Friday 22 August ~
It must have been a familiar feeling for David Beckham playing for England against the Czech Republic on Wednesday. There he was out on the right flank, picking up the short pass, leaning back, and then slinging it into the middle, time after time. There was the dead-ball assist on Wes Brown’s goal to statistically justify his selection. And there behind him was the slack defending, gog-eyed at every Czech counter-attack as though they had the memory span of goldfish, to ensure that his team was lucky to get away with a draw. So, it was just like playing for the LA Galaxy, except those slack England defenders earn more in a handful of days than LA’s underpaid (but in football terms, extremely over-taxed) backliners reap in a year.
The excitement about Beckham playing in the US professional league has now died down in almost every respect. He’s been playing OK, but no better than most of the league’s middling to better performers. His work rate seems to be diminishing, either due to age, or due to the fact that there’s not much point in chasing back to win a ball only to see one of his side’s “developmental players” (apprentices in the Old World, except that professional teams don’t usually field several in one game) give it up again a couple of seconds later. And the crowds for Beckham away games, while still much higher than the MLS average, are considerably lower than last year, which is ironic when you consider that in his 2007 half-season he was mostly too crocked to play.
MLS will say that no matter what happens next with Beckham’s career and the comedy club he plays for that has lurched amateurishly from one crisis to the next (Ruud Gullit came, was baffled, made new enemies, then left), the move has already paid off in terms of increased revenue and a higher profile for the league. However, we’re only just over a year into the five-year Beckham plan, and the LA captain’s on-field activity now consists of strolling around the right flank and pinging in cross after predictable cross for a mainly mediocre team. This may not quite have been what league executives had in mind if they were ever thinking beyond the attraction of the player’s name and image, and focusing instead on the substance of his footballing abilities. True, no one was expecting him to show the speed to dribble beyond even the most foal-footed college recruit. But wasn’t he supposed to score tons of long-range free kicks? Or something?
This is why it seems odd that Beckham is still a first-choice England player, as though the country is wilfully refusing to move beyond the dilapidated style of play that has brought it nothing more than quarter-final capitulation (or less) for the past decade. Steve McClaren at one time had the courage to cut the former captain, only to discover himself lacking the requisite imagination to replace the long ball/dead ball tactic, if that’s not too generous a word, that the No 23 executes so well. And so, left with a creative void, and in a fit of hope and humility, McClaren brought back Beckham at a time when the team should have been attempting belatedly to catch up with the rest of Europe, South America and Africa. Or perhaps the English are in turn charitably waiting for the North Americans to catch up as part of some unspoken pact made under the old Thatcher-Reagan alliance. At this rate, it shouldn’t take long. Most MLS central defenders are already picking Beckham’s crosses long before he’s swung back that giddily sponsored right boot.
The result? LA are 12th in a 14-team league and, with nine games left out of 30, in danger of missing out on the play-offs for the second successive season of The Beckham Era. It’s hard to take seriously Beckham’s stated aim of making it with England to the 2010 World Cup when he’s playing with this shower. Then again, as long as he can put a decent corner into the mixer, no one in the England set-up seems to care. Ian Plenderleith