Off To The Graveyard

And so, an era is over. After more than a decade of delighting English football fans at Manchester United and Spanish aficionados at Real Madrid, David Beckham is coming to America. But is it the right move? Responding to a reported $250 million, five-year deal with the L.A. Galaxy, The Independent of London blared leaving real life for la-la-land.

Most football pundits would argue that Beckham has been in La-la Land for some time now. At the very least, he's become too big for his boots. In 1998, Beckham broke a nation's collective heart at the World Cup semifinal when he petulantly kicked Argentina's Diego Simeone. The resulting red card sent England home in tears. (I was in a pub in London, and have never seen so many grown men bawl.) Then there was his wedding to Posh Spice. Deemed 1999's celebrity wedding of the year, it came complete with golden thrones for the bride and groom, as well as a crown for her "majesty." Sponsored by everyone from Gillette to Motorola, Beckham the brand has become far more popular than Beckham the player in recent years. Shirts bearing his name are on sale in markets from Bangkok to--somewhat ironically, given the rivalry with Argentina--Buenos Aires. In 2003, Real Madrid admitted to having signed him primarily for his ability to fill seats and sell merchandise, as opposed to his golden right foot. He has his own Adidas shoe, and there's even a David Beckham cologne (Instinct by Coty). Beckham is now so valuable as a commodity that he is represented by Simon Fuller, the man who made the Spice Girls household names and created Pop Idol (then sold the show's concept to American television, and the rest is history).

For all the branding, true fans will remember Beckham differently. The shy, mild-mannered boy from East London climbed his way up from Manchester United's youth side to become one of the most creative players in the history of the game. Few could have pulled off his halfway-line goal of the season against Wimbledon in 1996, and his consistently dazzling playmaking for Manchester United in its '90s heyday solidified the legend. Free kicks became his specialty as he reached his late 20's, but even so, not many other players could ever boast of reaching a teammate with a precise long pass or curling the ball over a wall like Beckham could.

So is Becks ready for the United States? Most likely, given that at 31 he really is no longer at his peak on the pitch. He was dropped from England's national team after the 2006 World Cup, and is just one star among many at Real Madrid. Commercially, the move appears to be a golden opportunity. (Most of the estimated $250 million will reportedly come from sponsorship contracts, shirt sales and shares of club profits rather than the Galaxy; the team's business development director Tom Payne refused to comment on the specifics of the deal.) Beckham will now also be able to play the game he clearly loves without the twin pressures of international competition and fanaticism.

Of course, whether America is ready for him is another matter. Gavin Smith of NRG Marketing, a firm that works with the Galaxy, believes Beckham will raise interest in Major League Soccer--particularly among the youth market and "young girls," given the metrosexual's famously good looks--and that from a marketing perspective, he'll "attract younger, hipper, more relevant brands" to support the league. That remains to be seen. Foreign superstars like Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer have tried to make America love soccer in the past, and failed. (The land of opportunity is still known internationally as the graveyard of football greats.) Indeed, Beckham has already had his own stumbles. In 2003 his first American foray was met with a shrug, as he and Posh Spice presented the best transatlantic breakthrough award at the MTV Movie Awards. That same year, I witnessed a similar moment. When "Bend It Like Beckham" hit the screens in Manhattan, I overheard a lady talking to her teenage daughter about the film upon exiting on the Upper West Side. "I liked it," she said. "But who is David Beckham?" If Becks's marketing machine works the same magic it has elsewhere, she may finally find out.