Friday, April 4, 2008

Goldenballs and His Golden Goal

First-rate fame. Bottomless bank accounts. Good looks. A pop-star-cum-fashion-icon for a wife.

Without question, David Beckham is a celebrity of the highest order. It's no surprise, then, that his landmark signing with the L.A. Galaxy of American soccer league MLS prompted football fans and soccer skeptics alike to hail the sport's rebirth on this side of the Atlantic. Think about it: L.A., the city of stars; England's former captain alongside the U.S.'s most trusted striker (Landon Donovan); t-shirts, jerseys, and marketing galore. Sounds like the ultimate win-win situation, eh?

Not exactly. Throw in a tricky ankle, loads of missed games, and a failed playoff push, and suddenly everyone is prepared to crucify Becks as a full-fledged failure. Certainly, as the logic goes, anyone worth millions in salary and quarter-billions in endorsements should immediately impact his sport in nothing short of a Jordanesque way. How, then, does one explain D.B.'s lack of highlight-reel goals and, more importantly, team success?

The general perception of David Beckham's so-called failure stems from two principal misunderstandings: American unfamiliarity with the game of football, and more specifically, poor understanding of Beckham's position on the pitch.

"Soccer" (henceforth "football") differs fundamentally from the team sports to which Americans have become accustomed. In the NBA, substantially less and less emphasis is placed on defense, with teams rarely scoring fewer than 100 points these days; in the NFL, field goals continue to be frowned upon, with (some would say) epic 9-6 games being laughed off as yawners; and even in baseball, a game built upon patience and long-term strategy, fans thirst for home runs--the longer, the better. Without a doubt, American team sports are geared towards ESPN snippets and box-score jawdroppers; in short, we crave the spectacular.

European football is--how to put it?--a completely and utterly different beast. Perhaps more than any other sport in the world, it calls for teamwork, tactics, and precision. Even the world's best strikers will fail to score if their midfielders can't effectively deliver the ball; even the most stonewall defenses will crumble if the front six can't help to curtail the opposition's attack. Consider, for example, well-known Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez: The wily Spaniard has been known to use 10 different starting-11's over a stretch of 10 games, all because the tactics of each football game differ substantially based on who the opposition is.

Indeed, to those who love the "beautiful game" (myself included), a football contest holds merits that extend far beyond the scoreline. 0-0 draws are often riveting affairs, featuring ridiculous penalty-kick saves and heartwrenching near-misses. By the same token, 7-0 games are usually rather boring to watch; when one team is running rampant over the other, the quality of the goals is generally not so grand.

A well-executed cross to set up a game winning goal--now that's good football. And--wouldn't you know it?--its this kind of unselfish, seemingly unexciting play that created the very legend of David Beckham. Sure, Becks has been known to score numerous goals from absurd free-kick locations. True, he chipped the opposing goalkeeper to score a miraculous goal from midfield in his early career with Manchester United. However, what makes David Beckham such a great soccer player is not this Jordan-like bravado; rather, Becks rules because he's the soccer version of Steve Nash.

Recently successful attacking midfielders, such as Ronaldinho, Frank Lampard, and Steven Gerrard, have clouded the fact that, indeed, a midfielder is not, at heart, a goal-scorer. As a right midfielder (and arguably the best right-footed passer ever), David Beckham's primary job is to facilitate goals for his strikers. And, given this charge, Beckham excels. Watch footage of the '06 World Cup and witness the crisp, pinpoint passes; ask AC Milan's Ronaldo who he considers his favorite teammate ever; listen to Landon Donovan spout the virtues of playing forward in front of #23. Without question, Beckham does what he's supposed to do--and, most would argue, he does it pretty darned well.


Fortunately, for those who still yearn for more eyepopping highlights, David Beckham delivered last night in Colorado, netting his first MLS goal and assisting Landon Donovan in another to push L.A. to a 2-0 win. Perhaps, for now, these early-season fireworks will quiet the doubters. It is likely, though, that the silence will be short-lived. Soon, rabid American points-lovers will clamor for more goals, and they'll continue to deem Beckham's stateside experience a bust.

What these folks won't realize is that Beckham's mere presence in the U.S. is hugely vital. Also (and more importantly), they'll be so blinded by their anti-soccer venom that they'll fail to notice another critical, critical point: David Beckham is still among the best right-sided midfielders in the world. No one does what he does better than he does it. (Say that 10 times fast, and you win a free Beckham jersey!)

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