Submitted Thursday, May 22, 2014
Preface: Originally done for Mr. Joe Eaton’s U.S. Sports History course, the report turned into a football lover’s personal hunt for knowledge about the intricate events behind David Beckham’s transfer to Major League Soccer. – J.S. Feng
Bigger than The Beatles: Introduction
When news broke of David Beckham’s signing of a pre-contract with Major League Soccer outfit Los Angeles Galaxy, questions were raised over the future of his international career and what the move would mean for the future of American “soccer.”
Beckham’s announcement might have come as a shock to some, especially considering the substantial difference in stature between MLS and La Liga—the Spanish football equivalent. However, his decision should not be analysed solely from a footballing point of view, because not only is Beckham a multi-talented footballer, he is also a forward-looking businessman in his own right. And he, along with his wife—former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham—and children, set out to conquer the U.S. not dissimilar to the way The Beatles did when they first landed on the North American continent in the 1960s.
Through the different phases and facets of Beckham’s decision to move to the U.S., this report seeks to answer the question “why?” behind every step.
Asset on or off the pitch: Real Madrid’s Beckham dilemma
No sooner had the 2006–7 Spanish football season begun than Beckham fell out of favor with Real Madrid’s new head coach Fabio Capello. The former England captain had just returned from yet another fruitless campaign with the national team at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, and a new era was beginning at the club, with Capello preferring the pacier and more technically gifted young Spaniard José Antonio Reyes since the start of the season.
Beckham was in the fourth and final year of his contract with the world’s richest club, and while Real Madrid’s profit-conscious executives mulled over the possibility of extending Beckham’s contract, the 31-year-old took it upon himself to decide his own fate, much like he did after opting to sign for the Spanish giants four years earlier following a bust-up with former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson—a topic that merits its own analysis altogether.
With Beckham not holding down a regular place in Real Madrid’s starting 11, his contract saga dragged on into the new year. From a purely footballing point of view, the decision to let Beckham go should have been a no-brainer: he was past his best to play top European football. But the reason behind the board’s reluctance was twofold, as losing Beckham would also signify the loss of the club’s most profitable marketing asset at the time.
‘When’ not ‘if’: Beckham’s MLS announcement
Naturally, Beckham wasn’t going to sit around and wait for Real Madrid to come to a decision. On January 11, 2007, Real Madrid’s poster boy made the long-awaited announcement regarding his future at the club: he would not be extending his contract beyond the summer.
If the announcement didn’t come as a shock to football fans around world, then his choice of destination certainly did. He followed up by telling the world that he would be joining LA Galaxy on a five-year contract—a deal thought to be worth a whopping $275m.
‘Beckham set to invade America’: Media reaction to Beckham transfer
Beckham’s announcement drew both praise and praise from media around the world, but a more striking contrast is seen when comparing English media and U.S. media reports at the time, with both sides focusing on the “money” aspect of Beckham’s decision. More specifically, U.S. media was quick to recognize the MLS’s potential profits and gains that would follow Beckham’s move to the U.S., while its English counterparts mentioned the decline of his footballing career as a reason behind his decision.
Forbes’s Paul Maidment wrote on the financial standpoint of Beckham’s decision to move to LA Galaxy and highlighted the possibility of it giving MLS a much needed kickstart, as Beckham would no doubt shift shirts and increase season-ticket sales, much like he did at Real Madrid, where his $50m transfer fee was paid off with shirt sales before the end of his first year in Madrid.
Sports Illustrated called Beckham “the most recognized soccer player on the planet,” comparing his influence to that of Hollywood superstars. A publication after not long after Beckham announced his move read, “David Beckham didn’t even have to audition to become the next American Idol,” and quoted MLS Commissioner Don Garber as saying, “David Beckham is a global sports icon who will transcend the sport of soccer in America.”
English media, however, was much more cynical. Notable footballing figures had their say on what they thought this growth in earnings would mean for the former England captain’s footballing career. That is, although moving to the U.S. would result in a sizeable increase of Beckham’s pay check, it would in turn have a detrimental effect on his future national team prospects.
It was the belief of former players and analysts that only by playing in a more competitive league—England’s Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A—would Beckham be able to retain his place in the England squad and stand a chance of representing the “Three Lions” at the 2008 European Championship, or even the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
The Mirror’s Oliver Holt also reported that, besides the obvious financial boost, Beckham would have it all to do if he wanted to help the ailing LA Galaxy—and indeed the MLS as a whole—in terms of improving its footballing quality. The Mirror’s John Cross described his move as a “one-man mission” to outdo the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer of the 1970s North American Soccer League days.
Former England star turned TV presenter Gary Lineker, who spent his final playing days in Japan, told BBC Five Live that Beckham’s move to the MLS marked the end of his top-level career. “It’s tantamount to a semi-retirement isn’t it?” he said, later adding that he understands the appeal of Los Angeles to the Beckhams.
