spring chicken, but in soccer years, he's a young 32-year-old and in better shape that most. Pele on the other hand, had already retired at least once and with well-documented monetary issues, was easily persuaded by the lucrative cash.
Having lived in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and being a 17-year fan of Manchester United - long before Beckham arrived at Old Trafford - This was a unique opportunity for me to see a great team that played minutes from my former home, to see a former Man U star, and to see the fans, media, and camera flashes usher in another era in Beckham's career.
Less than a week a ago, after merely one practice, it looked as though the debut of the English superstar known best for his free kicks and his amazing ball-placing ability, may be put off until his ankle healed. The very thought of which sent ESPN executives into a tizzy. Prime time on Saturday night with that many cameras to just see the Los Angeles Galaxy? Well, Landon Donavon's a good player, but he's no David Beckham. Can he play on the same field as Beckham, talent-wise? No doubt. Does anyone know? Nope, but this isn't the reason to pick apart why Donavon and Beckham aren't sharing the spotlight. That's a whole different blog and I'd rather wait to see what happens the next time a European club starts calling. If he snubs yet another for the security and low pressure of the MLS, well, then perhaps we'll address the issue, but for now, the pressure is all on Beckham. Just don't tell him. For all intents and purposes, he acts like it's all just another normal day.
With a newly taped ankle, Beckham was substituted in with 12 minutes to go in the match. The crowd went crazy and there may have even been the hint of a smile on Mr. Beckham's face. After an unwelcome, but fair tackle about 7 minutes later, Beckham got back to his feet. For a moment, as he was charging the ball, it was as though this night wasn't all about the pageant surrounding the player. As we know, this match was a friendly, a mere pre-season match for Chelsea, and hopefully the parade before the big game.
The truth is that Beckham could truly have an impact on his team. He has the leg and accuracy to make a connection with Donavon the most prolific scoring forward in the MLS. Make no mistake, this isn't some farewell tour like Pele enjoyed in New York. Beckham may be taking this assignment more seriously than any other. Soccer pundits think that Beckham may have come to the US to escape the pressure and huge talent pool of the European leagues, but the irony is that just a month ago, Beckham won Spain's biggest futball honor, which was just after he was called back up to the English squad to show the brilliance the team had almost forgotten about. David Beckham is far from done proving people wrong. Tonight he got a brief taste of Hollywood. When all is said and done, I'm curious is Hollywood will portray him as the hero they have portrayed Pele.