To use one of the many clichés that tend to be sprinkled through his perfectly nice but ever-so-slightly-anodyne press conferences, David Beckham’s visit to Chicago with the Los Angeles Galaxy last week was best summed up as a game of two halves.
The first involved a football match against the local side, Chicago Fire, in which Beckham spent 90 minutes trotting slowly and ineffectually up the right wing. Sometimes, he paused to examine his knee; occasionally he kicked the football; most of the time, though, he just looked bored. Galaxy lost 3-1.
The second took place later that night, at a local nightclub called the Underground, when Beckham attended the birthday party of Jermaine Dupri, a hip-hop producer best known as the fiancé of Janet Jackson. He pressed celebrity flesh, danced somewhat sheepishly, and was patted on the back by all and sundry. According to the gossip magazines, wife Victoria was nowhere to be seen.
All told, it was a fairly typical evening in the life of David Robert Joseph Beckham, the world-famous footballer who now lives in a country that cares little about the game, yet nonetheless celebrates his standing and a member of the global show-business elite.
It also was an evening that highlights the weirdly schizophrenic existence of England’s best-known sporting export.
Since he moved to the USA with his family nearly 18 months ago, one half of Beckham’s life has revolved around playing football. Recently it’s been going almost unthinkably badly. The other, however, has revolved around what you might call living the Los Angeles dream – and by all accounts, that bit’s been going very well indeed.
Unfortunately, this weekend, David Beckham’s sporting career is going to loom the larger of these two preoccupations. Tomorrow, LA Galaxy travel to Columbus Crew. They are currently sixth, out of seven, in the Major League’s Western Division, five points behind the fourth spot that would secure a place in the end-of-season playoffs. Just four games remain. Put bluntly, it’s a game they have to win.
The omens don’t look good. Since mid-June, Galaxy have managed just one win, with seven losses and six draws. Columbus, for their part, are sitting pretty on top of the league. If gambling were legal in California, bookies would be offering short odds on the local side losing, heavily.
As captain, Beckham soon be forced to shoulder the burden of having led LA Galaxy to its second year of failure running. It’s an especially galling statistic given the side’s track record of success prior to his arrival, which saw them top the division five times in a decade.
And trouble also looms for him on the British side of the Atlantic. Tomorrow will see Fabio Capello unveil England’s squad for this month’s World Cup qualifying matches against Kazakhstan and Belarus. All the “buzz” suggests that he’ll use Theo Walcott’s recent run of form as an excuse to axe Beckham from his line-up - a decision that would mark the end of the now-veteran player’s international career.
The effect of such a double whammy on David Beckham’s state-of-mind is difficult to predict. At 33, the best years of his career are of course behind him, and his move to California in 2007 was a tacit admission that his life was entering a new phase. But the speed of his subsequent professional decline, and the ungainly manner in which his club and international careers are now disintegrating, may have caught him by surprise.
Nothing in professional football is certain, of course. Galaxy could beat Columbus, then produce an unlikely run of form that propels them into the playoffs. Capello might even grant Beckham a short stay of execution. But in the long term, the writing is on the wall: like Gary Lineker, who wound-up on the playing fields of Japan, David Beckham is entering the teatime years of his playing career in a state of mild disarray.
To understand what exactly went wrong, you need to head south on the 405 freeway from Beverly Hills, where Beckham lives, to the Home Depot Centre, where Galaxy play their home games before a crowd of roughly 20,000. The ground is in south Carson, an unloved district - which represents, pretty accurately, where soccer (to use the local vernacular) sits in the pecking-order of American sport.
The side plays in white, a strip reminiscent of Beckham’s last club, Real Madrid. Their captain and most valuable player also wears white boots, an affectation which on English terraces would see him subjected to no small degree of ridicule. In Los Angeles, however, things are different: the club’s surprisingly noisy core supporters, The Riot Squad, have many songs. But none are about Becks.