Beckham had played for two of the biggest clubs in the world in Manchester United and Real Madrid, so “it’s a step down wherever you go,” Linker continued, “You might as well experience something different, something new.”
This skepticism is perhaps attributable to the British “pride” for the game or simply to an underlying negativity that comes with a famous footballer ending his career in an “inferior” league. That is to say, before Beckham’s high-profile transfer to MLS, “world class” footballers who still wanted to continue at international level tended to stay in the top tiers of European football until retirement, albeit representing smaller, less competitive clubs.
The most worrying criticism came from within his own club, though. The New York Times reported club President Ramon Calderon as saying that Beckham was going to Hollywood to be “half a film star.” Calderon’s words were followed by criticism from the club’s first team coach Capello, who said, “A player who has such an important contract with another club, we cannot count on him.”
Capello seemed to have sealed the Englishman’s fate by adding, “Beckham will train with the team but he won’t play.”
In turn, Beckham released a statement through his spokesman Simon Oliveira, who said Beckham was “surprised” by the manager’s comments, but “remains dedicated to the club and the supports,” as he had a contract for the remainder of the La Liga season.
Capello’s comments in particular came as a blow to Beckham, whose hopes of playing in the European Championship hosted by Austria and Switzerland the following summer would be dashed should he not play again before joining LA Galaxy. In short, Beckham’s match fitness hinged largely on being in Capello’s good graces.
Real Madrid’s 30th La Liga title: ‘Becks’ leaves on a high
After initial controversy surrounding Beckham’s immediate future at Real Madrid following club coach Capello’s decision not to play him again, there was even talk of Beckham joining Los Angeles as earlier as April. However, Real Madrid’s English “Galactico” remained faithful to his duties at the club and eventually won back the hearts and minds of everyone at the richest club in the world.
Real Madrid supporters questioning Beckham’s commitment to the club were silenced by the Englishman’s performances on the pitch during his final months. Not only had he forced his way back into Capello’s first team, he had done so by outplaying younger and, arguably, more talented players in the squad.
Beckham’s return to form led to Real Madrid offering him a two-year contract extension toward to the end of the season. The Washington Post reported that the club president told Spanish press of his plans to persuade the Englishman to stay at the club by using an escape clause in Beckham’s contract with LA Galaxy that would allow him to withdraw from the deal. The existence of such a clause was denied by then-LA Galaxy President Alexi Lalas, with Beckham’s agent Simon Oliveira adding, “There is no intention of getting out of the Galaxy deal.”
When Beckham eventually left the Madrid-based club at the end of the season, Calderon praised him for “being a gentleman” during his time at the club. Club captain and Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas described Beckham as a “magnificent person” and his departure a “pity.” Casillas said Beckham had “given everything to Real Madrid.”
The American Dream: Understanding Beckham’s MLS decision
With such a lucrative deal being drawn up for Beckham’s transfer to MLS, it would have been impossible to avoid talk of money, but as Beckham himself was quick to point out, it wasn’t his intention to go to MLS for a simple retirement, it was for “footballing reasons” too.
Evidence of that fact can be seen in his decision to switch to MLS at the age of 32, with a few years still to play. This meant that he had plans to leave his mark on the American game before he bowed out.
A BBC report stated that Beckham had denied claims he was “in it for the money,” saying that he wanted to “make a difference” and “take soccer in the U.S. to another level,” pointing out the potential for rapid growth in the U.S. game.
“I’m coming there not be a superstar,” Beckham said famously, “I’m coming there to be part of the team, to work hard and to hopefully win things.” Beckham, whose wife, Victoria Beckham, runs a lucrative fashion business between London and L.A., said that with him, “it’s all about football.”
He did, however, admit that he had been teased because of the substantial financial package he would be receiving in the U.S., as the deal meant that he would be earning some 500 times more than most of his teammates at Los Angeles.
Terry Cooke—a retired footballer who played for Colorado Rapids and was teammates with Beckham at Manchester United—was reportedly unhappy with the size of Beckham’s contract. “It’s a disgrace if it’s true what I’ve heard about how much he’s going to be earning,” BBC reported Cooke saying. He added that it would difficult to justify paying one player such a large sum of money.
To have a better understanding of the mechanics behind MLS’s “Beckham Experiment,” we have to go back to 2006, when earlier in the year Beckham established the first of his many football training academies in Los Angeles and made public his desire to one day retire in the United States.
After LA Galaxy admitted an interest to bring the footballing icon to America, MLS paved the way for Beckham’s transfer in November by announcing a new, more relax salary-cap rule.
Nicknamed the “Beckham rule,” MLS’s new regulations would permit teams to sign up to three “designated players,” whose salaries would exceed the league-imbursed $400,000, the rest to be paid by the team’s owner.
Starting from 2007, the new rule allowed MLS teams to compete for top-level footballers in the international market as the league sought further growth.
Explaining the groundbreaking reform, former MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who is currently chief executive of England’s Arsenal Football Club, said, “Some teams want to have star players—others will choose a different route.”
