Online reaction to David Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy wasn’t about informing readers but enraging them, believes Ian Plenderleith , part of a trend that values level of response above everything else

The internet was supposed to mean the end of newspapers. Why pay for an unwieldy item that gets ink on your hands when you can see it all on the computer for free? Yet print has survived, and not just because you can’t take your PC with you on the Tube. It’s also because the internet has developed into a medium with a ­different kind of writing.

Of course, the two overlap, and most newspaper content is available online. But there’s a certain kind of web journalism that really has no place in papers but is finding its way in. It’s the section where newspapers or websites want opinions, and they want them expressed large. Balance, doubt and nuance are all largely discouraged, because large opinions attract larger numbers of comments, and a higher number of page hits.

Take the arrival of David Beckham at the Los Angeles Galaxy as a case in point. It’s a matter about which most online ­football ­commentators have felt obliged to have an opinion, and few have taken the line that it could be a good thing for the player, but maybe on the other hand it could be a bad thing. The majority of UK-based columnists have said that Beckham is nuts to go to the US, and will be far too good for mickey-mouse Major League Soccer, despite the money.

That just about sums up the two positions to be taken on the issue, yet there have been hundreds if not thousands of ­commentaries on the transfer. Not because we need the same opinion repeated dozens of times by different people, but because the journalists need the cash and the websites recognise that certain strong opinions will, for reasons unknown, draw a certain readership that’s compelled to respond that the columnist is an idiot.

“You begin to wonder about David Beckham’s chances of retaining hero status now that he has demoted himself from the peaks of Spanish football to the middle ­levels of ‘sacker’ in the United States,” wrote John Sadler in the Guardian and on Guardian Unlimited after Beckham’s first, brief appearance for LA, keeping up the GU blog section’s tedious tradition of bashing both the US game and the US accent (its usual hilarious term for football in America is, get this, ­soccerball!). But hey, that might just make me mad enough to log on to the comments section and say: “What’s with GU’s tedious tradition of bashing both US soccer and US accents?”

It’s hardly as though John Sadler himself would log on, apologise for his narrow-mindedness, and then engage me in a debate about anti-Americanism. It’s far more probable that another respondent will tell me to stop whining, and that everyone knows an MLS team couldn’t survive ten minutes in the hard, fast Premier League.

Also opining along UK party lines was the Daily Telegraph’s David Bond, who, on his blog way back in March, was already blandly exhorting Steve McClaren not to recall the midfielder to the England squad. This was because “even if Beckham could play a part until the end of the season, how could he be expected to perform at the top level when he moves to America to play Major League Soccer in Los Angeles?”

But just imagine, McClaren ignored Bond’s advice. And while managers and players are mostly lying when they say that they pay no attention to the media, there’s no doubting that the internet is much easier to ignore than the daily national press. The bigger the volume of the opinions, in both senses of the word, the easier it is to shrug them off. Who has the time to read all these nutters (sorry, “published online authors”) anyway?

Once all football journalists had had their opinions, it was time to ask the ex-pros for their take. Times Online’s Matt Hughes in LA unearthed Hollywood icon Vinnie Jones to tell us that if Beckham lost sight of his football, because his missus was dragging him to “all these do’s”, then “the whole of California will turn against him”. Vinnie’s an LA insider, so he must know what he’s talking about. At least he didn’t join the chorus of other old lags thousands of miles away from MLS saying that its standard was equivalent to the Beazer Homes League.

Similar comparisons were often the province of the BBC’s dreadful online sports section, which insists on treating its readers like idiots by never using more than a single sentence per paragraph. Andrew Benson wrote a column that quoted Peter Bowes as saying MLS is “a league even ardent football fans have no respect for”. Hang on, Peter who? Erm, he’s the BBC’s LA correspondent. It’s always good when journalists go that extra step to seek out a renowned expert on, say, the inside of the US game. And this despite the fact that a few days earlier their colleague John May had written a lengthy column to “dispel the myth that Americans do not give a fig about soccer”.

Some of the better commentaries on Beckham’s move came from the US, whose online football journalists were readier to welcome the move, while at the same time treating it with a sceptical distance in resistance to the relentless hype pedalled by Beckham’s new team and the league. writer Gwen Knapp noted in early July that US broadcaster ESPN was plotting major coverage of Beckham’s first game, but warned viewers to “avoid drinking games where you have a snort every time you hear words such as ‘landmark’ or ‘historic’. Your livers and local emergency rooms aren’t up to the challenge.”

Bloomberg columnist Scott Soshnick, meanwhile, foresaw trouble because of the player’s special-treatment clauses in his contract that stipulate, for example, that he must fly first class. In MLS, teams that can afford charter flights are deemed by the league to have an unfair advantage over teams that can’t, and so they’re banned. Realising this, Beckham’s advisors took steps to avoid him sitting in economy class with his team-mates. “So while Beckham is enjoying, perhaps, an ice cream sundae and his choice of movies,” wrote Soshnick, “6-foot-4-inch team-mate Kyle Veris might be crammed in a middle seat somewhere in the rear.” This, he went on, is “no way to build team unity”. Perhaps those team-mates stuck back in the cheap seats will register a silent protest by logging on to ­ and ordering themselves one of a special range of Beckham T-shirts available for $25. “Beckham. The $250 million turd” is the unequivocal statement on the front. Just the thing to keep you comfy in a tight space on a five-hour flight to the east coast.

Finally, Steve Davis of Soccernet anticipated that Becks would “arrive soon to help prop up a flagging attack. The new kits will go on sale. Reporters and anchor people with pretty hair, who couldn’t previously locate the Home Depot Center [Galaxy’s stadium] without a GPS linkup, will prattle on about soccer’s version of royalty.”

But it wasn’t just the entertainment and celebrity media who were prattling on. Beckham’s move to America yielded ample proof that when it comes to twaddle, there’s no shortage of football writers ready to step up and power our hard drives with hot air.

From WSC 247 September 2007

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