Storming America 25 years after Pele blazed the trail, but can Becks fulfill the hype?
He's everywhere. If you're an American sports fan, you can't help but hear about the saga of England's most prized sports hero.
Good Morning America. His name is David Beckham. If you don't know him now, you soon will.
On the field, off the field, in the USA, in England, in Italy and in Spain - it's all Becks, all the time. Beckham and wife Victoria "Posh Spice" Adams have been front page headliners in the UK for years, but just in the last three months, England's most adored couple has invaded America.
The movie Bend It Like Beckham grossed over $20 million in the U.S. in a limited release. Beckham is not even in the movie, except in a game highlight clip. Recently sidelined by injury, Beckham has taken advantage of the layoff to enjoy a brief stay in the States and has made appearances on ABC, HBO and MTV.
His current club, Manchester United, will embark on a four-game preseason tour of the U.S. this summer in front of sold out stadiums larger than Old Trafford. News of Beckham's possible $50 million move from Manchester United has actually bled into the headlines of American newspapers.
All indications are that Beckham enjoys America for the fact that he can walk down the street and avoid the constant paparazzi of the British press.
The Beckhams, who have a son named Brooklyn, have hinted that they might be inclined to move to America and follow the footsteps of another soccer superstar, Jurgen Klinsmann, who retired from soccer a couple of seasons ago and lives quietly in California.
America craves a soccer superstar. Pele started the wave in the 1970's with the New York Cosmos. Since then, only Mia Hamm has crossed over into the mainstream media spotlight but even Hamm lacks the Hollywood stardom of a Beckham.
Teenager Freddy Adu has the tools, the smile and the ability to be a superstar, but he's only 14. Even a teenage Tiger Woods needed a few years to reach superstar status. Beckham is here, he is hip, and he is now.
In addition to shouldering the burden of stardom, Beckham captains England's National Team and also serves as a leader of Manchester United, one of the world's richest clubs. How much pressure can one man take? I actually feel a little sympathetic towards David Beckham. No man should have to endure the constant scrutiny that Beckham does. At 28, David Beckham should be entering the prime of his career. Instead, his fame and fortune could lead to his demise.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are two of the clubs interested in signing Beckham away from Man U. Both clubs, and their respective shirt sponsors Nike and Adidas, are just as interested in Beckham's value in Asia and America as they are in his ability to bend in a free kick into the upper corner. Most experts agree that Beckham's marketing value, not his footballing ability, is worth $50 million.
And therein lies one of the major problems in world soccer today. Here we have a footballer like David Beckham, a special talent in his prime who is capable of providing a magic moment that only a handful of players can match, and yet it is his commercial value, not his career development, that will determine his future.
In the case of Real Madrid, who already spent $56 million on right winger Luis Figo three years ago, Beckham may not even crack the starting lineup.
Beckham was outplayed so much by Robert Carlos when Real Madrid and Manchester United met in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals in April that Man U coach Alex Ferguson benched Beckham from the starting lineup in the second leg. Real Madrid coach Vicente Del Bosque does not need Beckham to win titles. They need Beckham to reach the lucrative fan base in Asia and America.
In the case of Barcelona, recently elected club president Joan Laporta used the possible Beckham signing as part of his campaign platform. To be fair, how is Beckham allowed to concentrate on football when he is constantly being dragged through the mud in contract talks and media hype?
The current injury, Ferguson's benching, and Manchester United's willingness to shop Beckham around Europe have combined to bring up doubts about Beckham's footballing value. Is he too much of a free-kick specialist? Outside of his ability to cross the ball, what else can Beckham offer?
Then again, maybe Becks knows his football value is fading and feels that this is his opportunity to reach a superstar status beyond the borders of the UK and Asia. Maybe that's why his representatives have called everyone from Barbara Walters to Santa Claus looking to capitalize on his exposure. "Cash in now and become a superstar in America for the next 20 years" could be the course of action.
On the field, no one can take away his accomplishments. Beckham has already won six EPL titles and a European Cup. He has played in two World Cups and scored the dramatic goal that sent England through to the 2002 finals. Since being sent off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, Beckham has shown maturity beyond his years and has earned the captain's armband for England.
Let's hope that Beckham's soccer career continues to grow to new heights in spite of the fanfare that surrounds him. Let's hold out hope that Beckham and the club that signs him can find the right balance between football and life that will allow the magic on the pitch to continue for years to come.