If recent trends are any indication, AC Milan had best cash its investment on David Beckham as soon as he arrives. And MLS must ponder if keeping him beyond 2009 makes sense.
So tepid has been the response to Beckham's arrival with the Galaxy to play a team of Oceanic confederation all-stars in Auckland, New Zealand, that promoters of the game are offering fans a two-fer: buy one ticket, get one free.
"It's important that I keep my fitness up and that's one of the reasons I'm going to Milan for a few months," Beckham said to the Associated Press upon his arrival to play a friendly match with the Galaxy against a team that will include ex-Manchester United goalkeeper Mark Bosnich and former French international Christian Karembeu. (It will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel at 2 a.m. ET Saturday.)
Mt. Smart Stadium holds just 32,000, but with about one-half of the tickets unsold less than 48 hours before kickoff, the Auckland Regional Council announced the deal and soon was hearing from irate fans who'd bought tickets at the regular price.
ARC Parks general manager Lance Vervoort said, "We've had up to 15,000 tickets go out - and we actually want to fill the stadium . . . we want to get up to capacity, up to 32,000. We want as many Aucklanders as possible to take the opportunity to see these players."
Though he can't be registered to play competitive matches for AC Milan until Jan. 1, Beckham will train with the team and play a friendly in Dubai later this month. (There are no restrictions on teams fielding guest players for friendlies or exhibition matches as long as clearance is obtained from the club holding his rights.) His allure is such that Milan figures it will generate plenty of money to offset the approximately $1 million in salary it must pay him during the duration of his loan from MLS.
Beckham's stay in Milan will be short -- if he comes back as proposed in mid-March -- yet long enough to play in half-dozen Italian cities and sell tens of thousands of jerseys and other merchandise. The operative word here is "play," as there's no shortage of thought his impact off the field may be far greater than what he can accomplish in Serie A and UEFA Cup matches.
Ironically, the best scenario for MLS will be for Beckham to dazzle for Milan and England, to refute a perception in some foreign circles that a broken-down has-been with no future has fleeced a few ignorant Americans for millions of dollars to play rinky-dink soccer. Yet the Milan roster is stacked - it is especially loaded in midfield - and the tutelage of Fabio Capello has produced a few excellent results for England with no great dependence on Beckham.
The more pressing issue for MLS will be what to do if he plays another satisfactory but hardly scintillating season in 2009 as he did in 2008 and fan interest remains lukewarm. Commissioner Don Garber decried mediocre attendances in Hawaii at the Pan-Pacific Championship last February, and with Beckham in Milan that experiment won't be repeated. Whatever lucrative offseason or preseason friendlies the Galaxy had hoped to line up are no longer feasible. And that costs money.
Beckham's MLS buzz hasn't completely dissipated and it's too soon to tell if his influence on sponsorships and Galaxy season-ticket sales has run its course. This year, his play ranged from mediocre to excellent until August, when the siren call of England and its qualifiers drained him physically and emotionally.
No one accused him of saving his energy and avoiding injury so as to be available for England, but at times it sure looked that way. After the All-Star break, Los Angeles won only two of 13 games. Becks garnered just three assists in playing nine of those games. In his other 16 league appearances, all starts, he scored five goals and registered seven assists.
"I've always wanted to be known as a hard worker on the field and successful," Beckham said in Auckland. "I believe I've always worked hard in every game and every training session that I take part in." Yet the legs can be weak even if the spirit is strong.
One can assume, if he holds a place in Capello's plans, he'll be less effective for the Galaxy in 2009 because of extensive travel and time away from MLS as well as distractions. More rigorous demands in January and February - in Milan rather than in MLS preseason training -- might hone him to better withstand the travel and competitive demands; but just as likely is the possibility he will tire earlier and more severely than he did in 2008, and, at age 34 (as of May 2), be more prone to injury.
MLS and AEG have committed to five years of Beckham; embarrassingly, after denials any such clause existed came word his opt-out clause can be exercised at the end of 2009. A few ancillary projects have floundered: two television shows centered on Becks have been canceled as a tsunami of publicity that greeted his arrival last year dwindled to a trickle in 2008.
One of the great philosophers of our time, the windy and wise Ray Hudson, dismissed Beckham as "a one-trick pony" when he came to these shores. "El Rey" spoke of those breathtaking crosses and set plays, yet his words speak also of an iconic image that blinds the real caliber of a player.
If that image and those skills have faded too severely, both sides should choose to cut ties in 12 months, unless England cuts him loose first.