David Beckham has seldom kept a low profile, but the events of this week are extraordinary even by his standards. While there had been speculation that he would leave Real Madrid CF this summer, few were expecting Thursday's sudden announcement that the former England captain had signed a five-year deal with Los Angeles Galaxy.
If his reported annual package of a potential €40m proves true, it would be comfortably the highest paid to any team sportsman in the world and an extraordinary amount for a league whose US TV deal is worth around €15m and where €200,000 is a top salary. The transfer is testament not only to Beckham's own celebrity but also to the ambition of club owners in Major League Soccer (MLS) to promote the sport to the same status as the likes of American football and baseball.
When Beckham first broke through at Manchester United FC in the early 1990s, it probably would not have occurred to him that his journey would lead him to Los Angeles. The MLS came into being in late 1993 as a condition of the US being awarded the FIFA World Cup, but the first season was delayed until 1996 and the emphasis was on promoting young American players on modest salaries, not reviving the old NASL of the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time the likes of Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer arrived on huge salaries and to much acclaim, but initial success proved short-lived.
The MLS, in contrast, operated a strict salary cap, and although the likes of Roberto Donadoni and Youri Djorkaeff have played in the league, they were already in their late 30s. Currently the highest-profile European in the competition is another former Madrid man, Aitor Karanka, but the 33-year-old hardly has the worldwide reknown of Beckham. His arrival has been made possible by the new 'designated player rule', which allows MLS franchises to sign one person each outside the salary cap. It was swiftly dubbed the 'Beckham rule', not least due to his commercial links with the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns LA Galaxy as part of its Hollywood empire. Club general manager Alexei Lalas - the former American international now shorn of his trademark beard - said before the signing was confirmed: "
Signing players of Beckham's stature would be a wonderful step in the right direction not just for the Galaxy but for soccer in America."
That they are prepared to pay so much is testament to the way Beckham has managed to become more than a footballer, even in the 'final frontier' of the sport's development, the US, where his profile has been boosted by the success of the film Bend It Like Beckham and the fame of his pop star wife, Victoria, across the Atlantic. Ivan Gazidis, the MLS deputy commissioner, said: "Clearly in the United States, he's the best-known international soccer player, and that's not because of his play on the field, that's because of all of the other elements of him: he's good-looking, he's married to a music star, he's at the cutting edge of fashion."
Beckham himself knows he is a trailblazer, literally a poster boy for the sport. "Soccer in America is the biggest played sport up to a certain age. That's where I want to take it to another level," he said. Respected Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wrahl suggested on SI.com: "Landing Beckham gives MLS a credibility that it has never had with the American sports fan, who demands to see the world's biggest stars in the sports it cares about. Beckham is a great match for LA, where Galaxy games will become A-list events with the celebrity sightings you usually associate with Lakers games." He added to uefa.com: "
I can't think of a single thing other than the start of the league that will be as significant."
Others to follow?
This raises a question with implications for European football; if Beckham proves a success, will other top stars follow him? Djorkaeff let slip last year that Ronaldo had been following the fortunes of the Frenchman's former side, the New York Red Bulls, though Gazidis warned: "We anticipate a lot of phone calls from interested players but we're going to be sensible with the use of our money and the strategic value a player will bring." The MLS is not going to become an alternative UEFA Champions League, but if someone like Beckham, still in demand from Europe's leading clubs, is prepared to ply his trade outside this continent, then the New England franchise may not be the only Revolution in the MLS.
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