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The Americanization of David Beckham

Or will it be the Beckhamization of America? That's what MLS is hoping for with the arrival of the English superstar, who's bent on lifting the profile of soccer while blending in with his Galaxy mates

He's only one man,a thirtysomething bloke from England with visions of taking his sons toDisneyland and the beach, of making his first treks to Vegas and the NapaValley wine country, of organizing late-night runs to the hoariest of SoCalinstitutions. "In-N-Out Burger. Ohhhhh. . . ," says David Beckham,imagining his new life on a rainy spring afternoon in Madrid. "That'sanother great experience. I ate inside the last time I was there."

He's only one man,which is clear when he arrives at the photo studio sans entourage--a half hourearly at that. In his white V-neck T-shirt, blue jeans and five-year-old brownwork boots, the world's most recognizable athlete could almost pass for a ranchhand in Kalispell. His famous hair is shorn close (a remedy for anill-conceived, bleach-blond dye job), and both wrists are brimming: a greenmalachite bracelet (for the anti-blood-diamond charity run by hip-hopimpresario Russell Simmons), a silver charm bracelet (a gift from his wife,Victoria) and three multi-colored evil-eye bracelets for good luck. At the endof an hourlong photo shoot he individually thanks the small army of assistants,not once but twice. "I've never had that happen before," says one.

He's only one man,and the task before him seems as formidable as converting Americans to themetric system. Can one man make the U.S. public care about the Los AngelesGalaxy? About Major League Soccer? About a sport that neither hosting the 1994World Cup nor harboring the greatest player ever--Pelé--could turn into themainstream religion that it is nearly everywhere else on the planet?

Or is it possiblethat 32-year-old David Beckham--ball-bending savant, global pitchman, thenewest member of the American sports firmament--isn't acting alone? Could hemerely be the catalyst for a transformation already underway? The mastermind ofAmerican Idol thinks so. Simon Fuller, Beckham's manager and the chiefexecutive of London-based 19 Entertainment, acknowledges that makingsoccer really matter in the U.S. will be a "far greater" challenge thanturning Idol into this country's most popular television program, but thathasn't stopped Fuller from hatching "a grand vision" (his words) forthe next chapter of his most famous client's career.

"There seemsto be a real foundation now for soccer [in the U.S.]," says Fuller, whoengineered the midfielder's guaranteed five-year, $32.5 million contract (plusprofit-sharing and mega incentives) with the Galaxy. "David is the mosticonic of all footballers, and he's achieved pretty much everything you canachieve in Europe, apart from maybe winning a big tournament with England. He'sstill in his early 30s, still playing remarkably well, and you have to startthinking, What's the next adventure? The States is the last frontier in termsof soccer."

A grand vision. Anadventure. The last frontier. There's something quintessentially American aboutwhat these Brits are trying to achieve. "I'm not silly enough to think I'mgoing to change the whole culture, because it's not going to happen," saysBeckham, "but I do have a belief that soccer can go to a different level,and I'd love to be a part of that." He vows that he's in this New WorldAdventure for the long haul--hence the five-year deal.

As Fuller puts it,"If you have most things you want in life, you can take it easy, you canretire, you can continue to take money off a team in Europe. But our ambitionis bigger than that. Shoot for the stars, and if you don't hit them, then itwas fun trying.

"If you do hitthem, then you've made history."

When Beckham firsttakes the field for the Galaxy--most likely in a friendly against England'sChelsea FC on July 21 at the Home Depot Center--he'll carry a raft ofexpectations, many of which he's already trying to dispel. To wit, he's notgoing to L.A. to join his pal Tom Cruise on the silver screen. ("Acting isnever something I've been interested in," says Beckham, who won't beappearing in the NBC reality show starring Victoria, a.k.a. Posh Spice.) He'snot likely to score three goals a game. ("That's one thing I'm worriedabout," he admits, "because people probably do think they're going tosee me turn out, and we'll win our first game 10-nil.") And he's notcrossing the Atlantic simply to be a marketing tool. (Though his signaturecologne, Instinct, is available in many fine drugstores.)

"It's not abig brand thing," Beckham insists. "It's about me being the ambassadorfor MLS. If I can make people more aware and make kids realize that you can gointo higher levels and make a great living from playing soccer, that's what I'mgoing over there to do."

