Friday, July 17, 2009

Beckham Situation Like Pele’s in 70’s, But Without Production? Another Cruyff Story

So there are all these stories about David Beckham’s impending return to the Los Angeles Galaxy that imply this is some kind of big deal.

Let me say this first: I’m not a soccer basher. I covered it at the start of my career at The Washington Post when the old North American Soccer League was actually flourishing with real stars like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Johan Cruyff—who is still the most entertaining athlete away from the field I ever covered on a regular basis.

That said, I have two problems with soccer: first, the fact that World Cup games are decided in shootouts. I’m sorry, you simply can’t do that and expect people to take you seriously. It would be like stopping a World Series baseball game after 12 innings and having a Home Run Derby. Or having a chip-off to decide The Masters or a field goal kicking contest if The Super Bowl was tied after a fifth quarter. (For all I know Donovan McNabb thinks that IS the rule).

The other issue for me is the soccer-istas who insist that if you don’t think soccer is the most wonderful, beautiful sport ever played you aren’t just ignorant, you’re evil. I hear this sometimes from hockey fans who think I shouldn’t write about hockey because I don’t cover 80 games a year at this point in my life. You must either LOVE soccer or hockey and nothing else or be banished from the kingdom forever.

Here’s the deal: I like hockey and I like soccer. I enjoy covering them when I get the chance because my dealings with players in the two sports have always been very pleasant.

But I don’t analyze the quality of D.C. United’s corner kicks.

And I really don’t get the whole Beckham thing.

The guy has been a very good player for a long time now. That said, my most vivid memory of him is when he was, “sent off,” (red-carded) during a World Cup game forcing England to play a large chunk of the game a man short. That eventually cost England the game and it was said that Beckham would never be forgiven by his countrymen.

Well, he was forgiven, which is fine. He married Posh Spice, which I guess is the European equivalent of dating Jessica Simpson. Beckham and Spice (is that the right way to second-reference her?) became one of the world’s hot couples. Again, I don’t really get it. Beyonce and Jay-Z, I get. They both have talent.

Beckham’s coming to LA was hailed as the equivalent of Pele coming to New York in the mid-70s to play for the Cosmos. Except he’s rarely played and when he has played he hasn’t done much and his team has done even less. The Cosmos won championships with Pele on the team. In a league where almost everyone makes the playoffs, the Galaxy don’t even make the playoffs.

Beckham has sold a lot of tickets because of the buzz connected to his name but frequently those buying tickets have watched him sit no the bench or come in midway through the second half or play an entire game and touch the ball three times. This is the man they name movies for? (“Bend it like Beckham.”) From where I sit, “Bend it Like Ben (Olsen)” might have been a more apt title.

I enjoy World cup soccer—except for the stupid shootouts. I love the passion and the pageantry. I like the fact that The MLS has found a niche in our sports culture here. In cities like Washington, the local team has a solid fan base that, no doubt the ownership wishes was larger, but is very loyal and shows up in all weather regardless of whether the team is winning titles or missing the playoffs.

But I don’t get the Beckham thing. I didn’t get it when Tiger Woods and his minions were allowed to pair Romo with Woods in the pro-am at Woods’s tournament and consign Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell to another group. Anyone who knows me at all knows how I feel about the Redskins owner, the team’s management and the fanaticism about the team in this town.

But if you’re in Washington and you’re the host of a golf tournament and the quarterback of the Redskins and the quarterback of the Cowboys are both playing you play with the guy from the Redskins. I don’t care if the Cowboys QB is dating a young Lauren Bacall—which, for the record, Jessica Simpson (now Romo’s ex, cry me a river) is not.

I digress.

Maybe Beckham will have one last great flourish in Los Angeles. Clearly, he had little interest in going back there this year since he somehow conned the club into ‘loaning,’ him to A.C. Milan for more than half the season. Wow talk about an eager-beaver, huh? More likely, he’ll play half-games, whine about some injury and depart to sign some multi-million dollar contract for another year or two in Europe.

Having said all that, I have this memory of Cruyff, shortly after he came to Washington. He hadn’t scored a goal in his first seven games when my then-boss, George Solomon, came to a game against the Seattle Sounders. (That was the NASL’s team as it is now MLS’s team in Seattle). I had been writing about Cruyff a lot because he was a star and SO quotable.

Midway through the first half, Solomon, whose knowledge of soccer extended to the fact that he knew players were not supposed to use their hands, turned to me and said, ‘when are you going to have the guts to write that this Dutchman is overrated?”

It was a classic Solomon dig.

As if he had heard Solomon, Cruyff, at that very instant, stole the ball at midfield, went through five Sounders and scored the greatest goal anyone in the stadium had ever seen. It was breath-taking.

I turned to Solomon and said: “What were you saying George?”

“Never mind,” he answered.

I await a moment like that from David Beckham.


Peter said...

I enjoy your soccer writing because you are a rare American sports writer who is open minded about soccer even though you are not a fan.You will never see a Cruyff moment from Beckham. In his heyday Cruyff was the best player in the world. Beckham was a good pro with a fantastic cult of personality. Becks was never fast, can pass well and crosses superbly. He rarely scores except from free kicks. His celebrity has always surpased his talent and now he is declining and is an average player (though not a bad one). Beckham does not rank in the top 10 players of his own era let alone those I have seen over the lat 25 years or so.

rocketreducer said...

Perfect summary of David Beckham's career from Peter...

ednobe said...

Great, engaging interview on Rome. Thanks.

Rico said...

I just don't think that Beckham wants to be in the MLS. The only reason he signed with LA in the first place was that he had been injured, he was on the outs with his managers in Europe, and there was a sense that his career was winding down. The problem is that Beckham got healthy and resurrected his reputation in Europe (especially with the England team), which made the MLS a less attractive option for him. If he could opt out of his LA contract, he would, but his next best option is to do exactly what he is doing - playing as much as possible in Europe on transfer deals. I think he's a jackass, but let's be real: MLS is third-rate soccer and Beckham playing here is like having Albert Pujols play for the Long Island Ducks.

Mike said...

Great points about Beckham. I am just barely old enough to remember Pele and Cruyff in the old NASL. That was a much better attempt to take soccer mainstream in the US than Beckham is.
As always, I enjoyed you on Rome yesterday. I am very happy to hear that you are well. All the best for a continued speedy recovery.