The Beckham Experiment Review: Showbusiness and Soccer

Failure is almost always a more interesting subject for a book than success. Grant Wahl did not originally intend to spend 16 months following the dramatic disaster that was the David Beckham Experiment in America: but when Beckham’s celebrated arrival as the saviour of American soccer degenerated into a farce of injuries and infighting at the Galaxy, the juicy tale of how the biggest investment in American soccer history resulted in one of the worst team meltdowns ever in MLS became the story he had to follow all the way through. The release of the Beckham Experiment today is perfectly timed with Beckham’s return to the Galaxy this week.

This is not, though, a simple hatchet job, easy as that would have been to write instead. Wahl’s open-minded journalism has been the hallmark of his career at Sports Illustrated, including a notable cover-story interview with Beckham upon his arrival in America in 2007, and he gives all parties ample opportunity to explain themselves. The failure of the Beckham Experiment is one that essentially tells itself through their own words, with Wahl adding telling observations about why it failed — crucially — in the context of American soccer and MLS.

It becomes clear that the Experiment succeeded in its most base aim — it made money for all parties involved, after all — but the grander goal of exploding soccer in the U.S. based on the Beckham Brand was drowned in the misery of the Galaxy’s failures on the field, an inevitable side-effect of the meddling in MLS by Beckham’s agency, Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment group. A certain emptiness at the book’s core — we hear little from Fuller and mostly vapidity from Beckham — reflects the emptiness in the Experiment from the outset, and perhaps provides the explanation for its substantive failure.

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This Is Entertainment

Some of the leadership involved in the Experiment take ample advantage of Wahl’s willingness to let them speak for themselves.  Our key cast of characters quoted at length are Tim Leiweke, CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) who own the Galaxy; Alexi Lalas, President of the Galaxy until 2008; and Landon Donovan, the Galaxy’s best player throughout the period whose disparaging comments about Beckham’s leadership failures have provided the perfect furor ahead of the book’s release today.

Lalas emerges, perhaps to all of our surprise, as the most sympathetic figure amongst them despite his many mistakes, not least for his rare willingness amongst the cast of characters leading the Experiment to shoulder some of the blame for its downfall (“I thoroughly regret letting the Galaxy be co-opted and letting outside influences infiltrate it and spread like a disease.”)  It seems, at the beginning, that Lalas is on the same page as everyone else involved: the key word in the names of the Experiment’s backers was Entertainment, after all, and that was Lalas’ long-held mantra as key to selling soccer in America.

No-one has ever been a bigger evangelist for soccer in America as Entertainment than Lalas. “That’s what I love about sports,” he told Wahl. “I love the criticism and the analysis and the rumor and the speculation and innuendo, not just about what the guy did on the field but what the guy did off the field. That’s personality. That’s excitement. That’s fuckin’ entertainment.”

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Beckham came to America because Anschutz Entertainment Group and 19 Entertainment were closely tied together by a cluster-fuck of showbusiness connections: AEG’s concert business was the perfect vehicle for Simon Fuller’s group, as Leiweke said: “We have a long relationship with Simon because of our music business and American Idol. So Simon and I were sitting around talking about vision. Wouldn’t it be great one day with David? How would he do in America? It all started with that.” (Conveniently, of course, AEG would handle Victoria’s coming to America as well, in the Spice Girls reunion tour.)

But whilst Entertainment can be stage-managed and bought, success on the pitch cannot — ironically, especially in MLS. It might be a ‘mickey-mouse’ league to the British press who derided Beckham’s move to America, but it’s one with stringent rules protecting competitive balance that AEG (who should have known better) and 19 Entertainment (whose hubris is hardly surprising) failed to work successfully within, despite the rules being deliberately changed in the first place at the urging of Leiweke to allow the Experiment to take place (with the institution of the “Beckham-rule” to allow a team one signing over-and-above the salary cap).

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The apotheosis of this, as Wahl tellingly reveals, comes with the recruitment of Ruud Gullit as Galaxy coach in 2008, at the behest of Beckham’s good friend Terry Byrne, a 19 Entertainment business associate and then Galaxy paid consultant, who played a Rasputin-role behind the scenes. It becomes evident that Lalas was against the disastrous hiring of Gullit, an old acquaintance of Byrne’s from his days as Chelsea’s kit manager. Byrne also manipulates the Galaxy into Beckham winning the captaincy even before he’d started a game for the team, embittering Landon Donovan as he was forced to give up the armband.

Wahl’s experience as a reporter on American soccer since the league’s inception is crucial here: much of the book is inevitably a pumped up magazine feature on the showbusiness focus of Beckham and associates, but the critical story unravels on the field and in the jumbled world of MLS’ maze of salary caps, roster limits and brutal scheduling. It’s here that the Experiment fails most vividly, and all involved are forced to remember this is a sport, and not mere Entertainment: Gullit was hired at 19 Entertainment’s behest with no regard to the long record of failure by high-profile foreign coaches to come to grips with MLS’ nuances, and he fails miserably himself.