The soccer-savvyaudience knows that Beckham isn't fast, rarely uses his head or his left footand won't win games by himself. But the skills he has are wondrous: aquarterback's vision, a conductor's mastery of tempo and a right foot that canhit 40-yard passes on a dime. "I'm not a player who will run past 10players and score three or four goals," Beckham says. "My game is aboutworking hard, being a team player and assists." And, of course, thoseglorious, swerving free kicks, dramatic set pieces tailor-made for Americanattention spans, YouTube clips and highlight packages.

Let's make onething clear: Beckham can still play. When he stunned the world by signing withthe Galaxy last January, European cynics wrote him off as irrelevant to thesport's highest levels, a de facto retiree settling for easy money in abackwater league. Beckham's career with the national team, which he oncecaptained, appeared over--new coach Steve McClaren had dropped him after lastyear's World Cup--and his coach at Real Madrid, Fabio Capello, announced hewould never play for the club again. "David Beckham will be a B-list actorliving in Hollywood," sniffed Madrid president Ramón Calderón.

More Madonna thanMaradona, Beckham has always had a knack for reinvention, and in no time he wasplotting his latest comeback. "At that point in the season I was surprisedat many things that were said about me behind my back that hurt me at thetime," Beckham says. "But I've always come back from adversity, andI've always had the mentality of proving people wrong. I had to think, O.K.,even if I don't play for Real Madrid again, I'll still carry on training andworking like I always have, just in case I do get a chance."

Refusing to lashout at his critics, Beckham earned back his starting position, to say nothingof his teammates' respect, and helped lead Real Madrid on a fairy-tale run fromfourth place to the La Liga title, his first significant trophy during hisfour years in Spain. "At his darkest moment he rediscovered himself andfound arguably the richest vein of form since his greatest days at ManchesterUnited," says Ray Hudson, who broadcasts the Spanish league in the U.S. forGolTV, referring to Beckham's 11-year stint with the English Premier Leagueclub. "That in itself is a feat of unbelievable character. I call ittesticular fortitude. Whether you love him or you hate him--and I've never beenhis most ardent fan--it's inarguable that he was as deadly as he's everbeen."

Beckham rejoinedthe national team last month, producing three gorgeous assists in two games,and the transformation was complete. Suddenly the same people who'd buried himfive months earlier were begging him to stay in Europe. Too late. When RealMadrid contacted the Galaxy in mid-June about reacquiring Beckham, the responsewas a swift no. "We made it very clear," says Tim Leiweke, thepresident and CEO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy."My Spanish was not tested." Meanwhile, U.K. pundits have continued tolob potshots at MLS, arguing that Beckham won't be sharp for national-teamgames if he's toiling in "a semiretirement home" (The Guardian) or"a Mickey Mouse league" (The Independent).

True, the qualityof MLS is clearly below that of La Liga and the English Premier League, but itisn't nearly as bad as most U.K. commentators think. With Yanks having boughtthree Premier League teams (Manchester United, Liverpool and Aston Villa) inthe past two years, the condescension may reveal British insecurity about theU.S.'s rising soccer influence. "It irritates me so much I want to put myfist through a wall--or through a television set playing Benny Hill," saysGalaxy president Alexi Lalas, the Hall of Fame U.S. defender. "It's anignorance that's fueled by an arrogance."

If Beckham has anysecond thoughts, he's not voicing them. "A couple of friends think that Ishould still be playing in Europe because they know I can play at the highestlevel for at least another three years," Beckham says. "But thosepeople also think I'm doing the right thing because they can see that I'mhappy. I've made my decision, and I've got no regrets."

Not long agoBeckham saw Once in a Lifetime, the rollicking 2006 documentary on the New YorkCosmos and the North American Soccer League. He marveled at scenes of theCosmos partying with Mick Jagger at Studio 54, of soccer fans filling GiantsStadium--and of the league disintegrating just a few years later. "It'sincredible what that time was like for the Cosmos with Pelé," Beckham says."But I think this league is definitely more stable than the one back then,when you had a huge amount of money just being put into one team."

