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Nov 21, 2011

Hollywood ending for Brand Beckham

Twenty-five years ago, an 11-year-old schoolboy with a rocket launcher for a right foot launched a career that would take in three of the biggest clubs on the planet, see him become the most box office footballer the game has known, and accrue an estimated personal wealth of £130 million. The David Beckham story was Hollywood long before he moved there.

As the 36-year-old wakes on Monday morning, in the gated Beverley Hills community he paid $22 million to share with the likes of Tom Cruise and Jay Leno, and with the celebrations from Sunday's MLS Cup triumph heavy behind those famous eyes, Beckham's first taste of celebrity in the 1986 Bobby Charlton Soccer Skills Challenge will seem a lifetime away.

Back then the boy from Leytonstone was just a gifted and dedicated young footballer. These days he's a global phenomenon - fashion icon, entrepreneur, diplomat, spokesman, role model, one-man brand, father and husband. And since 2007, he's been the self-styled saviour of the sport he loves, in the country that supposedly loves it least. The Beckham Experiment, as author Grant Wahl once termed it.

Five seasons into Beckham's attempt to break America, and the prevailing opinion suggests the experiment has been a success. Crowds are up, TV revenues have increased (NBC will pay $10 million a year to screen 45 MLS games starting next season), and most would agree the quality of football in America's top league has improved in each of the seasons graced by Beckham in an LA Galaxy shirt.

There was certainly no shortage of interest in Sunday's MLS Cup final, played at Galaxy's Home Depot Center before a sell-out crowd of 30,281, and broadcast live by ESPN all over the world. Tickets were reportedly changing hands for up to $1,000 in the build-up to the game, which saw Galaxy strong favourites to beat Houston Dynamo and win a first title since 2005.

Beckham, as ever, had star billing. His five seasons in the MLS have been punctuated by injury and a sense that his priorities may lie elsewhere (two loan spells at AC Milan were not greeted well by Galaxy fans) , but this campaign has seen Beckham hint at the effervescence Manchester United and England supporters in particular remember him for. Named MLS Comeback Player of the Year and in the MLS Best XI for the first time, it was finally Beckham the footballer, and not the brand, who was winning the battle for America's attention.

Had he done enough to justify one of the most expensive experiments in sporting history? All would be revealed, because rightly or wrongly, most agreed Beckham now had 90 minutes to determine his LA legacy. He'd left Manchester United after winning the Premier League title in 2003, and Real Madrid after winning La Liga in 2007. If he could do the same with Galaxy, any notion of a Beckham failure would be completely erased overnight. It just doesn't get any more Hollywood than that.

True to form, our hero prevailed. Beckham was involved in Landon Donovan's winner, and played his way further into American hearts by inviting his three sons to join in with the celebrations afterwards. It was five seasons in the making, but finally Beckham had given Galaxy the kind of Hollywood ending they must have endlessly envisaged when they put an entire franchise on that famous right boot of his in 2007.

It was then-Galaxy general manager Alexei Lalas who helped lure Beckham to LA, and the former US international was in no doubt the financial venture was a worthwhile one. "The LA Galaxy are a super club," he said. "As many people hate this team as love this team. They are known all over the world, so for that brand it (Beckham's signing) has been incredibly valuable."

For the MLS, the notion Beckham, Donovan and recent arrival Robbie Keane could combine for the season's defining goal would have been beyond their wildest dreams at the start of the season. In a league desperate to rid its reputation as a sub-standard and naive footballing outpost, what better than a high-profile goal crafted by three internationals with over 100 caps each to prove a point?

Galaxy's triumph could yet be the catalyst for more Beckham-esque deals to come. It was the first time a team with a "Designated Player" has won the MLS Cup, and the suggestion in the American press is very much that owners will look at it as justification to invest heavily themselves. If that happens, then Beckham's legacy will be further enhanced as more high-profile players cross the Atlantic to continue his revolution.

As for the man himself, a decision will be made next month as to whether he remains in LA - or takes up the opportunity to play out his career back in Europe, most likely with Paris Saint-Germain. The lure of representing Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics is said to be a factor, but Galaxy have reassured Beckham he could be released to take part in London, if selected. Beckham will also be giving his family and settled home life in LA serious consideration, and the consensus appears to be 50-50 on whether he chooses Paris or Hollywood for the next star turn in a truly remarkable career.

Whatever happens next, Beckham rose on Monday as America's soccer-playing sweetheart - and with the doubters drowned out by gushing tributes to his achievements in taking the MLS to the masses.

It's not quite the comeback he made after his red card in the 1998 World Cup, when he returned to fire Manchester United to the Treble, but it's certainly quite an achievement. Wherever Beckham goes next, you'd be foolish to rule out one final hurrah for the hardest working man, not just in show business, but in football too.

• Will Tidey is the author of Life with Sir Alex: A Fan's Story for Ferguson's 25 Years at Manchester United

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