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Weighing the pros and cons of an aging soccer phenomenon (and marketing property).
On Sunday David Beckham scored his first goal in the uniform of AC Milan. It was hardly a critical goal, only sealing a 4-1 victory against lowly Bologna that keeps his team in the chase right behind Inter Milan and Juventus.
But it gives the English star the remarkable distinction of having scored for fabled teams in all three of Europe’s elite leagues — with Manchester United in England’s Premiership, with Real Madrid in Spain’s La Liga and with AC Milan in Italy’s Serie A — not to mention in America’s Major League Soccer.
Beckham is only on loan from MLS, where he plays for the slightly less-fabled Los Angeles Galaxy and is in the middle of what is for American soccer a record-breaking $250 million contract. Beckham is using the Italian hiatus as a showcase in the hope that his play, which has been garnering surprisingly decent reviews in both the English and Italian press, will earn him one last go with England’s national team when the campaign for the 2010 World Cup resumes in April.
English coach Fabio Capello, who took over the team a little more than a year ago following its mortifying failure to qualify for the European championships, has been very respectful of the former English captain. He recalled Beckham to the national team for a friendly against France, enabling him to earn his 100th cap (an appearance in an international match) and since has included him in enough games that Beckham’s total has reached 107.
But honoring his past contributions is one thing. Making Beckham, who will turn 34 this spring, a critical part of the future, namely the 2010 effort, is a far more complex consideration. In recent years, he has been increasingly one-dimensional as a player, a dangerous weapon with his free kicks and crossing passes (though his AC Milan goal came on the run of play). But his midfield defense has always been regarded as something of a liability, prone to ill-timed and ill-considered tackles, and hasn’t improved with what many see as the diminished fitness that comes with age.
While Beckham might have value coming off the bench when the team desperately needs some offensive spark — he helped rally England as a sub in the final, fatal loss to Croatia in the Euros qualifying — he is such a mega-star that he inevitably becomes something of a distraction. This is, after all, a man whose name was in the title of a hit movie, “Bend It Like Beckham,” who is the subject of a “Shakespearean” tragedy, “Macbecks,” that opened in Dublin this month and whose life story is scheduled for a biopic treatment. Does the coach really need the giant tabloid headlines blaring on a daily basis “Will Becks Play?” And every time Becks plays, on the pitch or on the town, it commands outsized attention.
Moreover, the Beckham option seems increasingly unnecessary with England off to such an impressive start in World Cup qualifying. Not only has the team gone undefeated in four games, three of them on the road, but it also avenged its loss to Croatia, spanking its newest rival 4-1 in Zagreb. Under Capello’s stewardship, England has found what has so long eluded: a scoring touch. With a rejuvenated Wayne Rooney back on the pitch and healthy, England has scored 14 goals — led by Rooney’s five — in the four games. Unless injuries slow the English attack or it regresses in the warmer weather, Beckham’s offensive gifts seem like a luxury that England no longer requires.
Beckham has said that he will return to the United States and MLS in March, though he seems to have left the door open —“We’ll have to see,” he said following Sunday’s game — for an Italian extension. It would behoove MLS, particularly entering this recessionary season, to accommodate Beckham and get out from as much of his contract as it can.
Beckham has done pretty much all he can for soccer here. He proved that even in America a soccer player — if he is the most celebrated player in the world, if he is “Sexiest Man Alive” material, if his wife is also hot and a pop star, if his name is known from a popular movie — can be an A-List celebrity. He got invited to the Oscar parties and sold out some soccer stadiums to boot.
But the thrill is quickly gone. Even pairing Beckham with America’s top star, Landon Donovan, on the Galaxy was a very limited success. While it produced a high-scoring tandem, that’s not the bottom line, even here in the soccer hinterlands. The bottom line is that the Galaxy missed the MLS playoffs in both Beckham’s seasons. Last year, when he was healthy and started almost every game, the team finished in last place.
There’s no Hollywood ending waiting for Beckham back in Hollywood. His only hope of going out in a blaze of glory is to kiss off the big American bucks that lured him to these shores and take his last shot in Europe, where it really counts.