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Books | Sports

August 2, 2009

Beyond Beckham

The international celebrity has flopped on American pitches, but Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl says the beautiful game shows signs of life stateside nonetheless.

Jim Chairusmi

The announcement on January 11, 2007, was supposed to elevate soccer in the hierarchy of US spectator sports. David Beckham, the world's most popular soccer player, was coming to America, signing a deal to play for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy. "Bringing free kicks, glitz and his Spice Girl wife, Beckham is leading another British invasion, hoping to do for American soccer what the Beatles once did for pop music—make it rock," the Associated Press reported.

Grant Wahl. Photo by Sandra Magalhaes.
"I've learned never to predict the mainstream popularity of soccer in America."

Grant Wahl. Photo by Sandra Magalhaes.

Two and a half years later, in his first match of the season in Los Angeles, Beckham was jeered by many spectators in the Galaxy crowd, who were insulted by his preference to leave MLS and stay with AC Milan, where he said the standard was much higher.

In The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America, Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl fills in the blanks between those two snapshots, detailing how the "$250 million fairy tale," through a clash of egos and questionable management, became a nightmare.

In the book, Beckham's Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan questions Beckham’s commitment to the team and his lack of leadership. "He's not shown [he's a good teammate]," Donovan said. "I can't think of another guy where I'd say he wasn't a good team-mate, he didn't give everything through all this, he didn't still care. But with [Beckham], I'd say no, he wasn't committed." (Donovan and Beckham have since resolved their issues and are trying to put the matter behind them.)

Gelf Magazine recently exchanged emails with Wahl about The Beckham Experiment. Wahl discussed the progress of MLS, what he would do if Thierry Henry was interested in playing in America, and which US athletes could have been world-class soccer players.

Gelf Magazine: Has the MLS business model worked?

Grant Wahl: The single-entity business model has worked in the sense that MLS is in no danger of folding in its 14th year of existence. The stability is there. There are soccer-specific stadiums, national TV contracts with rights fees, continued plans for expansion, and a US public that now treats the World Cup as a big-time mainstream event.
The soccer quality in MLS needs to get better, though, and the league is still losing money. In the next decade, MLS needs to start closing the quality gap with the top European leagues, which are more readily available than ever to US television viewers.

Gelf Magazine: The three other leagues that Beckham has played in—England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, and Italy's Serie A— are arguably the top three domestic leagues in the world. Where does the MLS rank in this hierarchy? What domestic league would you say the level of talent in the MLS is on par with?

Grant Wahl: If we're being realistic, I'd say MLS is somewhere between No. 10 and No. 20 among the world's soccer leagues. In the Western Hemisphere alone, there are better leagues in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. There's an even longer list in Europe, of course. The difference in comparing MLS to European leagues is that MLS has league-mandated parity (salary caps, roster limits, etc.), while most European leagues are extremely top-heavy. In terms of quality from top to bottom, I'd say MLS is on par with the second-tier English league (aka "the Championship"). At the same time, no league in the world has the potential for moving up in the international "rankings" quite like MLS.

Gelf Magazine: Has the quality of play in the MLS improved since the debut in 1996? Or do you agree with Greg Vanney?

Grant Wahl: It depends on the makeup of the teams. Vanney argued that his late-1990s L.A. Galaxy teams had as many as nine starters who'd played for their respective national teams and were far better than the 2008 Galaxy, which only had three or four national-teamers. But the '08 Galaxy was also put together poorly with a couple of superstars (Beckham and Donovan) and a ton of inexperienced players.
By contrast, the Houston Dynamo (which has won two of the past three MLS Cups) is a true team with an experienced group of players who know how to play together. Today's MLS teams that have good mid-level players (Chicago, Seattle, New England) are better than most of the MLS teams from the 1990s.

Gelf Magazine: Knowing what you do about the Beckham experiment, if you were the general manager of an MLS team, and the agent for Thierry Henry or Ronaldinho called saying his star player wanted to join your club, would you be interested? What ground rules would you set for the player?

Grant Wahl: Of course I'd be interested. MLS needs star power, and the failures of the Beckham experiment (which weren't inevitable) shouldn't prevent MLS owners from opening their wallets in the future. They just need to be smart about which players to bring in.
I'd be more excited about Thierry Henry than Ronaldinho because while both are marvelous players, Henry doesn't have a reputation for being out of shape or spending too much time on the party circuit. (Ronaldinho, regrettably, does.) It's important to sign stars who won't view MLS as an American vacation and are held accountable for their actions in the same way as the rest of the players. Nor should the star players and their handlers be given too much control over the team.
I'm still stunned that Beckham's best friend and personal manager became a paid consultant to the Galaxy who conducted the team's coaching search in 2007. What happened behind the scenes on the Galaxy in 2007 and 2008—which is detailed in my book—is unlike anything I've ever seen in sports before.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think David Beckham will return to the MLS after the 2010 World Cup?

