Beckham poised to become face of football in US

In America, Beckham will face a twin challenge - infusing oft-overlooked football with enough glamour to attract new fans, while playing at a level high enough to satisfy serious sports spectators.
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Updated on Jul 12, 2007 06:00 PM IST
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AFP | By, Los Angeles

David Beckham's bid to redefine football's place in the US sports landscape begins in earnest on Friday, when the Los Angeles Galaxy introduce their sleek European import.

The former England captain and his pop-star wife Victoria arrive amid a swirl of publicity befitting their new Hollywood home.

But it will likely be Beckham's abilities on the pitch that determine whether his tenure here will ultimately be judged an experiment or an era in Major League Soccer's development.

In America Beckham will face a twin challenge - infusing oft-overlooked football with enough glamour to attract new fans, while playing at a level high enough to satisfy serious sports spectators.

Some 14.5 million Americans play football, but its popularity pales in comparison to the top three sports: American football, basketball and baseball.

He isn't the first charismatic star to try to bring football to a mainstream US audience.

Despite the excitement of landing all-time great Pele in the 1970s, the North American Soccer League went bankrupt.

Even so, Galaxy president and former US international Alexi Lalas believes Beckham can succeed.

"Beckham, unlike any other player, transcends all boundaries," Lalas says. "I would argue that whether you are a housewife from Orange County or a person of Mexican heritage living in Los Angeles, you know who Beckham is.

"If we were to go out and get an internationally renowned South American star, I would argue that although the Mexican may know who he is, the housewife in Orange County wouldn't. And that is the difference."

Beckham, 32, is to be introduced by the Galaxy at the club's Home Depot Center facility in the south Los Angeles suburbs on Friday.

The midfielder's first game for Los Angeles will be an exhibition match against Chelsea, who are preparing for the upcoming Premiership season with a tour of the United States.

When Beckham inked a five-year contract with the Galaxy in January it was widely seen as a money-making move by a player whose best days were behind him.

While he will earn a salary of 5.5 million dollars, Beckham's deal could eventually be worth up to 250 million dollars in profit-sharing and sponsorship deals.

Since January, however, Beckham has been recalled by England, and helped Real Madrid to claim the Spanish League title in June.
Beckham himself has said he believes he could have continued to thrive in Europe.

"I felt capable of staying for longer at Real," Beckham said. "I could have still played for three more seasons at the highest level. But after the club told me in January that they did not want to renew my contract, I took this decision."

"The day we won the title with a 3-1 win over Real Mallorca my heart ached - but the decision was already taken."

Certainly Beckham is switching to a lesser league - and to a team that is the second worst in the league with just three victories in 12 games.

Lalas has said the expected mid-season arrival of Beckham may have contributed to his side's lackluster showing so far, and Beckham himself knows there is a danger that the massive build-up may make for an inevitable let-down.

"People probably do think they're going to see me turn out, and we'll win our first game 10-0," Beckham told The Sun newspaper.

"That's one thing I'm worried about. I'm not a player who will run past 10 players and score three or four goals. My game is about working hard and being a team player."

But Beckham is already making an economic impact.

Just five of the MLS's 13 teams are expected to turn a profit this year, but the Galaxy have already seen ticket sales climb.

The increased ticket sales and sponsorship have resulted in about 20 million dollars in added revenue, says Tim Leiweke, chief executive of Anschutz Entertainment Group which owns the team.

As Friday approaches, the bandwagon is picking up speed. The Beckhams are currently featured in a steamy photo layout in W magazine, while Beckham graces the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The Los Angeles Times has traced Beckham's career from childhood to the present in a series of articles while on Monday US broadcast network NBC will air a one-hour programme dubbed "Victoria Beckham: Coming to America" documenting the couple's move.

Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, whose side found themselves squarely in the midst of Beckham-mania when they arrived in California this week, said he thought Beckham was just what US football needs.

"I think it's a pity for European football that a good player like him is gone, but we all in Europe want soccer in the US to go up," Mourinho said. "It is a market that if it does then it is good for everybody, and they couldn't choose a better player for their objectives because he is more than a player."

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