By Ridge Mahoney
The rumors swirl anew about David Beckham joining MLS sooner rather than later, and more than a few journalists and such have jumped on the bandwagon, insisting a Pele-like publicity tsunami will sweep MLS from the niche netherworld into a pantheon of glory.
Crock, pure and simple. Pele, just a few years removed from winning a third World Cup, remember, drew soccer fans, and applied a rock-star celebrity sheen, to a low-rent league.
In mid-70s America, Pele was glimpsed every year or so in friendlies, on tour with Santos or Brazil. Newspaper and magazine photos, occasional news clips, and closed-circuit television coverage of major events like the World Cup featured the handsome, high cheek-boned face that people in every corner of the world knew as well as their own families.
Wealthy socialites, pop-culture pundits, and bevies of teenage girls might seek out MLS stadiums for the first time in their lives - once, maybe twice -- and perhaps a few die-hard Beckites would flock as well, but anyone who compares him to Pele, in any manner, is sadly misguided.
Only two players have moved the needle at the gate to any great degree in MLS: Jorge Campos, the idol of a soccer-mad nation in his heyday who just happened to have a built-in fan base of about 40 million; and Freddy Adu, who drew numbers in his first season but eventually proved not to be a soccer version of LeBron James because, unlike James, Adu wasn't physically or psychologically equipped to play with men nor likely to score 15 points a game and occasionally light up the highlight shows with a slam-dunk or coast-to-coast crossover.
None of the arguments harped by the Beckham Brigade make sense.
Theory: He's a world-famous player idolized in many countries including his own.
Fact: English and European fans know he's on the downswing and at the last World Cup his only shining moment was being named Man of the Match against T&T (Whoo-hoo!). I don't envision thousands of Union Jacks at Toyota Park or Crew Stadium when Becks struts into town.
Theory: Becks triggers increased TV ratings on ESPN2.
Fact: Unless his team plays every other Thursday night, those predictions seem ludicrous. There would be pops of publicity, sure, but as stated, soccer fans know Becks ain't great shakes, and the curiosity factor doesn't entail great staying power. Crowds in America to see Real Madrid were lured by the team, not the Brit, and fans were dazzled by Barcelona: Robinho or Ronaldinho, yes, Beckham, no.
Theory: By signing Beckham, MLS will encourage other Euro stars to follow.
Fact: Did that happen with Lothar Matthaeus, Youri Djorkaeff, Mo Johnston, or Roberto Donadoni? Look at the 2006 list of European imports: Markus Schopp, Paul Dalglish, Dave van den Bergh. Hardly a Who's Who.
It's seductive to read and see the fabulous and marvelous life lived by Beckham and wife Victoria, and believe this allure will light up MLS stadiums. The celebrity universe has gone supernova since Pele's time but as the Adu Era confirmed, the shelf life is notoriously short and fiendishly fickle.
Pele was 100 times the soccer player, and the celebrity, that is David Beckham. Pele was the right move at the right time, and Beckham is no Pele.