Grant Wahl: He says that he wants to do that. A lot depends on how Beckham does with the Galaxy over the next few months. Can the team win with Beckham for the first time? Will the Galaxy want Beckham back in 2010? Will he want to return? Being a part-time MLS player may be good for Beckham, but it's hard to see how it helps the Galaxy become a better team on the field.

Gelf Magazine: Bill Simmons recently wrote: "Over the next decade—starting with the World Cup in 2010—I predict international soccer takes off to a modest degree in America during the '10s. Not to compare everything to 'The Godfather,' but for America, the NASL was Sonny (exciting, impetuous and ultimately self-destructive), the MLS is Fredo (weak) and international soccer is Michael (the heavy hitter who was lurking all along)."

Grant Wahl: I've learned never to predict the mainstream popularity of soccer in America. I have no idea if soccer (international or MLS) will ever be one of the top three spectator sports here, but I do find it fascinating that so many successful businesspeople (MLS investors, TV networks like ESPN) continue to put money into that proposition.
It's not going out on a limb to say that World Cup 2010 will get good ratings in the US; the '06 World Cup final had a larger TV audience in the US (16.9 million) than the average audiences for that year's World Series and NBA Finals. But it's an entirely different ballgame when you go from big events like the World Cup to drawing those types of audiences for the Premier League, La Liga, and Champions League in the States.
That said, I think it's great that mainstream sports columnists like Bill Simmons are more open-minded about soccer than most of their older counterparts. There's an entire generation of young US sports fans who don't view soccer as "anti-American" but just want to see the sport at its highest levels.

Gelf Magazine: Were you surprised that Landon Donovan was so honest and blunt in his critique of David Beckham?

Grant Wahl: Not really. I wanted to do this book in part because I knew that several characters would be unstintingly candid no matter how things turned out: Donovan, Alexi Lalas, Tim Leiweke, and rank-and-file Galaxy players like Alan Gordon and Chris Klein. Donovan has always been up front with his feelings in interviews, and you can see his growing disillusionment with the Beckham experiment in the book as time goes on.
By the time Donovan really unloads on Beckham at the end of the 2008 season, it seems like a natural progression in human terms based on the arc of the story over two years.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think Landon Donovan will try to play in Europe full-time? It would seem that the Bundesliga isn't ideal for his game.

Grant Wahl: I think Donovan will entertain the right European offer after the 2009 MLS season, but England and Spain would be more ideal for his style of play than Germany ever was.
At 27, Donovan is nearing the height of his powers, and he does appear to have matured on and off the field over the last couple years. He was the best American player during the US's recent run to the Confederations Cup final, and he is clearly the Galaxy's best player right now.

Gelf Magazine: Did you face a conflict over what to save for the book, and what to give to your employer, SI, before publication?

Grant Wahl: At various times during the reporting of my book I pitched Beckham/Galaxy stories to SI, but I never got the green light to do one. I think it worked out well in the end: SI was gracious enough to run a 5,000-word excerpt in the magazine that drew a lot of attention to the book and to Sports Illustrated. I really appreciate the support of everyone at SI during this process, especially the editor of the Sports Illustrated Group, Terry McDonell.

Gelf Magazine: You were in South Africa writing the book. Is the country ready to host the World Cup?

Grant Wahl: South Africa will be ready. The stadiums are scheduled to be finished by the end of 2009, and they ran a solid operation during the recent Confederations Cup, which served as a dress rehearsal for 2010.
Next year won't be quite like Germany 2006: You won't want to travel by train and the security/crime situation is worse in South Africa, but if you're smart you shouldn't have any problems. I didn't have any during the seven months I lived in Johannesburg.

Gelf Magazine: How big was the US upset of Spain in the Confederations Cup? Are we at the point where the rest of the world considers the US a soccer threat? Will failing to advance past the first round next summer in South Africa be considered another setback for the advancement of soccer in this country?

Grant Wahl: The US upset of Spain was about as big a non-World Cup win as you could have—unless the US had gone on to beat Brazil in the final. The Confederations Cup is now arguably the third-most important international tournament behind the World Cup and the European Championship, and Spain (the world's top-ranked team) had been on a ridiculous 35-game streak without a loss. Plus, the US deserved the victory.
Realistically, the US is a top-15 team that can compete with the world's best on a good day, but it's certainly not a top-five team that's on the short list of World Cup contenders. Failing to advance past the first round in next year's World Cup would be a major missed opportunity, but we're getting to the point where it would be a setback in competitive terms more so than in terms of, "What does this mean for the future of the sport?" Soccer is here to stay in the United States.
When France failed to advance in 2002, it was a huge disappointment in France, but nobody wondered if it would kill the sport there. US soccer is now closer to that situation than many mainstreamers realize.

Gelf Magazine: If soccer were the No. 1 sport in this country, what US athletes do you think could have been world-class soccer players?

Grant Wahl: Barry Sanders, Allen Iverson, Dwyane Wade (flopping included!).

Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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Article by Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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