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Beckham Comes Kicking; Is America Ready?
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Beckham Comes Kicking; Is America Ready?

Sports

Beckham Comes Kicking; Is America Ready?

Beckham Comes Kicking; Is America Ready?
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12104805/12104862" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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David Beckham listens during an L.A. Galaxy news conference. i

David Beckham listens during an L.A. Galaxy news conference introducing him as the newest member of the team at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., July 13, 2007. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
David Beckham listens during an L.A. Galaxy news conference.

David Beckham listens during an L.A. Galaxy news conference introducing him as the newest member of the team at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., July 13, 2007.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

A British Soccer Fan's View

Christopher Turpin, a lifelong fan of a rival English soccer club, takes a critical look at former Manchester United star David Beckham, his worldwide celebrity and what he brings to America.

David Beckham takes a free kick. i

David Beckham, while still a member of Real Madrid, takes a free kick a match with Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, June 17, 2007. Denis Doyle/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Denis Doyle/Getty Images
David Beckham takes a free kick.

David Beckham, while still a member of Real Madrid, takes a free kick a match with Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, June 17, 2007.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Frank Deford on David Beckham

Beckham fans Casey Rogers and Casey Rogers i

David Beckham's reputation for free kicks and his jaw-dropping good looks have already created fans out of 21-year-olds Casey Rogers (left) and Silvie Langben. They bought $30 Beckham jerseys and went to see their first pro soccer game this week in his honor. Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR
Beckham fans Casey Rogers and Casey Rogers

David Beckham's reputation for free kicks and his jaw-dropping good looks have already created fans out of 21-year-olds Casey Rogers (left) and Silvie Langben. They bought $30 Beckham jerseys and went to see their first pro soccer game this week in his honor.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR
Matt Samansky and other members of the L.A. Riot Squad watch from the stands. i

Matt Samansky (second from right) stands with other die-hard Galaxy fans in the L.A. Riot Squad, formed when the team began 11 years ago. "The team's just not playing with heart," he said at Tuesday's game, when the Galaxy team was pummeled 3-0 by Mexico's Los Tigres. "But Beckham's not our savior. They have to save themselves." Mandalit del Barco, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Mandalit del Barco, NPR
Matt Samansky and other members of the L.A. Riot Squad watch from the stands.

Matt Samansky (second from right) stands with other die-hard Galaxy fans in the L.A. Riot Squad, formed when the team began 11 years ago. "The team's just not playing with heart," he said at Tuesday's game, when the Galaxy team was pummeled 3-0 by Mexico's Los Tigres. "But Beckham's not our savior. They have to save themselves."

Mandalit del Barco, NPR
Victoria Beckham strikes a posh pose. i

Victoria Beckham keeps the paparazzi busy at the Home Depot Center, July 13, 2007. This week, the former and future Spice Girl introduced herself to America in a show on NBC. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Victoria Beckham strikes a posh pose.

Victoria Beckham keeps the paparazzi busy at the Home Depot Center, July 13, 2007. This week, the former and future Spice Girl introduced herself to America in a show on NBC.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

British soccer star David Beckham is set to show up for his first game with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday. There's tremendous media hype over his move from England with his famous wife, Victoria, and their family. The hope is that Beckham will fill stadiums and finally make soccer fans out of the Americans.

But just days before Beckham's first official game, his Galaxy teammates were soundly trounced 3-0 by Los Tigres from Mexico.

"The team's just not playing with heart. We're just lacking passion," winces die-hard Galaxy fan Matt Samansky, an off-duty LAPD cop.

The L.A. Galaxy is currently the second-worst team in Major League Soccer. Hoping to sell game tickets and merchandise, Beckham was signed to a $250 million deal over the next five years, including expected endorsements. But even Samansky, who has supported the team since it began 11 years ago, says Beckham might not rescue the Galaxy.

"Beckham's not our savior," Samansky says. "They have to save themselves."

Another Galaxy fan, 29-year-old social worker Sandro Soler, went even further.

"We were humiliated three nil. Why? Because our team is depleted," he says. "We've gotten rid of very good players to make room for this has-been who is injured and is not going to make a difference. For the exact same amount of money, we could have gotten four good players from Argentina, maybe. It's not a good deal, period."

But Beckham's reputation for free kicks and his jaw-dropping good looks have already attracted a new breed of soccer fan.

"With Beckham coming, it's kind of a new awakening to soccer in the United States," says 21-year-old Casey Rogers, who bought a $30 Beckham jersey to wear to attend her first professional soccer match this week.