As the Galaxy’s 2008 season collapses with a run of twelve games without a win, Beckham is unable to provide any leadership to a locker room caught in the vortex of Beckham’s fame and failure on the field, with a clueless Gullit tuning out until his firing, sexy football in Los Angeles a lost dream.

Captain Galaxy AWOL

Beckham’s fame has always depended on his appearance as an empty vessel that almost anyone could project their dreams, desires and damnations onto: England villain, England hero; pop culture whore, committed grafter on the pitch; adulterer, perfect family man. With a series of honest and penetrating interviews, Wahl shows that many of his Galaxy teammates, even those who earn a pittance of Beckham’s salary, liked him and felt no malice or envy towards him. The story of the unlikely struggling success story of his friend, gangly forward Alan Gordon, is almost worthy of a book in itself, and it’s clear that all of them wanted to get on with Beckham and saw his good side — but were ultimately unable to connect with him when they needed him.

As results go from bad-to-worse, the team is riven apart by Beckham’s disinterest in the league after the firing of Gullit by AEG in mid-season 2008, replaced by former U.S. coach Bruce Arena — in an attempt by Leiweke to reclaim control of the Galaxy from 19 Entertainment for AEG (“So we’re the owners, and maybe we needed to act like it. We’re acting like it now.”)

Beckham’s silence and poor play leads to Landon’s infamous withering comments to Wahl over “a lunch of lamb pizza and a peach salad” in Manhattan Beach, when he finally concludes that not only had Beckham failed as captain, but as a teammate as well. Landon might not have been brave in speaking to Wahl before Beckham, but the context of the story Wahl tells certainly shows why his frustration led him to do so, and how unapproachable Beckham had become.

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Unwilling to compromise the integrity of the book by paying for exclusive access to Beckham, Wahl is left with his regular post-game press conferences to provide insight into Beckham as the Experiment unravels, so his failure to lead is never truly explained. One large part of the explanation, hinted at by Wahl, surely lies in Victoria Beckham’s role: her own ambitions in America focused on celebrity and her obvious refusal to lower herself to socialising with the poorly-paid Galaxy players and their families was mainly why Beckham was never able to go all the way in connecting with the likes of Gordon, his initial hopes for Sunday barbecues with his teammates left unfulfilled as he swirls instead in the Cruise-Holmes jetset.

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That we do not hear the inside story of the Beckhams is hardly surprising, since the cocoon of the Beckham Brand has clearly isolated them from reality for many years. It was this extraction of Beckham from his hard-working roots by Victoria’s faux-glamour that Alex Ferguson spotted years ago and saw as his coming downfall, and ultimately, he was proved right. As the 2008 season collapses, Captain Galaxy lets himself be whisked around the world and fall out of shape instead of supporting his team to the utmost, flying to Beijing instead of backing his boys on the field, his production falling precipitously.

By the end of the book, all parties seem to have lost sight of the original stated goal of the Beckham Experiment: to take soccer to the next level in America. Instead, the final chapters document the sordid squabbling over the efforts of 19 Entertainment and Beckham to extricate himself from the Galaxy and sign for AC Milan, with AEG and MLS both seeking to extract every last dollar from him too. Again we are left with the empty words of Beckham’s public statements, claiming his desire to move was all about England — or was it instead that Brand Beckham was being damaged too badly by his competitive failure in the United States, and needed a soccer success story to sell it again?  (Wahl tellingly notes that Pepsi had dropped Beckham from their stable at the end of 2008)

It’s notable that we hear little from Simon Fuller after the few words at the start of the book. “The States is the last frontier in terms of soccer,” Fuller is quoted as saying on page 4, at the launch of the Beckham Experiment. “Everywhere else on earth, soccer is huge. It’s the sport. And while many people have tried before, no-one has seemed to have cracked America. . .Shoot for the stars, and if you don’t hit them, then it was fun trying. If you do hit them, then you’ve made history.”

What Fuller never understood was that it would take hard graft to succeed in MLS and make history. In this, there’s almost something comforting in the failure of the Experiment — while Leiweke or Fuller might not like it, surely, despite all its flaws, there’s a value to a league where success can’t just be bought and manipulated even by AEG and 19 Entertainment’s global showbusiness power.

Wahl again coaxes Lalas into making the pertinent point: “We created this SuperClub, and yet in MLS we’re not allowed to have the mechanisms that fuel and facilitate a SuperClub around the world. It would be wonderful to see what the Galaxy could do if all the restraints were taken away. Unfortunately, it might be good for the Galaxy, but it might not be good for the league or the sport.”

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