Why US love affair with Becks is on the rocks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 January, 2011, 12:00am

The prospect of David Beckham making an emotional return to the English Premier League is the talk of January's customary comings and goings. But while Britain may be buzzing, America's love affair with the veteran could be on the rocks.

Hailed as the messiah of Major League Soccer (MLS) when he signed four years ago, Beckham is still waiting for his first piece of silverware with Los Angeles Galaxy after a succession of injuries that have limited him to just 55 appearances. And although soccer's future seems solid, Beckham's presence in Southern California has done little to change the national sporting landscape.

So it is understandable that some LA fans are voicing their dismay at the former England captain's eagerness to go on a third loan spell across the Atlantic Ocean.

'How about this selfish damn pig plays at least half the games in a Galaxy season at least once during his contract,' was one comment on an MLS online forum. 'How about he shows some commitment to this club to match his words?'

Beckham has apparently discovered that the reality of living and playing in the US is a lot different to what he'd imagined when he was enticed away from Real Madrid in 2007. It's not all movie stars, palm trees and Santa Monica sunsets as he grinds it out alongside lesser teammates more familiar with Memphis and Milwaukee than Milan or Manchester.

Having been accustomed to countries where soccer reigns supreme, he seems to need a regular off-season 'fix' of Europe's top leagues. In theory, it keeps Beckham match-fit for possible England duty, but it also does wonders for his emotional well-being. It must be tough for this billionaire in the making to play second fiddle to the Los Angeles Lakers or the Anaheim Angels whenever he wears a Galaxy shirt.

After all, even Beckham's much-hyped debut for the LA Galaxy against Chelsea in a July 2007 friendly drew a smaller television audience than a regular season baseball game that weekend and a race from the Indy Racing League circuit.

It seems that while many Americans may warm to the idea of the world's most famous sportsman living on their shores, only a small percentage can be bothered to actually watch him on a regular basis.

'The 'Wow' factor has diminished for Beckham in America,' said Sports Illustrated's senior writer, Grant Wahl. 'His presence does not move the needle much any more when it comes to stadium attendance or television ratings.'

Wahl is also the author of the Beckham Experiment, a controversial book which charts his bumpy first two seasons in the MLS, including the bust-up with US national captain Landon Donovan. It's Wahl's view that Beckham's American adventure has been only a moderate success.

'He has had a positive effect on generating attention for MLS and the Galaxy - and generating money for himself and the team while convincing other top stars like Thierry Henry to join,' Wahl said. 'But it would certainly help Beckham's on-field resume in MLS to win a trophy.'

Turning 36 in May, Beckham has spoken of his desire to play for another five years as he continues to set personal goals: whether it's adding to his 115 England caps or fulfilling a boyhood dream of a two-month cameo with his former junior club, Tottenham Hotspur.

The Premier League already has more than its share of ex-internationals a long way past their sell-by date who are still earning a healthy crust, despite limited playing time.

Beckham could close his eyes and imagine it's 2001 should he come up against 37-year-old Robert Pires, 36-year-old Sol Campbell and Patrick Vieira, a relative spring chicken at 34; albeit they are at different clubs now. Even with Beckham expected to warm the bench, Spurs would be happy to fork out a reported GBP120,000 (HK$1.45 million) per week.

To his credit, the man who last played in the EPL 7 1/2 years ago has shown some handy form since coming back from an Achilles injury last September. He helped LA Galaxy to the league's best regular-season record in 2010 and impressed observers with his high workrate.

And as Beckham approaches the final year of his contract, you couldn't have blamed Galaxy bosses for taking their time before agreeing to risk their prized asset on foreign soil again.

For a club like Tottenham, the exercise would have a lot more pros than cons, even if it's hard to see Beckham fulfilling anything apart from a bit-part role.

But with the upbeat spirit at White Hart Lane created by the form of Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart plus Spurs' inspired European run, Beckham's smile and style in the dressing room would only add to the feelgood factor, not to mention the spike in shirt sales.

'I see Beckham as a substitute who would come on in the second half and make an impact in the Premier League, perhaps in a way that's similar to the role he had with England in '08 and '09,' Wahl said. 'But he might not be so happy if he isn't at least a regular substitute.'

Like an ageing female actress, who uses every trick from botox to soft lighting to keep a grip on her leading lady status, Beckham is refusing to bow out gracefully. That has little to do with money and trophies and everything to do with pride. But in his 18th professional season, Beckham is a lot more Susan Sarandon than Jessica Alba.

And while America's stubborn sports habits mean that the average Joe would still prefer to watch one of 162 regular season baseball games over a Beckham soccer final, DB can't wait to return to England where the natives still speak his language.