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.”

d

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.

d

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.

d

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.”

18 thoughts on “The Beckham Experiment Review: Showbusiness and Soccer

  1. Heidi

    Excellent review. I am looking forward to reading this book. Thanks to Grant Wahl for writing it.

    I’m glad the book does go into the Victoria factor. I’ve blamed her and Simon Fuller all along for this. I’m normally not a conspiracy-theory person, but I honestly believe The Beckham Experiment was a conspiracy for both of them to break into the American market and using David’s face recognition and soccer skill to do it. A recent article about Posh and Becks’ 10 years together stated unequivocally that the reason they got together in the first place was because Fuller believed Posh needed a famous boyfriend, and more specifically a footballer. (Of course, Becks tells it a bit differently in his autobiography, which I reluctantly read then gave away.) The statement made me even more convinced that everything about them is engineered, calculated, and somehow fake and that there are quite a few would-be Svengalis in their midst. I’ve always wondered if Posh and Bianca Kajlich (aka Mrs Donovan) ever connected.

    I was against a show-biz guy with middling talent but face recognition coming over to “take American soccer to the next level” because in MLS, showbiz doesn’t cut it. It is not a league of superstars and attention-seeking WAGs and tabloid paparazzi following you everywhere to get the latest dirt (and we like it that way, thank you very much!). It is a league of hard-working men who love soccer, of competitive balance, and it has played an integral part on the since-1996 development and success of the USA men’s national team (1998 World Cup disaster notwithstanding).

  2. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Thanks, Elliot and Inca.

    Heidi — Agreed on much of your ‘conspiracy theory’, I think it’s fairly plain there’s so much behind the scenes with Victoria/Fuller on the showbiz side of the whole coming to America fairytale. I actually wish the book had gone into the Victoria connection even more, but it’s obvious that though Wahl did have some sources within the Beckham camp, they weren’t giving up as much as other sides involved did.

    Wahl mentions this in this excellent interview on TIAS:

    I did everything I could to get the Beckham side’s take on a lot of events in the book, and I did in part from talking to people from his side on background. Beckham’s side didn’t really want to have their names on a lot of stuff because they viewed that as making this an authorized book. I wanted to get as many takes as possible on things, so thankfully I was able to talk to sources on Beckham’s side and get their take on stuff, but I do think Beckham’s people and Terry Byrne will wish that they had maybe been a little more available and willing to talk to me for the book, because they would have had probably a bigger influence on the narrative.

    There is more to it than monetary value I guess I would say. I think going into this they only viewed their participation or lack thereof as a monetary situation. But why does everyone in Washington talk to Bob Woodward when he does a book? They know that everyone else will, and they know there is a value that comes with speaking and actually shaping the narrative. I’m not saying I’m Bob Woodward, but there is a similarity in that Beckham’s people could have realized more clearly that everyone was talking to me for this book, and there would be value for them to speak that had nothing to do with getting paid.

    I think they really will regret not cooperating more openly. That’s one reason the reader becomes more sympathetic to Lalas and Landon than we expect to.

  3. Matt Rosine

    Great review Tom.

    I have not read the book but I have read several longer excepts in SI. From what I read, it was extremely clear to me which side of the argument Grant Wahl was sitting on. Obviously it would have been good to get more of Beckham’s side of the story, but I know that wasn’t possible. What was possible however was to avoid the leaning language that Wahl used and his obvious attitude to the experiment.

    I choose to believe Beckham is innocent in all of this he always wants to do the best thing for his career, his team and his country. This is an opinion I have formed over the last 15 years or so. However, I am sure that there are other much more shady characters in the whole mess on both sides, including Landon Donovan who I do not have much respect for at all. I think his passive aggressive approach to everything (texting his apology to Beckham for instance) probably speaks volumes about his attitude in general.

    I do agree about Victoria’s negative influence on David and his career and as you say, Sir Alex called it many years ago. I think there are probably enablers and bad people in David Beckhams circle just like there were in Michael Jackson’s.

