Thursday, March 5, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: March 11, 3:35 PM UK
Beckham a world away from the Galaxy
Matthias Krug in Doha, Qatar
An illustrious Englishman in the Arabian desert? Not Lawrence, no. Midweek it was David who won all the Arabian hearts on his first visit to Qatar. In this, arguably the last week of David Beckham's much publicized loan stint at AC Milan the former England captain has never been farther from Los Angeles.
Here in Doha he seemed a world away from the Galaxy. That is not just a geographical observation, but essentially a sentimental one. Beckham has fallen for a spring love affair in the Indian summer of his career.
Any more proof needed? Cue Beckham for his first appearance in front of the drooling local scribes. The man at the heart of a media storm sat there at the press conference with a boyish grin on his face and shared whispered jokes with Ronaldinho. Granted, the Brazilian has a reputation for smiling at just about anything, but Beckham did also manage to bring a smirk to the lips of the somewhat more tranquil Kaka, sitting to his left.
The only man not smiling much was Carlo Ancelotti, the Italian coach giving his best impression of a tombstone, or else wondering how to fit so many stars into a single team sheet.
Which is precisely why Beckham feels so at home in Milan and has no intention of leaving on a one-way first class flight for Los Angeles on Monday. Not only can the former England captain joke around with the best players in the world, but he can actually still play with them.
"My experience in Milan has been incredible," Beckham confirmed moments later, his words raining down like golden confetti on empty notepads. "These have been two and a half months with one of the biggest clubs in the world, some of the best players and one of the best coaches. I have already said I want to stay in Milan."
There is more than that to the whole saga, though. The Beckham of Milan has finally realized that marketing success will not let him be remembered as one of the best players of all time. It seems this enamored Beckham would rather be in the desert playing an exhibition match than a media-savvy symbol selling soccer in the USA.
"It is exciting to be here in Qatar, it is a good trip for the team and an experience I'm going to enjoy," Beckham said. Those words were no mere compliments to the host team Al Sadd, who reportedly paid a fee of $1.5 million (roughly David's hourly salary in the MLS if my maths are correct) to bring Milan to Doha.
This was a fitting farewell game for the retiring Jaffal Rashid al Kuwari, the Al Sadd captain who played for the club for an astonishing 27 years. But Beckham is no Jaffal. He feels that his career is winding down. He knows this may be his last chance to prove himself as a football player of the highest caliber rather than the marketing machine critics had labeled him before his loan move to Milan.
To confirm these impressions I obviously needed a one-on-one interview with the player himself. It would lead in with a question about how satisfying it has been for Becks to pay back his critics, then catch him off guard with the question on why he now advocates a salary cap in football. The complete Beckham turnaround. Big story in the bag.
It was all so very simple, but then there was Pippo. That was the name of the AC Milan press officer. He looked like the bad guy out of James Bond, and had the humor levels of a German farmer. "Beckham has specifically told me that he will not grant any interviews on this trip," Pippo said without a smile.
So I temporarily settled for an interview with Adriano Galliani, the AC Milan boss. "Ideally Beckham won't be going back on Monday to Los Angeles. We're waiting for a reply from Galaxy. Still there is no secure deal but we are hoping to extend the loan," Galliani told me as we watched Becks, Milan's star of the past, train with Pato, Milan's star of the future.
There was something of a resigned inevitability about Galliani as he added: "After June he will definitely go back to the Galaxy. The best thing that could possibly happen is that he stays until the 30th of June. We have to understand the importance that LA Galaxy have a contract with David. We have to honor that."
Between the lines the Milan boss was pointing out that his financially limited club would not break the bank for a superstar of yesteryear, no matter how surprisingly good his performances for Milan have been. Perhaps Galliani will ask the Galaxy people nicely. He may even send over a home-made Italian pizza and a bottle of wine to seal the deal. But even if Becks does stay until the summer, there can be no guarantees that he will be back in Milan next year.
A new coach for the struggling Rossoneri looks on the cards. "Ancelotti still has a contract for 2009/10. We hope that he stays on the bench, even next season. For now, though, we must concentrate on the championship," was all that Galliani would say about his current coach.
One of the younger faces at the club, former Arsenal centre-back Philippe Senderos, was the only player who stopped to talk after training. "I don't know what's going on with Beckham at the moment," Senderos told me, "but I hope he stays because he's happy here and he can keep playing in the team."
And play Beckham did, the following day. The game itself was rather uneventful. Beckham popped up with a few nice passes here and there, helped in the build-up to Pato's opening goal in the 2-1 away win, and then clapped heartily as Jaffal took the applause 27 years after half an hour.
Maybe Beckham even picked up the local retirement custom of tapping the top of your head with your palm (meaning thanks to everyone), or enjoyed the bewildering Wolves (Al Sadd's mascot) howls as Jaffal came off the pitch.
But we won't find out because the ageing legs of Beckham remained in the dressing room at half time. At the end of the game the assembled reporters in a somewhat comical mixed zone could be forgiven for thinking they were watching the 100 meter finals at the Golden league in Rome.
There were a lot of sprinting Italians, but of course no sign of Beckham. At one stage Pippo, my old friend, returned from the heavily guarded Milan tunnel to search for someone in the emptying stadium.
"Looking for Beckham?", I inquired, but still no signs of humor: "No Beckham no, no no." That was the most useful lesson learnt from Beckham's trip to the desert: No Beckham, no, no, no. Translated from Italian to English that means: Becks won't be around forever. And as long as he is, he wants to get in some half-decent football with Milan.
Only there is that small, troubling piece of paperwork, a relic of an old, marketing-conscious David, that bears the name of the LA Galaxy on it. As Galliani pointed out, we must remember that they have a contract with him. We really must, even though David of Arabia, and David of Milan, is hoping that is not the only thing we remember.