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Jan 17, 2007

Beckham epitomizes style over substance

When U.S. soccer fans went to bed last Wednesday night, MLS was a league devoid of any great players. A week later, after inking the most famous athlete on the planet to one of the richest contracts in the history of American sports, the cold reality is that MLS is still a league without a truly transcendent talent.

The point here is not to rain on anyone's parade. The move for David Beckham makes plenty of sense. The money he no doubt will generate will help the league improve in various ways, and the arrival of 31-year-old Beckham should pave the way for big signings in the future.

Just don't ask me to buy into David Beckham: The Great Player. I never have and never will.

Most of the debate surrounding Beckham's signing, from a footballing point of view, has centered on how far the former England captain has slipped, given his benchwarmer status at Real Madrid for most of the season. Beckham hasn't slipped all that much; he's never been that good to begin with.

I suppose because of the style of play practiced in the English Premier League when Beckham was around, his swerving crosses and precise long balls did make him a bona fide weapon. Throw in some majestic free kicks and the fact that he played for, at the time, the world's most famous club, Manchester United, and it's not hard to see how the legend began. Perception soon won over reality, with Beckham twice finishing as runner-up for World Player of the Year.

Nevertheless, all the accolades cannot hide the considerable limitations in his game. I must confess, I've always had a little trouble with a winger who can't dribble, has no pace and is incapable of taking on defenders. He's an attacking player with no creativity who rarely scores goals from the run of play and struggles when not given acres of space.

I'll take the man who played across from Beckham for so many years, Ryan Giggs, or the man who has taken his place at United, Cristiano Ronaldo, over him any day of the week. I am certainly not alone.

Upon landing in Spain 3½ years ago, Beckham was on the receiving end of quite a few barbs from opponents. Atletico Madrid midfielder Luis Perea claimed Beckham wasn't even among the top 500 players in the world, and current Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o, then a relative unknown at Mallorca, said "I'm uglier than Beckham, but I'm a better footballer."

Although such comments carry an element of jealousy and, in Perea's case, fall under the category of complete hyperbole, the fact remains that Beckham's skill set doesn't resonate as much in other parts of the world.

Back in England, some observers have always wondered what all the fuss was about. Manchester United legend George Best once famously said of Beckham "He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that, he's all right." Upon hearing that Beckham finished 22nd in an Internet poll used to compile a list of the 50 best European players of the past 50 years, esteemed British columnist Brian Glanville quipped, "I wouldn't put him in at 222nd."

Even in the best of days, including United's treble-winning season, Beckham was always a key player but never the key player on the team, as his adoring fans tried so hard to claim. Linking the Red Devils' lack of success in recent years directly to his departure, a common argument among Beckham backers, is simply a logical fallacy.

In the three full seasons since Beckham left Man U, Arsenal enjoyed quite possibly the greatest campaign in the history of English football, followed by Chelsea's essentially buying consecutive championships. Indeed, United's point total last season (83) actually matched its output in 2002-03 and exceeded its mark in 2000-01 (80), Beckham's last two title-winning seasons at Old Trafford.

It's debatable whether Beckham would be nearly as effective in today's EPL, which has changed quite a bit since he left, with a greater premium placed on flair and technical ability, at least among the top teams. Furthermore, if Beckham is to be judged by his team's fortunes, shouldn't the before and after at Madrid count for something?

His move to Spain was always a risky one, as he sought to show his skeptics he was a complete player. Unfortunately, his attempt to reinvent himself as a deep-lying playmaker was a failure of almost comical proportions. Even in his natural right wing, Beckham never quite fit in La Liga. He had his moments, surely, but when viewed in its proper context -- Madrid chose him over Ronaldinho -- his signing must be regarded as one of the worst in Real Madrid history.

Beckham does have his supporters in the Spanish capital. In fact, it seemed that whenever he strung together a few good performances, the hype started up again. The biggest reason is that he is actually an eminently likable guy, his personality belying his playboy image. Beckham is an unselfish, hardworking and dedicated professional. Those qualities, combined with some of his specialized skills, explain why some top European clubs, including both Inter and AC Milan, contemplated a move for him during the current winter break. When used properly, Beckham still can be a useful player for any team.

In that respect, MLS fans need not worry. Beckham is no Anna Kournikova, and perhaps even better, no Lothar Matthaeus. He will display a good attitude and undoubtedly make the Galaxy better. But those expecting him to captivate American audiences with breathtaking displays of skill, don't hold your breath. The biggest irony of the Beckham phenomenon is that sports' biggest superstar is actually a role player at heart. The man who seemingly epitomizes style over substance is not terribly exciting to watch.

Of course, commentators here in the States will do their best to convince people otherwise, with last summer's World Cup providing a glimpse of what is in store. While all of England agonized over Beckham's mediocre performances, clamoring for talented youngster Aaron Lennon to be brought in his place, some would have you believe Beckham was one of the tournament's outstanding players. After all, he "created" all of England's goals -- if sending a cross into the box and having a Paraguayan defender head the ball backward into his own net qualifies.

Beckham likely will take all the penalty kicks, as well as the corners and free kicks around the area. Consequently, he might rack up some fairly impressive numbers, helping deceive America's statistics-driven sports culture. More likely, however, will be the other extreme. Call it Freddy Adu Part II. Those with unrealistic expectations will be surprised to find that, on many days, Beckham will be barely distinguishable from the players around him, and he will be unfairly labeled a disappointment.

As for the $250 million question. Will I be more inclined to watch an MLS game featuring David Beckham? Absolutely. It certainly will be intriguing to watch this story unfold. I suspect many others will, as well. But be forewarned that beauty, in this case, definitely will be in the eye of the beholder.

David Mosse is an assistant editor for ESPN Insider. He can be reached at mosse_david@yahoo.com