The decision by soccer superstar David Robert Joseph Beckham OBE to move from Real Madrid to Los Angeles Galaxy has been criticised as a money-grabbing venture. Others have seen it as a sign of the sad decline, characterised by a lack of ambition, of one of England’s most famous soccer players. Not the best player by any means, but certainly one of the most famous.
I see it differently. People have always been jealous of Beckham because of his looks and his earnings. But this move is the decision of a player who knows his limitations and who is trying to make the best of the situation in the twilight of his career, not only for himself, but for his family.
Beckham has never been a great player, but he is a wonderful professional. He made the most of his strengths and managed to earn 94 caps for England. He captained his country and played in three World Cup tournaments. He scored in all three of those tournaments, which is something no other England player has ever done.
He was signed by Manchester United while still a teenager and was shown the door in 2003 through no fault of his own. Some commentators have said the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, was sick of Beckham’s celebrity status and resented the influence Beckham’s wife, Victoria Adams, had on his player. They were married in 1999 in a bizarre ceremony which cost millions and which saw them seated on two gigantic thrones.
The end of Beckham’s Manchester United career came shortly after Ferguson lost his temper in the dressing room and kicked a boot across the room in anger. It hit Beckham just above the eye and left a cut that required stitches. To Beckham’s credit, he did not make mileage out of the incident and let the matter ride. He could easily have turned it into a huge embarrassment for Ferguson and Manchester United. He could easily have taken legal action. He did neither.
Beckham had been an integral part of the Manchester United team and had spent 11 years at Old Trafford. Manchester United shirts bearing his name sold in their hundreds of thousands across the globe and enriched the club’s coffers. He had a definite influence on the team’s performances and played his part in the club’s successes.
His move to Real Madrid was for commercial reasons. The move was instigated by Manchester United and pursued vigorously by Real Madrid. There were plenty of better players Real Madrid could have acquired, but Beckham’s merchandising value was recognised and the Spanish giants cashed in on it, especially in Asia, where they embarked on lucrative tours during the European off-season, just as Manchester United had done.
Beckham was mobbed by ecstatic fans wherever he went in Thailand and Japan. After the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, a chocolate sculpture of Beckham was put on display in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Buddhist monks in Thailand still revere him. Beckham’s hotel room at the English headquarters for the World Cup in Japan, on the island of Awajishima, is still hired out at exorbitant rates to fans. And Real Madrid shirts with the name Beckham emblazoned across the back sold in the hundreds of thousands. The cash cow that once grazed at Old Trafford had moved pasture to the Bernabeu.
Beckham’s three seasons at Real Madrid proved barren years as far as honours were concerned. But it was hardly Beckham’s fault. He was played out of position and his strengths were not utilised. Beckham can cross a ball more accurately than any other player from the wings and he made goals galore for team mates utilising this skill. He can also be deadly at free kicks. It was a limited repertoire, but he made the most of it.
He trained as a model professional and always gave his best. He has never been tainted by drug scandals. He is devoted to his three children, Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. There have been suggestions of marital infidelity by the tabloids at times, but he and the former Victoria Adams, or Posh Spice of The Spice Girls, are still one of the most glamorous celebrity couples in the world.
Beckham has said that he is moving to Los Angeles to help the game in America increase its popularity. I doubt that he will succeed. Greater players than Beckham have tried to do just that and have ultimately failed. Pele and George Best were two.
But there is a difference. Pele and Best both went to America for the money. Pele had been bankrupted twice and his American sojourn with the New York Cosmos was the last chance for him to salvage something from his life in soccer. Best’s life was in tatters and he also needed money.
The refreshing thing about Beckham’s move is that he does not need the money. He has plenty already, but as a professional, he is entitled to accept the offer of US$250 million dollars over five years. In fact, only $50 million of this will come from playing soccer. The balance is expected to be made up of endorsements with companies such as Adidas, Gillette, Pepsi and Motorola. Besides, he is not tight with his fortune — he is a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and supports at least three charities.
One cannot blame Beckham for accepting such an offer. Long gone are the days when clubs owned players and when the maximum wage in England, for example, was 20 pounds a week.
The maximum wage was abolished in 1961 in England, but players throughout Europe were in effect the property of clubs until the early 1990s, when the Bosman Ruling by the European Court of Justice enabled players who were out of contract to move to other clubs for no fee.
Real Madrid has not done the right thing by Beckham. They have said he can still train with the club, but they have barred him from playing for the club. This may come back to bite them. Beckham’s contract runs out in July and, if he stays until then, he will cost LA Galaxy nothing in transfer fees. Real Madrid is desperate to offload him so they can negotiate a transfer fee.
Beckham had hoped to attend Tom Cruise’s recent wedding in Italy, but Real Madrid expected him to be at one of their games, even though he was injured. Being the model professional that he is, Beckham attended Cruise’s pre-wedding dinner and immediately flew back to Spain and missed the nuptials. He sat in the stands at Real Madrid’s game, as they had demanded. I can think of many players who would have told the club to mind their own business and stayed for the wedding.
There may be other motivations behind Beckham’s move to California. Perhaps the Beckhams are seeking the sort of anonymity impossible for them in Europe. In California, they are likely to be just minor celebrities. The former German international player and German national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, lives in California for that very reason. He can walk along a street or on the beach without being besieged by autograph hunters and inquisitive folk. America’s "soccer moms" and many youngsters will know who the Beckhams are. They will follow their every move. But the average citizen may not recognise them and will leave them alone.
Victoria Beckham is known to be keen to resurrect her singing career and living in LA may help her in this, as talent is often a minor qualification for stardom there. Her husband may also be contemplating a career in movies, and where better to pursue that than in Los Angeles, close to his friend Tom Cruise?
As well, the Beckhams always struggled with Spanish in Madrid. Moving to LA might not seem like a big change sometimes, but English is nominally the official language and they should feel more at home. It may, however, just be that in the twilight of his career David Beckham is thinking about his wife’s career and the future of his children, rather than just about himself and his own ambitions.
The LA Galaxy is a club owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group. They are the ones with everything to lose if the plan does not come off. Their stadium holds only 27,000, whereas the Cosmos could draw 75,000 to New York to watch Pele and Franz Beckenbauer in the 1970s. It seems like a risky investment from the footballing angle.
The deal is, however, a huge one for Beckham, the London-born son of a kitchen fitter and a hairdresser. It is indicative of what soccer superstars can earn in a game that many now regard as a business. Perhaps we should just wish him good luck.
Walter Pless is the soccer writer for the Hobart Mercury, in Australia.