Plenty has been said, and plenty written, about the standard of football in the Major League. In truth, it is akin to the lower half of the Championship. This almost certainly makes Beckham the most skilful player among his new-found peers; but does not make him the best. He can still produce telling crosses and pinpoint passes, just like in the old days, but two crucial things have now disappeared from his game.
The first is pace. He no longer has the speed to beat a man, so has more or less given up trying. His fitness remains (in fact, he can run all day) but unlike players like Teddy Sheringham, who offset the effects of advancing age by developing an ability to appear in the right place at the right time, Beckham too often seems to drift in and out of position.
The second, rather more serious problem is that he seems to have lost his passion. During his peak at Manchester United, Beckham was all swagger and intensity, a player who supplemented his obvious talent with a ferocious will. Coaches would wax lyrical about his conscientious training habits; during games, he had that rare ability grab an unfolding narrative by the scruff of the neck.
These days, he’s reduced to a bit-part role: marooned on the right wing, waiting for passes that often never come. And when Galaxy tried moving him into the centre of midfield this season, the experiment failed.
“I would just like to see David Beckham get angry,” says Grahame L Jones, who follows the side for the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve seen goals go in recently where he’s looking at the player with the ball and not bothering to go back and tackle him. I don’t know if that’s because he’s always been defensively weak, or if it’s a fear of being injured. But that’s what’s disappointed me most about him.
“It’s been the same when I’ve gone to interview him: he’s always positive, always saying Galaxy must try harder. But I’d like to see him actually get upset and tell his team-mates to get off their arses. At the moment, there’s no pressure on him to win, no heat from the media, or the fans, and no intensity in his game. I’ve seen him snarl at the odd ref, or an opposing tackler who comes in a bit high, but somehow he doesn’t look like he wants it any more.”
In effect, Beckham has been reduced, whether by accident or a lack of desire, to a dead-ball specialist who sets up the occasional goal. From a statistical point of view (which is how America measures the worth of its sportsmen) the best that can be said for him this season is that he’s produced nine “assists” – the third highest score in the Major League. Sadly, that sounds a little too much like faint praise.
The other enduring problem with Beckham’s current playing situation is Los Angeles Galaxy, a club with myriad on-field problems summed up in its rotating cast of senior coaching staff. Earlier this season, Rudd Gullit walked out following a run of poor results, along with general manager Alexi Lalas, to be replaced by the former US international coach, Bruce Arena.
Apart from Beckham, the side boasts just one noteworthy player: striker Landon Donovan, the USA’s all-time leading scorer, who has knocked in 19 goals this year, and been credited with nine assists. Abel Xavier enjoyed a brief, inglorious stint at the club, but was fired in July.
Galaxy’s remaining line-up, however, is almost comically shaky. In the absence of a strong captain (Beckham was never a natural leader) the team makes a habit of allowing leads to slip away in crucial games, and its defence is horrendously porous, having leaked 54 goals in 26 games, eight more than any other team.
In normal circumstances, that state of affairs might persuade the club’s owner, Philip Anschutz, to dig out its chequebook and sign fresh talent. But the Major League has a complex system of regulations which – give or take a few complications – means each team is severely constrained in the total amount they can spend on annual salaries.
With Beckham earning $6.5m (£3.2m), and Landon Donovan $900,000, the salary cap means the club has almost no resources left to spend on other players. The result is a widely-skewed roster where several members of the first team earn less than 0.25 per cent their captain’s salary. Goalkeeper Steve Cronin gets $42,227; defenders Troy Roberts ($30,000) and Mike Randolph ($17,700) even less.
The effect on team morale must be odious: several players, on the minimum wage, can barely put food on their family breakfast tables, and arrive at training in beaten-up station wagons, only to watch Beckham pull up in one of his fleet of luxury cars.
Yet should they look at the score sheet, Galaxy’s impoverished galley-slaves will see that having played 23 games, Beckham’s goal tally for the year so far sits at five – interestingly, that’s the same as that of Alan Gordon, a 27-year-old striker whose salary last year was a paltry $30,000.