College students Onica Perez and Briana Manly are now first-time season ticket holders.

"Definitely, he's going to do a good thing for soccer and for Galaxy," Perez says.

"Plus, he's hot. Oh my God!" Mandly adds.

Last week, a cascade of confetti rained down on Beckham as he was introduced to Galaxy season ticket holders.

"I've always looked for challenges in my career and something exciting in my life," he said, holding up his new number 23 team jersey. "Now my family has moved to Los Angeles, and in our life, everything's perfect."

The 32-year-old midfielder seems well aware that he's expected to boost the popularity of American soccer to levels around the world, where everyone, including Beckham, calls it football. But he's not the first international soccer envoy to this country. In the mid-1970s, Brazilian powerhouse Pele was signed to play with the New York Cosmos.

"He had retired and the Brazilian government had actually more or less banned him from playing in a different country," notes Soccer America magazine Executive Editor Mike Woitalla. "And the story goes, the New York Cosmos even got the help of Henry Kissinger to convince the Brazilian government that it would be good for their image if they let Pele come to the United States. And he really did ignite the American soccer boom."

Now Beckham's challenge is to create a new boom, not just for American soccer, but for the pro teams playing it.

"I think there's a difference than back when Pele and George Best, Rodney Marsh and Beckenbauer moved here," Beckham told reporters. "Back then, there was a lot of money pumped into one team. Obviously there's a lot of money in the Galaxy, but as a league it's a lot more stable. That's why I think it's a great time for me to come here and be an ambassador and try to push the sport to another level."

Woitalla notes that Beckham's arrival has already helped sell out games, and set off a merchandising craze.

"David Beckham is the most publicized, most photographed, most idolized athlete in the history of the world," Woitalla says. "Here's a guy who hangs out with Hollywood stars, he's got this Spice Girl wife, he buys his kids $20,000 toys. But when he gets in front of a camera, he comes across as very down to earth, as this sort of working-class type of kid he was."

In fact, during his first official Los Angeles press conference, Beckham was asked how his Galaxy mates reacted when they first saw him in the locker room.

"One of them came up to me and said, 'Nice to meet you. What's your name?" he joked.

Having starred for teams Manchester United and Real Madrid, Beckham is already an international icon with a movie named after him, Bend It Like Beckham. Now he's poised to conquer the States with a marketing machine that extends to his entire clan.

Beckham and his "Posh" wife, Victoria, are featured in a sexy photo spread in the latest edition of W magazine. And this week, the former Spice Girl introduced herself to America with her own reality TV show on NBC.

In the show, she is seen meeting her Beverly Hills neighbors and making fun of her pouty reputation. "I don't want to be seen smiling, having fun or eating, perish the thought!" she says.

Ever since the Beckhams arrived in Los Angeles, the paparazzi have been all over them and their three sons.

"We'll be basically following him and her when they leave the house until they get home," says Gary Morgan, CEO of the Hollywood picture agency Splash, which supplies celebrity images to tabloids, TV shows and Web sites in the U.S. and overseas. "We'll be covering everything Beckham for all the fans out there globally who want to know what their new Hollywood life is going to be about .... the A-list friends, her fashionista ideas, and the Spice Girls reunited .... It's the Hollywood PR machine at its very best."

Splash has a six-man crew, dubbed Team Beckham, dedicated to following the Beckhams' every move. Wearing specially made Galaxy jerseys, they've already caught the couple shopping at Toys "R" Us and driving to get In-N-Out burgers.

"They're very difficult to photograph," says Splash photographer Darren Banks.

"They run a lot of decoy cars. They make it really, really difficult to get a photograph unless they want a photograph taken. So they're good fun to work with. It's a good challenge."

These days, Banks and a dozen other paparazzi are staked out in front of the Beckhams' $20 million mansion, ready to chase them around town.

"At the moment, we're supplying a demand," says Richard Beetham, also on Team Beckham. "It's like anything else: Once people get sick of it, it'll drop off. But they're a fad. They're like the Slinky."

The fad may fade out eventually, but for now, Beckham mania is in full force. Still, the fans may have to wait for his big debut. With a swollen ankle that hasn't yet healed, Beckham may not play in Saturday night's sold-out game after all.

How I Tried — and Failed — to Hate David Beckham

David Beckham, then of Manchester United, celebrates winning the championship with his son Brooklyn. i

David Beckham, then of Manchester United, celebrates winning the championship with his son Brooklyn after the FA Carling Premiership match against Tottenham Hotspur in May 2000. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
David Beckham, then of Manchester United, celebrates winning the championship with his son Brooklyn.