Ask any MLSexecutive why Beckham's U.S. soccer legacy should be more successful thanPelé's, and the word you'll hear is infrastructure. "Back then we didn'thave an infrastructure that was prepared to take advantage of theopportunity," says Leiweke. "Pelé was able to hide the lack of truedeep roots you need to be successful. That's how great Pelé was, but you knewthe minute he left it was over." Today, conditions seem more fertile.Unlike the NASL, the 12th-year, 13-club MLS has seven teams (and counting)playing in soccer-specific stadiums; four new national TV contracts; a countrywith 42 million Hispanics, many of them soccer lovers; a base of competitivehomegrown players feeding a U.S. team that has reached five straight WorldCups; and a single-entity business model that prevents teams from spendingthemselves into bankruptcy by bidding against each other for free agents.

Only two MLS teamsare making money, but seven new owners have come on board since 2004, D.C.United was sold for a record $33 million six months ago, and expansionfees are expected to be $30 million when the league grows to 16 teams by2010. "You couldn't sign Beckham in 1996 [when the league started],"says commissioner Don Garber, "not before you had the right facilities, theright television contracts and the right brands with our teams, so we reallyunderstand how to build this business."

"Now thingshere are more organized," says Pelé. "The league is set up, but theyneed more good names in the other cities to continue to promote thesport."

That's whereBeckham comes in. MLS's increased stability and TV revenue prompted the ownerslast fall to pass the Designated Player Rule (a.k.a. the Beckham Rule),allowing each team to have up to two players whose salaries aren't limited bythe $2.4¬†million cap. So far three teams have signed players with their DPslots: the New York Red Bulls (Colombian forward Juan Pablo √Ångel and U.S.midfielder Claudio Reyna), the Chicago Fire (Mexican forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco)and the Galaxy (Beckham).

In addition to hisguaranteed $32.5 million salary over five years, Beckham has the chance toearn in excess of $200 million more--including a reported 40% to 50% ofGalaxy jersey sales and an undisclosed share of ticket revenue--in aground-breaking arrangement similar to those of Hollywood stars. "David hasalready paid for himself," says Leiweke, citing the sold-out luxury suitesat the Home Depot Center, the 11,000 season-ticket holders for 27,000 seats andthe new five-year deal worth an estimated $20 million with jersey sponsorHerbalife. "But it can't just be David. You can't expect a man tosingle-handedly change patterns, habits and passion. The greatest thing Davidhas done is to prove that this can work, not only for the player but for theclub. That's his legacy: In two years there's going to be a half dozen greatplayers in MLS."

Perhaps. Butthere's a reason most teams haven't exercised the Beckham Rule: They want tosee what happens this summer first. "To the extent that he creates so muchcuriosity from soccer moms and casual fans and can help generate some interestin MLS, it will work," says David Carter, the executive director of the USCSports Business Institute. "However, the quality of play had better be upto their expectations, and the level of customer service had better be high.He's going to drive them to the turnstile, but then it's going to be up to MLSand its franchises to keep them coming back."

"The hype isthere at the moment, and the hype will be there for maybe six months," saysBeckham. "But to keep the interest in soccer: That's going to be thechallenge."

It's safe toassume that Kyle Veris won't be buying a house near Beckham's new $22 millionpalace in Beverly Hills anytime soon. In his second year out of Ohio State, the6' 4", 195-pound Veris had started 12 games in his MLS career throughSunday, showing promise as a raw but imposing centerback with above-averagefoot skills. Yet Veris's most eye-popping stat has nothing to do with goals orassists. As the holder of an MLS developmental contract, his guaranteed salaryfor 2007 is $17,700--or $6,482,300 less than Beckham's.

"I hopeeventually I'll get a better salary," says Veris, 24, who pays $845 renteach month to live in a three-bedroom Redondo Beach apartment with teammatesAlan Gordon (annual salary: $30,870) and Gavin Glinton ($50,000). "We allpretty much struggle from check to check, so I try to do as many appearances onthe side as I can, and sometimes if I'm running short, I still have to go backto Mom and Dad right now. But I try to look past the money issue and justcherish being able to play with David Beckham. Not many people get to dothat."

Beckham will haveto endure rash tackles from unpolished defenders and road games on fake-grassfields with gridiron lines. But of all the petri-dish experiments occasioned byhis arrival in MLS, the most fascinating will be how one of the world'shighest-paid athletes interacts with his teammates in a bargain-basementleague. It's an arrangement that will test every bit of Beckham's desire to bejust one of the lads, not to mention the chemistry the Galaxy will need toimprove its woeful 3-5-4 record at week's end, which placed it fifth in thesix-team Western Conference.