Major league success: Looking back on Beckham’s MLS impact
Beckham’s success in MLS can be measure on two fronts: on the pitch and off the pitch.
On the pitch, Beckham had a positive influence on LA Galaxy that no one could have predicted, leading the team to the top of the Western Conference twice. LA Galaxy were also two-time MLS Cup champions and the team had become more competitive than ever.
Beckham’s arrival and, most importantly, success at LA Galaxy also inspired other top-level players to opt for MLS later in their careers. Most notably, former Arsenal, Barcelona and France striker Thierry Henry, who, after having won everything there is to win in the game, decided to join Eastern Conference outfit New York Red Bulls in 2010. Henry was was later joined by former Mexico holding midfielder and former Barcelona teammate Rafael Marquez.
In 2011, Republic of Ireland striker Robbie Keane joined Beckham at LA Galaxy as the club’s third designated player, adding to a star-studded lineup that already included American favorite Landon Donovan.
Beckham’s performances at Los Angeles also garnered personal footballing triumphs, as the former Manchester United star was recalled by then-England manager Steve McClaren to play in key qualification matches for Euro 2008. He didn’t get a chance to represent England at the championship, however, as a woeful England were beaten by an inspired Croatia, who topped the qualification group and secured a place in the summer’s European Championship.
He made efforts to be selected again for World Cup 2010 qualifications, going on loan spells to Serie A giants AC Milan on two occasions. However, a torn Achilles tendon prevented him from playing in what would have been his fourth World Cup. He was invited by then-England head coach and former Real Madrid boss Capello to travel to South Africa as a consultant for the national team.
Beckham received criticism from some LA Galaxy fans after returning from South Africa. Some believed his decision to push for a World Cup place in the England squad by joining AC Milan—a more competitive outfit—was a sign of disrespect toward his parent team. He would silence critics once more by captaining LA Galaxy to the MLS title the following season.
Off the pitch, Beckham’s arrival in MLS reignited the debate over the standards of the league. Not only did people start discussing how MLS fared when compared to other “A-list” leagues in Europe, it also awakened a desire to develop MLS into a more dominant force.
One could argue that the likes of the National Basketball Association, National Football League or Major League Baseball, although lucrative, remain relatively isolated from the international arena when compared to football, possibly the most widely followed sport in the world—a sport that is played and loved by the richest and the poorest of countries.
Passion for the game: Beckham’s retirement
There was much talk of Beckham leaving Los Angeles off the back of the team’s 2011 MLS title win. Sports Illustrated saw it as his “Hollywood ending.” However, Beckham signed a two-year contract extension and stayed on for another year before announcing his decision to call an end to his MLS career in 2012.
Beckham ended a distinguished footballing career by joining an elite group of players who have won league titles in four different countries. He joined France’s Ligue 1 outfit Paris Saint-Germain in the second half of the 2012-13 season and went on to collect his winner’s medal at the end of the season. Beckham played for free during his months in Paris, donating the wages he would have earned to a local charity.
The England star would return to the U.S. after the summer. He later decided to exercise a contractual right to invest in an MLS team and placed it in Miami. Beckham started to seek investors for the funding and building of a new stadium after the deal was announced by MLS Commissioner Garber.
This is just another step in Beckham’s meticulously executed plan for a long-term future in America. Just how fruitful his U.S. venture as a club owner will prove to be remains to be seen.
During the time before and after Beckham’s transfer to MLS, U.S. media focused on how he could change American “soccer” by bringing much-needed exposure to the game, while at the same time not shying away from the money-making aspect of his move, making it seem like an almost natural incentive to switch leagues—and continents. In the birthplace of Wall Street and Hollywood, money is no stranger, and David Beckham was the best investment the MLS—and America—could have made.
It could be argued that the reason why Beckham’s steadily declining footballing career was not mentioned as much in U.S. media was because, when compared to MLS players at the time, Beckham was still considered hugely talented, having played—and won—at the very top level, even though he had struggled to make it into Real Madrid’s first 11 during his final season. This is perhaps also an indication of the gap that exists in competitive football between the U.S. and Europe’s top leagues.
Beckham himself seldom mentioned any aspirations for his personal footballing career to the media during his transfer to Los Angeles, as opposed to when he moved to Real Madrid from boyhood club Manchester United. He instead insisted on making a difference in the U.S., in hope of raising the exposure of football in America, while at the same time providing an ideal environment for his family.
In hindsight, the argument of ‘Becks’ versus bucks is essentially benign. ‘Becks’ is the bucks, and his move to MLS in 2007 is possible one of the best “win-win” cases the world of commercial football has ever witnessed. JSF.
John Scot Feng, author of the “Barrelled Thoughts Blog” series and administrator of “Quote, Unquote“, was born in Durban, South Africa. He is currently a Russian studies student at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. As the founder of The Salad Bowl, John is also one of the project’s English- and Chinese-language editors.