Where Does Beckham's Departure Leave MLS?
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And speaking of big-celebrity athletes not living up to expectations, it looks like David Beckham's tenure with the Los Angeles Galaxy is coming to a premature end. Beckham joined LA's soccer team 17 months ago. Here's what he had to say that day.
Mr. DAVID BECKHAM (Soccer player): Potentially, in the States, soccer could be as big as it is everywhere else around the world and I believe…
(Soundbite of cheer)
Mr. BECKHAM: And I'm very proud to be part of that, and going to be part of that for the next five years. And may be few more years later so…
SIEGEL: Or, maybe more like not quite a year and half. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis is with us now to tell us why. Stefan, what's happening with David Beckham?
STEFAN FATSIS: Well, David Beckham's been playing in Italy for the last couple of months. He joined the venerable club AC Milan on loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy. And that's not uncommon in international soccer. Clubs loan each other players to allow them to get more playing time. In this case, Beckham said he wanted to stay in match shape during the U.S. league's off-season, which is the regular season over in Europe. Beckham said he wanted to do that so he could be considered for England's national team during their bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup - nothing unusual with any of that.
SIEGEL: But while he was playing for AC Milan, he was still under contract of the LA Galaxy?
FATSIS: Yeah, and he was due to return to the Galaxy in early March. But then, he said he's been playing well. He liked it there. And while he would honor his U.S. contract, he was interested in joining AC Milan full time. And after some initial huffing and puffing by the Galaxy and Major League Soccer, the team and the league are in discussions now with AC Milan. I've heard that Milan is expected to pay 15 to $20 million to acquire Beckham permanently from the Galaxy, but there's no resolution yet.
SIEGEL: Now, Beckham really filled a role. I remember Pele held this role, briefly, in the 1970s. He was supposed to be the man - the catalyst who would save U.S. soccer.
FATSIS: Yeah, ambassador was the word that everyone was using, and there's a difference with Pele. Pele was clearly done as an international player. He hadn't been on Brazil's national side for four years when he came over. Beckham came over. He was considered washed up in Europe as a player. He liked the idea of making a ton of money in the States, becoming the pied piper of American soccer. He did sell thousands of tickets and jerseys. And he raised media and corporate awareness. He didn't transform the sport. He wasn't here long enough. And I'm not sure that he would have, anyway.
So, his leaving now is embarrassing for MLS. It could create some headaches with sponsors. But the league can argue that, hey, it got a lot of attention from Beckham. His presence was a worthwhile experiment on the long path toward growth. And, you know, serious soccer fan aren't going to lose any sleep over his departure.
SIEGEL: But something doesn't quite calculate here. If Beckham was washed up two years ago, how does he now start for AC Milan, one of the best clubs in the world?
FATSIS: And that's the difference with the Pele analogy. I think Beckham discovered that - like a lot of athletes - he wasn't ready to give up trying to play at the highest level, and still could. Ambassadorships are nice but you'd rather be president And this is important too: He's no longer persona non grata on England's national team, as he had been two years ago. And I think that was motivating for him. But before we diss American soccer, think of it this way: 18 months ago, there was little or no market for David Beckham in Europe. Now he's playing for AC Milan. He may have been frustrated on the field over here, but his skills clearly did not deteriorate.
SIEGEL: One last bit of soccer news: A new women's professional league starts next month.
FATSIS: Yes, it's called a Women's Professional Soccer. It's been six years in the making - since the collapse of another league that had followed - you'll remember the women's successful World Cup in the U.S. in 1999. This attempt is more financially grounded, though it's hard to know how it's going to play out in this economy. The league announced its schedule this week. It's got seven teams. There will be a weekly game on the Fox soccer channel. It's got players from around the world: Brazil, Australia, China other countries. And there are a couple of familiar holdovers from that 1999 World Cup team: Kristine Lily and Brandi Chastain, who, of course, famously ripped off her jersey after scoring the winning goal in the championship game.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Stefan.
FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
SIEGEL: Stefan Fatsis, who talks with us Fridays about sports and the business of sports. This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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