"It would bekind of a nice gesture if he came in and just splashed the locker room withcash for some of the younger guys, but I don't think it's going to be a bigissue," says forward Landon Donovan, the Galaxy's second-highest-paidplayer ($900,000). "It'll be interesting to see how he integrates sociallyinto the team. A lot of us hang out together, and when he's invited, will hewant to come out? Will he bring the kids? Will he bring Victoria? We're fun tobe around, so I think he'll get pulled into that if he wants to."

To Beckham, thatsounds . . . ideal. "It's important for me to get to know the players andalso for Victoria to get to know the players' wives and girlfriends," hesays. In fact, he'd love to reprise the warm atmosphere that he enjoyed at ManUnited in the mid-1990s, when he and five teammates rose from the youth ranksto the senior team, rather than his comparatively chilly seasons with RealMadrid. "Hopefully when we do move to the U.S., it's going to be more likeit was at Manchester, where on Sundays we used to take our sons to one of theother players' houses and have a barbecue," Beckham says. "I'm hopingit's going to be that sort of vibe because it would be great to have thatagain."

Notes L.A.midfielder Peter Vagenas, "It's amazing how a locker-room environment sortof puts everyone on the same plane." So, of course, will the Galaxy'stravel plans, though Beckham and several veteran teammates will sit in firstclass on commercial flights. (Charters are forbidden by MLS, which claims theyprovide an unfair competitive advantage.) Other Beckham-related upgrades extendto L.A.'s spiffy new logo and colors (dark blue, yellow and white have replacedgreen and gold) and to the Home Depot Center, which has a VIP lounge forcelebrity fans and an auxiliary press box for a horde that suddenly includesAccess Hollywood and the British tabloids.

In the end,though, Beckham's new team will be judged on how it performs on the field, andthat means not only winning but also doing so with an attacking style thatkeeps Americans tuned in. Beckham will move from the right wing (where heplayed at Real Madrid) to the central midfield to increase his time on the balland more fully use his superior vision and passing ability. "I've lovedplaying that position whenever I've been given the chance," says Beckham,who has filled the center on rare occasions with England and United (withvarying degrees of success). "You're more involved in the game, and that'swhat I like to be."

Does the Galaxyhave enough talent to take advantage of Beckham's gifts? It's not as if he'llhave multiple targets with the pedigree of Real's Ruud van Nistelrooy orEngland's Michael Owen. But Beckham has long admired Donovan, the U.S.'s bestplayer, and 37-year-old midfielder Cobi Jones, whom he watched play during the1994 World Cup. As for his other new teammates, Beckham says he spent roadtrips in Spain during the spring studying their bios and learning about theirpositions. He accepts that as MLS's highest-paid employee he should aspire tobe its preeminent player as well. "I would like to be up there with thebest, but who knows?" Beckham says. "We'll have to wait and see. That'swhat I'll be hoping for--not just to be the best player in the league but forus to be one of the best teams in the league."

If Beckham cankick-start the Galaxy, expect some A-List buzz at the Home Depot Center thissummer. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes got a head start by attending Beckham'stitle-winning farewell match in Madrid last month, and Beckham expects Cruisewill make it to Galaxy games when his schedule allows. "I speak to Tom mostdays of the week, just chatting about work and the kids and Victoria andKatie," says Beckham, who has three sons, Brooklyn, 8, Romeo, 4, and Cruz,2. And while Beckham says he won't be joining Cruise as aScientologist--"He and Katie have their beliefs, and I totally respectthat, but me and Victoria have also got our own"--at least one conversionhas taken place. "I think Tom's getting into soccer," Beckham says."He'll send me a message after every game that I've played now, and he'llsay, What an amazing game!"

David Beckham isonly one man. But if the newest American idol can have the same effect on a fewmillion other Yanks, this New World Adventure might just have a chance.


Foreign Import
More from Grant Wahl on David Beckham and complete coverage of his Galaxydebut.



Photographs by Simon Bruty



Photographs by Simon Bruty


Photographs by Simon Bruty


By kick-starting his game, Beckham regained the support of Madrid fans andteammates (lower left) as well as a spot on the national team (lowerright).



[See caption above.]



REGALLY BLOND Thanks to his bending free kicks for Manchester United, Beckham (here in '02) became an international icon.



POSH NEW DIGS With (from left) Brooklyn, Cruz and Romeo, David and Victoria (bottom) are off to Beverly Hills.



[See caption above.]