Nursing a broken foot, Wayne Rooney hobbled off the pitch just 27 minutes into England's Euro 2004 quarterfinal against Portugal to the applause of millions of television viewers worldwide. His tournament was over, but what a formidable run it had been: Rooney had slotted in four goals and given his team the boost a lackluster David Beckham had failed to provide. Surely the 18-year-old Rooney was the One, thought giddy football pundits from Birmingham to Bangkok, the golden boy who would replace Beckham as the new face of football. But the hype died down as soon as the question of dollars translated into sense. Sure, Rooney is a very good player, declared one commentator, but what could he possibly sell--"potatoes?"
In the Age of Beckham, it takes more than deft ball skills to become a global football icon. A player's ability to sell team shirts, shaving cream and everything in between has become ever more crucial to a football club's ability to establish itself as a global brand. At the top of the food chain stands Beckham--the sarong-wearing star whose chiseled good looks, family-man image and celebrity status have helped hawk everything from Gillette razors in the United States to Meiji Seika chocolates in Japan.
But all good things must come to an end, and the Age of Beckham is no exception. At 29, Beckham is entering the twilight of his career; the football industry is beginning to contemplate how to fill the void that his decline as a player and eventual retirement will create. Indeed, that question was on the minds of many of the world's club bosses and marketing execs who attended the annual football trade fair in Dubai last week. Newcastle United chairman Freddy Shepherd declared bluntly that Manchester United had lost some of its "stardust" since letting Beckham slip away to Real Madrid in 2003. Now the whole industry is worried about losing its luster.
There is no obvious candidate to fill Beckham's Gucci sandals. Rooney, 19, is too uninspiring off the field; the pug-faced Liverpudlian has only local appeal and lacks a celebrity aura. The same goes for Real Madrid's Michael Owen, although he's cute enough to win female fans. Other stars, like Manchester United's Portuguese heartthrob Cristiano Ronaldo, Italian Francesco Totti of AS Roma, Argentine wonder boy Javier Saviola of Monaco and Arsenal's No. 1 Frenchman Thierry Henry have potential. But their global reach is limited by one important factor: "They don't have the English-language feature," says Dominic Malcolm, a sports-economics lecturer at the University of Leicester and author of "The Future of Football." Speaking English has come to be regarded as a vital asset for any footballer hoping to win over fans from Buenos Aires to Bangkok. The consensus is that the next Beckham may well have to be English or American, just as most global pop icons are.
The lack of such a figure is leading European club executives and sponsors to concentrate on filling region-specific marketing needs, particularly in Asia, which is now seen as the merchandising gold mine that could help bring Europe's ailing teams out of the red. When Crystal Palace signed Chinese stars Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai in 1998, the club's merchandise flew off shelves across China, and created instant brand-name recognition. Tottenham enjoyed a similar effect with Japanese striker Kazuyuki Toda last year, as did Parma with Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata, who is now at Fiorentina. "We're seeing players signed in Europe because of the commercial opportunities they open up," says Malcolm. "It enables a football club as a brand to expand into a market." Consider this: when Chinese star Lie Tie's Everton squares off against Manchester City, where Sun Jihai now plays, an estimated 300 million Chinese watch the match (less than 1 million Brits tune in--and that's if Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB chooses to broadcast it).
Some critics argue that teams are sacrificing quality in this quest to build international brands. Many of the Asian players transferred to Europe have failed dismally on the field--Toda, for instance, played just four games before being sent back to a Japanese club. This prompted Mohammed bin Hammam, the head of the Asian Football Confederation, to accuse European clubs of exploiting Asian players as "slaves" for commercial purposes earlier this year, demanding instead that they hire Asians on playing ability alone. (FIFA president Sepp Blatter echoed the complaint last month, denouncing European clubs for creating a "high-stakes trade in humans.") To that end, some teams are going out of their way to help raise player quality along with their reputations; Stockport County FC in Britain's Division One plays annual exhibitions in China and offers training scholarships to local players. "Recruiting players has to be purely about talent," says a former executive of one big-name English club. "If the player has marketing appeal, it's a bonus--but not the reason. If you do that you start to compromise the integrity of sporting principles."
Perhaps, but these principles have largely died in recent years, as satellite television yanked football from its parochial roots and transformed it into a multibillion-dollar industry that favored branding over ball skills. As the footballing world moves into a new era, desperately seeking its new cash cow--or cows--few clubs or sponsors are listening to the old-timers. Some still dream of finding the One, perhaps in an American like DC United's 15-year-old Ghanaian-born Freddy Adu, who has endorsement deals with everyone from Nike to Campbell's soup, and has helped raise attendance at his games this past season to 50 percent above average. "It may be that the person who rivals Beckham is going to be the person most closely linked to the American team when it eventually wins the World Cup," speculates Malcolm.
Others think that's not likely ever to happen. So, when Beckham finally fades into the history books, as Bill Gerard, a professor of sports management and finance at Leeds University Business School, puts it, "it will be a case of 'The king is dead. Long live the king'." The new ruler may face an altogether different kind of kingdom.