David Beckham, then of Manchester United, celebrates winning the championship with his son Brooklyn after the FA Carling Premiership match against Tottenham Hotspur in May 2000.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
David Beckham smiles as he takes a break from a stretching exercise. i

David Beckham smiles as he takes a break from a stretching exercise during an L.A. Galaxy open practice at the Home Depot Center, July 16, 2007, in Carson, Calif. Stephen Dunn/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
David Beckham smiles as he takes a break from a stretching exercise.

David Beckham smiles as he takes a break from a stretching exercise during an L.A. Galaxy open practice at the Home Depot Center, July 16, 2007, in Carson, Calif.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

David Beckham is a hard man to hate. I should know. As a lifelong West Ham United fan, I've been trying to loathe him for years.

Distaste for Beckham should be hardwired into my DNA, given that he's spent most of his career playing for Manchester United, a rival team I've never had any problem despising, and confess to shouting vile abuse at during some of my weaker moments as a human being.

For those unfamiliar with the tribal nuances of English soccer, Manchester United is the equivalent of the New York Yankees — a team whose deep pockets and propensity for sucking up talent make even George Steinbrenner look positively parsimonious. They are a hard team to love unless you come from Manchester, or are one of those sports fans who always want to back a winner.

Add in the Spice Girl wife, and the absurdities of the couple's celebrity lifestyle, such as their lavish residence dubbed "Beckingham Palace" by the British tabloids, and you'd think Beckham would be about as lovable as Paris Hilton after one too many mojitos. Yet he's a curiously likeable chap — even my celebrity-immune mother thinks so.

The L.A. Galaxy isn't getting the second coming of Pele. Beckham's a very good player, but he isn't a great. He's not a human highlight reel like Michael Jordan. There were times when he wasn't even an automatic starter for the first team at Manchester United.

Yet Beckham helped his team to six Premiership Championships in a decade before his 2003 transfer to the Spanish club Real Madrid. This year, with Beckham playing some of the best soccer of his career, Real won the Spanish championship for the first time in three years. He's an excellent team player who makes those around him better, and, yes, no one can "bend it like Beckham" — the ball, that is.

A mainstay of the English national team, which he captained more than 50 times, Beckham was dropped by England's new coach after the 2006 World Cup, only promptly to be brought back to a hero's reception when England proved incapable of winning without him. One of the sub-plots of his move to the Galaxy is whether he'll be able to retain his place in the England lineup while playing in what is generally considered (sorry America) to be an inferior league.

In truth, though, Beckham off the field — the global icon who graces billboards from Hollywood to Hanoi — is more interesting than Beckham the footballer. Certainly, he's photogenic and he's had some good career advice. But that doesn't fully explain the Beckham phenomenon.

Part of the man's charm, is that having sought celebrity, he seems to genuinely enjoy it, even under the rapacious glare of Britain's tabloids. In matters of class, race and gender Beckham is a uniter, not a divider — he crosses all kind of boundaries. The young Manchester United star came of age when English soccer was metamorphosing from a hooligan-riddled national embarrassment to one of the world's premier sporting leagues. Beckham has been the perfect ambassador — comfortable with himself, comfortable with others.

Born in East London, he may have married "Posh," but he's never forgotten his working-class roots. He's close to his parents. Like many contemporary sports stars, his kids' names are tattooed on his body. Unlike some, his devotion to Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz seems to go beyond mere calligraphy — at least if one believes the many glossy spreads in celebrity magazines.

In a sport still riddled with racism and anti-Semitism, Beckham has spoken of his Jewish heritage. And then there are the famous pictures of the Superstar elegantly clad in a sarong, which launched one of the odder fashion revolutions of recent times. Until Beckham, most Englishmen would rather have their fingernails pulled under duress than be caught in a sarong. Perhaps Beckham's lasting contribution to British culture is he's helped redefine what it means to be macho. He's made it safe for a generation of British men to get manicures without being laughed out of the pub by their mates.

The future of soccer in America will be determined on the playing fields of suburbia, where legions of young players are discovering the game's democratic simplicity. Beckham isn't the savior of Major League Soccer. But even if Beckham's contract really is worth $250 million counting endorsements, my guess is that the Galaxy, American sports fans and the readers of US Weekly will all get their money's worth and more. And if a West Ham fan says that about Beckham, you can take it to the bank.

Christopher Turpin, the executive producer of All Things Considered, grew up in Essex, England. He achieved journalistic nirvana in 1994 when he was assigned to cover the World Cup competition in the United States.

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