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Soccer Saboteurs at ESPN?
by Paul Gardner, October 27th, 2008 7AM



So the Beckham saga -- if that's what it is -- staggers on, Failure after failure, mistake piled upon mistake, a farcical sequence of laughable bumblings and ineptitudes that have long since blotted out the basic fact that Beckham came here to play soccer and -- his words -- to help "make the sport as popular here as it is in the rest of the world."

If that means merely getting publicity for himself, and hoping that some of it will draw admiring attention to the Galaxy, to MLS, and to the sport itself, well, there's a mighty problem to be overcome.

Beckham can only increase interest in the sport itself by putting on classy displays on the field -- preferably spectacular displays. He draws fans, there's no doubt about that. But those fans -- the ones who turn out to see him, who wouldn't normally be at an MLS game -- what have they seen from Beckham that would make them fall in love with soccer, or induce them to come back to see other games?

Nothing. Quite apart from all the games that Beckham has missed, and those that he has played when not fully fit, or when jet-lagged, his appearances have been anything but special. And that is a huge problem. When fans come to see a player who has been hyped to the skies and they see him perform in a decidedly non-super-star way, what are they to think? Very likely they will decide that if that's the best soccer can offer, if that's what all the fuss is about, then you can keep the sport. It's a dud.

So Beckham, instead of turning people on to soccer, is just as likely to be turning them off. True, it's not all his fault. The Galaxy have been abysmal. Beckham needed a good team to allow his skills to flourish, and he never got it. His supporting cast was nowhere near good enough.

But much of the blame lies with Beckham and his cohorts. He has made it insultingly clear that the Galaxy do not rank highly in his mind. His pursuit of more and more England caps has been conducted shamelessly at the expense of his Galaxy career. And now he has approached AC Milan because he wants to play for them -- on loan, of course, just to keep fit. Keeping fit for the Galaxy? No -- Beckham has, again, made it clear that the idea is to keep himself fit for possible future England appearances.

A monster mess -- one that Bruce Arena, in his dual role of coach and general manager, can only return to sanity by putting his foot down and demanding Beckham's full commitment to the team. So far, in that respect, Beckham's behavior has been both shameful and unprofessional. Unfortunately, the same would have to be said of AEG, who brought Beckham here and who have allowed the Beckham clique to run things their way.

And being a largely British clique, one knows immediately that they will be people who know little of American soccer. But behave as though they know everything.

Bringing in Ruud Gullit as coach was one of their moves. A colossal gaffe. We have heard from Gullit. After weeks of almost disdainful work with the Galaxy, he departed for the usual reasons -- anything but getting fired, that is. Yes, we've heard from him, and he has told us that there's an anti-soccer conspiracy here, and that "they" won't allow the sport to succeed.

How likely is that? Ludicrous, I'd say. And yet ... on that very point, I'd like an explanation. From the Galaxy, or from MLS -- but above all from ESPN.

Yes, ESPN, the MLS broadcasting partner. Could it be that ESPN is out to slyly sabotage soccer -- and David Beckham in particular? That's not an idea that recommends itself to me, but how else can one interpret the facts I shall now set out?

During last Thursday's ESPN2 telecast of the Chicago Fire vs. Red Bulls game, while hosts Rob Stone and Julie Foudy were swapping banalities about Beckham going to Milan -- we got, on screen, some action footage of Beckham. It's that footage that needs an explanation.

Here is the league's big star -- presumably therefore also ESPN's biggest selling point for the sport. So you show him doing something brilliant no? I mean, if this were football, you wouldn't show a QB falling flat on his face as he throws an interception, or if it were baseball, a slugger striking out?

Yet that is exactly, in equivalent terms, what ESPN gave us for Beckham. An 18-second clip showing him looking utterly incompetent, making a clumsy hash of two consecutive tackles, ending up on his backside for both, never getting anywhere near the ball.

Someone at ESPN had to select that footage. And someone at ESPN had -- I presume -- to approve it. This is worrying, because there is absolutely no way -- whether you know soccer or not -- that you can not be aware that the player with the ball (it's Shavar Thomas of Chivas-USA) is making Beckham look foolish.

I don't know how long ESPN has been using that footage -- but this is at least the second time that I have seen it. Has no one at MLS seen it? Do they not care that their prize player is being turned into a laughing stock on national television? Has MLS complained -- or are they as frightened of ESPN as the Galaxy appear to be of Beckham?

For me, what it comes down to is this: I'm strongly reluctant to accept Gullit's casual complaint that a mysterious "they" are sabotaging soccer in this country. But I do not see how the derogatory footage of Beckham used by ESPN could have been selected either by ignorance or accident. Quite a quandary.

  1. Gunther Charles
    commented on: October 27, 2008 at 9:46 a.m.
    From day one I have said that "Becks" is nothing else than a publicity stunt and I stick with that. How much did it costs the Galaxy? Is he really worth it?
  1. James/jean Brusse
    commented on: October 27, 2008 at 2:33 p.m.
    I tend to agree with Ruud Gullit and with Paul Gardner's article. I was born and raised in Colombia, S.A. and played futbol in college way back in the mid '50s. I later coached 2 of my sons in a span of 12 years. I see how this sport always gets the nasty end of the stick. Very little advertising and zero, and I mean zero, coverage in sports magazines such as Sports Illustrated. In there, they even cover tennis, bowling and bocce but never a word about soccer oops, futbol. What gives? Not even a photo or a measly paragraph during any of the World Cups, Champions League, etc. OMG! Are they scared? Anyway. I love futbol and I'll always will in spite of all the naysayers.
  1. Frank Cebul
    commented on: October 29, 2008 at 12:18 a.m.
    Paul--Lighten up a little bit on David Beckham. Admittedly, I did not see him play much this past season since he was injured when LA Galaxy came to nearby Crew stadium, so I can not comment on his play other than some of the game highlights throughout the season showed some of his deft passing and crosses. But don't feel insulted when he jumps at the opportunity to play with world class players on AC Milan and England's national team. After all, the Galaxy's season is over. Only a handful of soccer players ever get such once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Beckham is a talented player who wants to test himself against some of the best; I respect him,rather than begrudge him, for this decision. It is more noble-- more "American"-- to take on this challenge than just to rest on his laurels and collect his money in the LA Galaxy pasture. I agree with your sentiments regarding ESPN and Sports Illustrated. I quit subscribing to SI 15 yrs ago when the magazine gave short shrift to soccer after the US-hosted World Cup. ESPN tries to pattern their broadcasts after the formula they have used with the NFL--lots of extraneous commentary completely unrelated to the live action, as if soccer were a stop-rest-go sport like US rules football or baseball. Now that's insulting. As long as fans have choice with regards to networks, ESPN will dig their own hole as they drive soccer fans away.

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