    On a basic level, what I think happened with Beckham and Galaxy was that he just didn’t respect the league. I think he saw the league as making the wrong moves and promoting themselves in the wrong way, and gave up hope (rightly or wrongly). I also think a major factor is that he wants to play for England, and that will never happen while he plays for Galaxy and Capello is in charge of his national team.

  4. Inca

    “I choose to believe Beckham is innocent in all of this he always wants to do the best thing for his career, his team…”

    Unless that team is the Galaxy, apparently.

    “On a basic level, what I think happened with Beckham and Galaxy was that he just didn’t respect the league. I think he saw the league as making the wrong moves and promoting themselves in the wrong way, and gave up hope (rightly or wrongly).”

    Nothing MLS has done since Beckham arrived is any different that what they did before he came. If he couldn’t anticipate not being motivated playing in MLS, he should have thought of that before signing a contract.

    “I also think a major factor is that he wants to play for England, and that will never happen while he plays for Galaxy”

    Uh, except he’s been capped 17 times since joining the Galaxy. But no need to let facts get in the way of a good story. Believe me, Galaxy fans wished he had his mind completely focused on improving our team instead of one of his main concerns being breaking the England caps record.

  5. Matt Rosine

    I’m saying that I believe he wants to do the best for his team – you or I don’t know what actually happened. We don’t know what actually ensued. I know Galaxy fans are upset. I probably would be too.

    I think its fair that you could enter into a league like the MLS in good faith, and then get disillusioned and frustrated with it. You couldn’t possibly know how it will work out until you’re in it. I work in US soccer for a living, and I constantly have to try and not myself be affected by all that happens. I can understand why someone would get disillusioned – even if you are getting paid a bazillion dollars a second.

    When Beckham moved to the MLS, everyone knew it would probably be the end of his England career. Nothing disrespectful there, just realistic. Its obvious that to have a serious chance of making the World Cup 2010 England squad, Beckham needed to take the opportunity to play for AC Milan. If he continued to play with Galaxy, he may have played a bit part in the last 10 minutes of England friendlies, but he would never be the serious contender he once was.

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  7. Elliott

    Good point Matt – I think few people recall Beckham’s sporting situation in January a few years back, when Capello had benched him consistently and England looked impossible under McLaren. Granted, he turned things around at Madrid and – to his credit – he did come to the US and attempt to honor the first two years of his contract admirably (playing thru injuries, etc).

  8. Heidi

    The TIAS interview was excellent. What surprised me most in it was the discussion of the impact of the whole thing on Peter Vagenas. He might seem like one of those innocent bystanders but he has a lot invested in MLS (he’s been around) and thought he might have been getting a good career going at the Galaxy.

    And I’m not a fan of Alexi Lalas (haven’t been since he let his mouth run away from him during the 1998 World Cup) but he does come out smelling a bit better in the bits I’ve read, and he admits to his naivete brought on by being starstruck.

    I asked my husband last night whether he thought Beckham would be where he was if he hadn’t met Victoria. He and I agreed: the answer is probably “no.” I’d forgotten (thanks, Matt) about Sir Alex’s objection to the match. He would still be at Man U, or somewhere in the Premiership, probably would never have made the move to Madrid, or to LA, or to Milan. He might still be a star, but probably wouldn’t have a “brand.”

  9. Damon

    Beakham had a go at the book today in a press conference. But then after, the marketing drive went into focus when he said he was involved with driving the game forward as an ambassador for the MLS. He then spoke of his ‘creative visualisation’ for the MLS.

    It is truly becoming a farce. He would be better of signing for Hull City.

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  11. Bruno Alves

    One thing that we can learn from Becks, its his comitment and profesionalism as football player. Many player that have technical skill like him even better, but only a few people that have commitmen, profesionalism and charisma like becks. Thats why we respect him…..

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