Bruce Arena arrived at the club in August saying that: “as a coach, I look at this roster, and we have Landon Donovan and David Beckham as a starting point.” Since he took the helm, Galaxy have responded by winning just one of six games.
But though David Beckham the footballer will almost certainly never play in another major tournament and seems to have fallen lower than a Wall Street banking house, it would be a mistake to dismiss his move to California as a complete failure. Indeed, it would arguably be a mistake to dismiss it as any sort of failure at all. That’s because if you look at his family life, and remove football from the equation, suddenly it all makes sense.
Off the field, the good-looking boy from Leytonstone might have been purpose-built for life in Los Angeles. He loves the warm climate and the big cars, and being feted by the local media. His children go to good schools, and he’s at the centre of a colourful, starry and exciting social set.
Beckham’s interests also dovetail nicely with the local scene. In LA, he has endless opportunities for shopping, and can live large and swanky house without anyone mocking him. The celebrity party circuit is starry, but relatively sober, and allows him to be early to bed.
In Los Angeles people still treat him as a style icon: the English sneer at the selection of tattoos that adorn his body; on the coast of Southern California, they consider them the height of fashion.
A couple of months ago, Beckham released a personal statement on his website which seemed to sum up his childish brand of unquestioning enthusiasm he retains for his adopted country. “It seems like only a few weeks ago I arrived in Los Angeles with my family ready for the next chapter in our lives,” it read. “A year later and we feel so settled here, everyone loves California and everyone has made us feel so welcome. I can’t imagine being anywhere else in the world right now.”
This may, of course, be a personal PR stunt. But you get the feeling that, behind the flat superlatives, David Beckham really is happier in Hollywood, a town where the general attitude to celebrity is several degrees more positive that back home.
Life in out here is good for the ego, too. In the UK Beckham is ridiculed by the chattering classes and dismissed as a vulgarian. On television, he suffers the indignity of being portrayed as a halfwit by people like Alistair McGowan. But in the US, there is no class system. When Beckham opens his mouth (and Brits hear purest Essex) Americans think they’re talking to a cultured Englishman.
Neither, in pure financial terms has Beckham actually been bad news for Galaxy. The team might be struggling on the field and in the dressing room, but outside, the terraces are virtually full. Their shirt sponsor, Herbalife, pays $4m a year (twice the going rate for other teams) and Beckham number-23 replica strips can be seen in every corner of the land: 300,000 were sold last year alone.
Last month, Forbes magazine published an investigation into the fortunes of Major League Soccer which valued LA Galaxy at $100m, making it the most valuable and profitable club in the country. And it laid almost all the credit at Brand Beckham’s door.
The club now plays pre-season friendlies abroad, in lucrative places such as Korea, China, and Australia. Its sponsors include American Express and Delta Airlines. Corporate suites at the Home Depot Centre go for up to $150,000 a year, while season tickets fetch as much as $4,500.
Most impressively of all, when Beckham plays, average gates at away games increase by 10,000. In New York last year, 66,000 turned out to see him at the Giants stadium, a record for Major League. Win lose or draw, the locals love him.
“People genuinely think he’s actually a nice, interesting guy,” says Beau Dure, soccer correspondent for USA Today. “That’s because when he comes to games, he’s always impeccably polite, and does the press conference thing afterwards, and I don’t think it’s just an act.
“There’s another three years on his contract and I’m inclined to think he will see it out. There’s on-field frustration, of course, which has to be getting to him, but I don’t see any evidence that he wants to leave LA Where else would he go? People in Qatar would pay a fortune for him to go there, but I don’t think he came to the US for money. It was for other reasons.”
Those other reasons may ultimately represent the most important legacy of David Beckham’s career. Because when push comes to shove, he may be on the verge of succeeding where generations of iconic footballers (and the organisers of one forgettable World Cup) have failed: and making professional soccer a viable entity in the US.
Regardless of what goes on when he takes to the pitch during the remaining three years of his contract, and whatever happens to his international career, or the Galaxy’s league form, that may ultimately represent the greatest achievement in the topsy-turvy CV of this most famous, yet vulnerable, player off our times.