An older Beckham still has plenty to offer MLS
For a man as seemingly intent on world domination as David Beckham, becoming the Galaxy's biggest star may seem a suitable ending to his career -- the Los Angeles Galaxy, that is, an ideal base for visiting Tom Cruise and other friends in the city where celebrity and talent mix.
Envious glances from much of the English Premier League, for starters. There was no shortage of interest in Beckham -- from Bolton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Manchester City among others -- though, crucially, not from the big four of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. Attempts at a rapprochement with his former mentor Sir Alex Ferguson fell on deaf ears. Perhaps the Scot believes Beckham's decline began before he sold him to Real Madrid in 2003. It certainly has now.
It was apparent in last year's World Cup. Beckham is less mobile than he once was. Throughout his career, he rarely beat a defender for pace, but, as it had been in Euro 2004, an inability to advance in support of his attackers was obvious in Germany; England cried out for the speed and the verve of the teenage Tottenham winger Aaron Lennon. Beckham's place was secure, however: manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, as much in thrall to his captain's celebrity as the millions at the megastores, regarded him as an untouchable. Eriksson's successor, Steve McClaren, in a decision that was both political and footballing, swiftly discarded Beckham.
So, too, has his club manager. Under the misguided galacticos policy of the former president, Florentino Perez, Beckham was as likely to be omitted by Real Madrid as, well, by England. It never happened. Since Perez's departure and the appointment of the Italian Fabio Capello, Beckham has become a fixture on the bench. He has only been granted five La Liga starts, and Real has won just one of those games, losing three.
In part, this is because Capello prefers to construct a defensive shield in midfield with Emerson and Mahamadou Diarra providing protection to his back four. On the right wing, however, an assortment of others have been preferred.
Not that there can be any question of favoritism. Capello is an arch-pragmatist who, with his disdain for soccer players' fripperies and focus on winning in whatever manner possible, deemed the Englishman a mere surplus. Yet, for all the trappings of his fame, there was a time when Beckham would have met Capello's definition of a valued player. At his peak, he had phenomenal fitness, an unquestioned commitment to the team ethic and was arguably the most outstanding crosser of the ball around.
Some believe he still is. Manchester City manager Stuart Pearce, who played 78 times for England and was briefly a teammate of Beckham's, described him as the best dead-ball kicker in world soccer. However, his penalties have to be excluded from that description while, toward the end of his Manchester United career, it was noted at Old Trafford how rarely they scored from corners. There is a lesser emphasis on set pieces in the Spanish game, but Beckham retains the capacity to deliver, both from corners and free kicks.
The latter brought arguably the greatest moment of Beckham's career, the product of endless hours of practice. Deep into injury time and more than 30 yards from goal, his perfectly struck free kick against Greece in 2001 secured England's place in the following year's World Cup. National icon status beckoned.
Whatever his physical deterioration, Beckham's free kicks remain feared. So, once, with football's prosaic obsession with industry, was his stamina. Manchester United's management marveled at the ground he covered in the Champions League semifinal victory over Juventus in 1999, a match that is remembered more for a tour de force from Roy Keane. His indefatigability was a feature of the Greece game. With a more relaxed training regime at Real, that has changed. His right foot was cracked by Deportivo La Coruna's Aldo Duscher in 2002, but it is his legs that have failed Beckham.
If there was an inevitability to his forthcoming move stateside, there is another switch that may benefit him. The wings are often the domain of the young and the fleet of foot. Beckham has long hankered for a role in the middle of midfield, directing affairs and showing his passing range as well as his dead-ball expertise. In Los Angeles, he could take centre stage, in more ways than one. But approaching 32, he will never recapture the awe-inspiring robustness that augmented his pinpoint delivery in the heady days of 1999 and 2001.
Richard jolly writes for ESPNsoccernet and covers the English Premiership and UEFA Champions League. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.