Beckham bashers have got it wrong
By Simon Evans in Miami
Television coverage of MLS’s opening game began with an attack on David Beckham from two television pundits and critics have continued to question whether the Englishman cares about the league or his club, LA Galaxy, Simon Evans says the Beckham bashing is off target.
The debate over David Beckham’s commitment to L.A Galaxy and Major League Soccer should have ended on November 22, 2009. On that rainy, cold day in Seattle, Beckham took a series of pain-killing injections, wrapped up his injured ankle in bandage and went out to face Real Salt Lake on the unforgiving artificial turf at Qwest Field.
It was hardly a vintage performance from the former Manchester United and England midfielder but he grafted for 90 minutes and then a further 30 minutes of extra-time in an ultimately failed attempt to win the MLS Cup for his team. Then, limping off the field, he walked into the Salt Lake locker-room to congratulate hiss opponents on their title before heading into his own changing room where he complied with American standards and stood to take questions from the waiting media. Invited by this reporter to pass comment on playing a championship game on a plastic pitch with a damaged ankle, Beckham showed his usual diplomacy by evading the temptation to criticise a playing surface which is designed for American football and not the global game.
That MLS Cup game had come at the end of a year in which Beckham had to deal with the fallout from a book which discussed the difficulties he and L.A Galaxy had in developing a working relationship. In Grant Wahl’s behind-the-scenes book, ”The Beckham Experiment” he was criticised for not picking up the check for the entire team’s dinner and a series of other offences in a fascinating account which, as one former MLS player put it to me, could have been subtitled “Why Landon Donovan Doesn’t Like Being Overshadowed by David Beckham”. The former Real Madrid title winner was offended that Donovan had questioned his professionalism and the rift between the two took some work and time to heal. But that night in Seattle, even American soccer’s favourite son was fulsome in his praise for his English team-mate. “This guy has been hurt or sick for probably the last six or seven games but he gets on with it and he plays. That’s helped our team a lot,” said Donovan.
The question marks over whether Beckham was truly giving his all for the Galaxy and the MLS came back again a few months later though, when, desperate to get a place in the World Cup with England, Beckham went on loan to AC Milan and suffered a serious Achilles injury which wrecked any hopes of a trip to the World Cup and also ruled him out of most of the forthcoming MLS season. Some Galaxy fans, understandably wondered why their player was even on the field for another club. It was a fair question and one which could also have been put to the Galaxy’s ownership – they could after all have blocked any deal after all. But the critics had a point — Beckham’s intentions certainly had nothing to do with the Galaxy and everything to do with his personal ambitions.
The motivation for Beckham returning to Italy was largely due to Fabio Capello’s ill-informed judgment that MLS games were not good enough preparation for a World Cup – a view that Donovan’s excellent displays in South Africa later proved to be nonsense. It was noticeable though that while there was strong criticism of Beckham’s loan to Serie A, there was a very different approach to Donovan taking a similar, albeit shorter, sabbatical with Everton in England’ Premier League. Indeed, the Californian’s time on Merseyside was accompanied by promotional campaigns on U.S television urging MLS fans to tune into their English programming. Little criticism has been heard of Donovan’s subsequent frequent statements of affection for Everton and their fans which hint at a desire to return to Goodison Park.
Beckham returned from injury in time for the Galaxy’s play-off push last season but it was clear to anyone watching that he was still short of full fitness. Nonetheless, the midfielder put the minutes in on the field and although L.A failed to reach MLS Cup, Beckham’s efforts and his professionalism were again praised after the Conference final defeat to Dallas, when Beckham played through a groin injury.
“If we have all of our players with his kind of character and commitment, we would continue to do well,” said Galaxy coach Bruce Arena. “My hat’s off to him. He played through a lot of pain those last few weeks, more than you guys know, but he’s a competitor and he wants to keep going,” said Donovan.
Beckham badly needed to get back in shape and form for the new MLS season, the final of his five years with Galaxy, but the North American league is unusual in having a long off-season, from mid-November to mid-March, right when almost all of the soccer world is in intense mid-season. With no training or games on the calendar, Beckham went back to his hometown of London to work out with Tottenham Hotspur and get himself back in shape and he hoped get some games in the Premier League.
Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp conceded that Beckham was in no condition to instantly walk into the Premier League team but was willing to open the door to the midfielder playing a few games before returning to the Galaxy and it was also clear that the player would have loved to get a loan deal. Beckham’s camp insisted throughout the reports of negotiations over a possible loan that the player would, in any case, be back at the Galaxy in time for the new MLS season. The loan deal never materialised but Beckham, clearly feeling he was getting close to full fitness in London, asked and received permission to have two more weeks training in London before teaming up with the Galaxy, two week into their pre-season campaign.
Throughout January and the first of half of February, Beckham was out on the training field in Essex while almost all MLS players were on time off. I say, almost all, because Thierry Henry, another expensive MLS import who had struggled for fitness last season, was also in London training with a Premier League club, but you will have (rightly) heard little criticism of Henry’s time back with Arsenal. Henry did however report back to train on day one of the Red Bulls pre-season prep and it is that fortnight absence that has prompted the fury from MLS pundits.
It was a remarkable opening to the new season last week when ESPN pundits Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman, let rip on air, questioning Beckham’s decisions and joining in with the tone of some bloggers and message board commenters who have attacked the Englishman. Rookie pundit Twellman’s populist tirade about Beckham “buying shepherds pie” for Tottenham players instead of training with the Galaxy (it was actually ‘pie and mash’ to be culinarily correct), ignored the fact that Beckham could have spent the off-season swanning around Hollywood or sitting on the beach somewhere. A 35-year-old multi-millionaire who has won domestic and European honours with his clubs and made 115 appearances for England, Beckham could have taken it easy and come back to stroll through the final year of his contract, curling a few free-kicks in, signing autographs and appearing on television shows.
The fact that he spent his time, battling to get fit and has come back to MLS and put in two hard-working displays in the league, shows exactly why the Beckham bashers have got it wrong. There are many things that Beckham can be mocked for – his interest in fashion is not to everyone’s taste, his regular hairstyle changes irritate some, the celebrity obsessed have issues with his wife Victoria and, if we are sticking to football business, it is fair to question whether he should have been playing for Milan and chasing further England caps, after making the decision to move his career to MLS.
But Beckham’s determination to get fit for this season, to give his all for his team and to make sure MLS’s “Beckham Experiment” is considered a success, is surely beyond question. The fact is, there will be few players in the North American league who would have worked as hard as Beckham during the off-season.
There are some nicely tanned faces in MLS this March – Beckham didn’t get one in Chigwell.
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