It is football, Becks…but not as you know it

John Harris

The most famous football (or soccer) player in the world is on his way to a different Galaxy.

When David Beckham becomes the latest alien to enter the United States, he will arrive with what is reported to be the most lucrative contract in the history of the game. Although the player has publicly announced he is not coming to America for the money, his five-year deal for $250 million puts him well ahead of future neighbors (such as Kobe Bryant) in the athlete’s pay league. This, of course, is in a country where the average annual salary for a Major League Soccer player is far less than a decent European player earns in a week.

Beckham has attracted more media coverage than almost any other athlete over the last decade and has been described by terms as varied as “a stupid boy,” “the blackest white man,” “a gay icon,” “golden balls” and “King of England.” Beckham is somewhat unique in the way he transcends boundaries and appeals to many sectors of society. As Ellis Cashmore noted in his biography of the athlete: “For women, he’s le beau ideal, a figure on whom fantasies are spun; for men, he’s a colossus standing astride all dominions of sport, commanding their admiration, affection and devotion.” At one stage, the very mention of Beckham’s name was guaranteed to provoke interest and excitement and was featured in the titles of newspaper articles, television documentaries and films (Bend it like Beckham) even if the content had little about him within it. During the 2002 World Cup Finals, his image was everywhere, and Japanese youths camped outside the England hotel for nights on end just to get a fleeting glimpse of their idol.

Yet, more recently, Beckham’s profile has been at its lowest for a decade. Surplus to requirements (and out of the team) at his club Real Madrid, Beckham had also been axed from the England national team. News of his transfer to the Los Angeles Galaxy attracted massive media attention on both sides of the Atlantic, moving Beckham (and his wife) back into the media spotlight and onto the front pages of newspapers. So what will life be like for Beckham when he arrives in the United States?

After enjoying a light-hearted conversation with those very nice people at the immigration desk, he will enter a country where football means something else altogether. He may struggle with the language, and the quality of play will be markedly lower than anything he has experienced before. On the plus side, there will be numerous shops for Mr. and Mrs. Beckham to frequent, and the newspapers tell us that their friends Tom and Katie will help them settle into the country.

It has been suggested that the best way to understand the Beckham phenomenon is not by looking at him, but by looking at the way others consume him. It is often easy to forget that even at the height of his fame and popularity, Beckham was often considered the fourth best midfield player at his club side Manchester United. He also first became ‘famous’ not because of his skills as an athlete but through the fact that he was dating a Spice Girl. David Beckham is an international celebrity, and his arrival in L.A. will give the sport of soccer a previously unimagined level of exposure in this country.

Can this one man change the positioning of soccer in the United States?

John Harris is an associate professor in the School of Exercise, Leisure & Sport and will soon be publishing research on Beckham, which suggests that “the (re)constructions of character portrayals of Beckham highlights both the dynamism of the celebrity complex and the fluidity and instability of contemporary mediated celebrityhood.”