DURING HIS nearly two years in Los Angeles, David Beckham has sat courtside at Lakers games, hung out with Tom Cruise and posed for underwear billboards that give new meaning to the soccer phrase "putting the bulge in the auld onion bag." It's a good life. But Beckham has not come close to having "a greater impact on soccer in America than any athlete has ever had on a sport globally"—the boast made by Tim Leiweke, the chairman of the Los Angeles Galaxy's ownership group, when he signed Beckham to a five-year deal in January 2007. Such proclamations seem laughable now that Beckham has starred in soccer's version of Ishtar: an injury-plagued 2007 season, a loss-filled 2008 and a grand total of zero playoff appearances.
If Beckham thought Leiweke's hype-slinging meant the chairman couldn't be taken seriously, though, Goldenballs found out the hard way last week that he was wrong. When Beckham went out on a two-month off-season loan to Italian giant AC Milan last fall, Leiweke promised Galaxy fans that Beckham would be back for the 2009 season. But after he produced two goals and two assists in his first five starts for the Rossoneri, Beckham rekindled his desire to play top-level soccer and tried to force his way out of L.A. by saying he wanted to make the move permanent. Milan, however, couldn't come up with an offer that met the Galaxy's demands by last Friday's MLS-mandated deadline, and Leiweke announced that Beckham would be returning to L.A. as planned on March 9, end of story.
While a small chance remains that Milan will make the Galaxy an offer it can't refuse, Leiweke's slap down was a stunning plot twist to European observers, a sign that Beckham—the rare Vegas-lover who doesn't like to gamble—had badly misplayed his hand. An out clause in his contract enables him to walk away from the Galaxy after the 2009 season, but neither Beckham nor Milan understood that his singular value to the Galaxy and MLS this season (in ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandising) is far greater than his value to Milan. Nor did it help that Beckham and Milan had displayed spectacular arrogance toward the Galaxy, arranging the loan deal on their own before even contacting L.A. and using the media to try to force Leiweke's hand on a transfer.
By now, of course, it's fair to ask: Does America care about David Beckham? The answer depends on which Beckham you're talking about. Ever since his stage-managed arrival in July 2007—highlighted by a welcome-to-L.A. party hosted by Cruise, Katie Holmes, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith—Beckham and his wife, Victoria, have been gossip-page fixtures. What's more, Beckham was rated the seventh-most-popular athlete among U.S. teenagers (ahead of Kevin Garnett, Tom Brady and Derek Jeter) in a 2008 survey by TRU. While Beckham was far down the list when it came to boys, he had by far the highest score among teenage girls.
Yet most of the Americans who have embraced Beckham the Celebrity don't know (or don't care) that the Galaxy was tied for the worst record in MLS last season. That's probably good for Beckham, insulating him from the team's ineptitude, but it's also evidence that his celebrity isn't converting mainstream Yanks into MLS fans. Though Beckham was still a significant draw in 2008—L.A. averaged 28,132 fans per game on the road, nearly 10,000 more than any other MLS team—the league's average attendance fell (by 1.8% to 16,459) for the first time in three years. Even worse, Beckham did nothing to improve ESPN2's minuscule ratings for MLS games in '08, drawing the same 0.2 rating for his Galaxy matches that the network got for its non-Beckham broadcasts. So low was the viewership that ESPN yanked MLS's Thursday-night slot and will show games on a variety of days instead.
Beckham has always cast himself as the ultimate professional, so it will be fascinating to see how he'll handle returning to the Galaxy against his wishes. Will he sulk? Will the home fans boo him? How will Bruce Arena, Beckham's third Galaxy coach in three seasons, manage what could be the trickiest job of his career, with two stars (Beckham and Landon Donovan) who would rather be playing in Europe? Beckham's failures with L.A. have already been epic. In 13 years with Manchester United and Real Madrid, Beckham's teams had never gone more than five league games without a win; his Galaxy teams have had winless streaks of seven league games in 2007 and an astonishing 12 in 2008. Even more surprising, L.A.'s winning percentage since his arrival has been better in the 22 games Beckham has missed (.477) than in the 32 games he has played (.406).
The Galaxy reached Isiah Thomas levels of mismanagement, but Beckham and his handlers deserve plenty of the blame. In a move that was never publicized by the team, Beckham's best friend and then personal manager, Terry Byrne, became a paid consultant for the Galaxy and conducted the coaching search that led to the hiring of Ruud Gullit, whose reign of error torpedoed L.A.'s 2008 season. (Byrne was dropped when Gullit was forced out last August, leaving Beckham in a sour mood toward the Galaxy.) Beckham has also underperformed on the field. The world's most renowned dead-ball specialist has scored on just two free kicks in 32 games. The player known for his tireless effort went half-speed during the last half of the '08 season. And the man who captained England for five years never called one team meeting during L.A.'s nosedive last season.
The latest misconception about Beckham in the wake of his revival for Milan is that he needs world-class players around him to succeed. Anyone who saw his sterling performance for L.A. during the first half of 2008 knows otherwise. But excellence requires that you try in the face of difficulty, and that is the biggest question surrounding Beckham heading into the 2009 MLS season. Does he care about America anymore? Do we care about him? Or has the Beckham experiment been star-crossed from the start? After all, both his introduction as a Galaxy player in 2007 and his forced reintroduction last week took place on Friday the 13th.
Grant Wahl's book The Beckham Experiment will be released by Crown later this year.
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Does Beckham care about America? DOES AMERICA CARE ABOUT HIM?
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER