Beckham will have the same initial impact as Pelé did
David Beckham will have about the same initial impact on soccer in the U.S. as Pelé did when he arrived to play for the New York Cosmos in 1975. There will be massive publicity and it will follow Beckham (nearly) everywhere. The MLS then will have to hitch itself onto Beckham's trail and hope this leads toward either the promised land or at least to a higher profile on the sports scene without bankrupting the entire league.
Pelé was told when he was being romanced by the North American Soccer League that he could win championships elsewhere, but in the U.S. he could win a country. Clive Toye, then with the Cosmos, came up with the line and it could apply to Beckham today. The idea is that Beckham will provide a point of reference for anyone involved in sports. Everyone from 6-year-olds on up will form an opinion on Beckham.
And, though soccer is often perceived as being unsophisticated in the U.S., most people involved with the game here can judge quality over a period of time, and that is how Beckham will be perceived. Nearly everyone in the soccer culture of the country will appreciate the fact Beckham is raising their profile -- so when amateur teams are trying to schedule games and practices, fields might be available that weren't a few months ago, and there will be an effort to groom those fields to the standards Beckham might be used to.
The Euro snobs will be watching, too, and they will be the most skeptical. Beckham can still cross the ball effectively, so if the Galaxy can teach someone to make a far-post run and someone else to make a near-post run, that should produce some highlights. Beckham's free kicks should be worth the price of admission, as well as a regular place on SportsCenter.
But not just the snobs will criticize if things do not go smoothly. And the Beckham affair will have ups and downs. Beckham is not the type of player who can transform a team. Zinedine Zidane, his former Galacticos teammate, is that type of player. And should the Galaxy stutter, many will begin to believe the reported $250 million could have been better spent on a high-level supporting cast rather than one player.
Though Beckham will be a proselytizing force, he is more like a Roberto Donadoni than a Pelé. Donadoni kept a low profile with the MetroStars, but his play on the right wing was exemplary and his practice habits set standards. Pelé was still a spectacular player when he moved to the U.S. at age 35, and even his teammates were often mesmerized by his movements.
Beckham will not be allowed to keep a low profile but he will not do anything spectacular, aside from crosses and free kicks. He will, however, set an example for how to approach the game and how to react to game circumstances.
But Beckham is sure to be resented. Since two week's worth of Beckham's pay will top the current yearly salary cap for an entire MLS team, there not only will be resentment but envy and jealousy. Those who prefer MLS bringing in rising stars rather than fading ones will be impossible to please. And if the embodiment of the "Beckham rule" starts a spending spree, the MLS could be in danger of burning itself in bidding wars. It probably will not burn itself out, but owners will have to get used to the idea of burning dollars.
When Pelé joined the Cosmos, the price was not much more than $3 million. Even allowing for inflation, Beckham's numbers seem exaggerated. But U.S. sports fans have become accustomed to the showbiz aspect of the games they watch, and they know how it works. Beckham will be given a fair chance of making the transition from Los Galacticos to the Galaxy.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.