Tuesday, July 14, 2009

UF Book Review: The Beckham Experiment, by Grant Wahl

With all this Becks talk today, it's only right that I review the comprehensive account of the LA Galaxy and their disastrous attempt to buy themselves some success. To the surprise of no-one, David Beckham, everyone's favorite right-sided midfielder (not mine!), wasn't enough to get them an MLS Cup.

When David Beckham landed in America, his presence garnered worldwide attention. The prodigious Englishman seeking to colonize the US and conquer its ignorance of the world's greatest and most popular sport; it made for a thrilling, compelling story that everyone wanted to cover. ESPN whipped the masses into a frenzy, forcing the non-believers to care and giving the nation's soccer-crazy a chance to experience the kind of soccer coverage in America that they'd always dreamed of.

But, with every good story, there's a turn, and a Second Act that comes with far less joy. With Beckham, there were several downward turns, and Grant Wahl has captured every single moment of the descent in producing one of the better sports books you'll read all year. Akin to Buster Olney's "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," Wahl's unprecedented look behind the wafer-thin veneer of the LA Galaxy is compelling and enjoyable from beginning to end.

The book's two main strands dovetail together nicely; on one hand, we get an intimate look at Beckham and the invasive management of his branding team (the figure of 19 Entertainment, his nebulous handlers, loom ominously throughout the book), while on the other, we get a chance to get to know how the proverbial other half live, the players living on table scraps and working multiple jobs (or, in one perhaps overstated case, living three-to-a-tiny-apartment in order to save enough money for dinner and gas. One of them likes loud music! Another never cleans his dishes!) who are swept up in the media hurricane.

With all eyes on Beckham and his effort, it's guys like Alan Gordon who are able to give the most unbiased, uncensored opinions about life at the Galaxy and its farcical organization.

And so we get to the most impressive element of the entire story: Wahl's access. One wonders how different it might have been if Becks and the Galaxy became the all-conquering force so many envisioned, but in truth, the team's fall yields remarkable candidacy from so many close to the wreckage. If it's not Lalas, never shy of a soundbite, it's Landon Donovan, the team's jilted lover in the wake of Beckham's arrival. Donovan's story, and opinions, are compelling simply because we're never sure if he's genuinely angry at Beckham or angry at the organization for making him, the established alpha male of the team, play such a neutered role once the real golden goose swans into town.

The tale surrounding the LA Galaxy captaincy, and the pathetic, passive-aggressive manner in which Beckham gets what he wants in the armband (and believe me, thanks to his shadowy best mate Terry Byrne, who it seems essentially ran the club with Lalas as a well-meaning, clueless puppet, Becks always gets what he wants) is most telling of all. Remember, this is a guy so crippled with concern about his public image that if he wants something that people might react negatively to, you can bet it's not going to come directly from him:

"When Beckham led the LA starting XI out of the tunnel the next night for the team's Superliga semifinal against DC United, there was mild surprise among his teammates that he was taking over as captain so soon -- even superstars usually need to earn the armband on the field with their new team, and it was Beckham's first Galaxy start -- but it was entirely plausible that Beckham would have ascended to the position before long...

In the long term, the sub-rosa machinations that led to the captain switch would set the tone for the Beckham Experiment on a number of levels. Galaxy executives and coaches would continue bending over backward to accommodate (and even anticipate) the wishes of Beckham and his handlers, rarely saying or doing anything they feared might offend their meal ticket. For their part, Beckham's handlers would exert more and more influence behind the scenes, almost always using Beckham's surrogates -- Terry Byrne, mainly -- to avoid leaving any of Beckham's own fingerprints. Meanwhile, Donovan's resentment would build as he slowly began understanding that outside forces were taking over the team."
However, the one thing Beckham's PR army couldn't get for him was on-field success, and it's this lack of team success that eventually tanks the entire experiment. I always felt that Beckham came to the USA thinking he could dominate in his old-ish age, becoming the best player in the league and single-handedly dragging the Galaxy to the winner's podium; when that didn't occur, he looked for the exit as quickly as possible, and Wahl's account of events reads in much the same way.

By the end, all parties involved seek to exonerate themselves of the lion's share of blame, no-one seemingly caring about throwing others under the bus in an effort to look good. The Beckham Experiment's bigger story, beyond the flashbulbs and media management of the English midfielder, concerns the comical mismanagement of a franchise, their actions providing a step-by-step guide of what not to do when trying to achieve success in a given sport.

From Leiweke's flirtation with Beckham over a 5-year period until the deal was signed (not to mention his rather poorly-constructed contract that gave his team no margin for error whatsoever), to Lalas and his naivete in a job he should perhaps never have been given (like so many in the workplace, his personal rolodex got him a gig well above his druthers), to Beckham and his team of self-interested PR wizards, there's plenty of blame to go around, and Wahl does an admirable job in presenting the facts and leaving the reader to decide who ultimately deserves the bulk of the criticism for what went wrong.

My favourite section concerned the immediate post-Beckham arrival, when he and his handlers were able to sweep out MLS-savvy management and players (oh, the team they would have had were it not for some fundamental idiocy; look at who they let go once Becks came to town! Joe Cannon, Chris Albright, Kelly Gray, Kyle Martino, Tyrone Marshall, as well as Gullit effectively ruining Peter Vagenas) in favor of more global brands to keep Beckham happy. Oh, and all the global brands were just as clueless about MLS as Beckham is/was.

Ruud Gullit, if the book is to be believed, couldn't even be bothered to learn how transfers work in his new job, so much so that some hilarious personnel errors were unavoidable. Celestine Babayaro arrives and leaves, but not before displaying the same naivete that doomed this entire experiment to begin with (and a hilarious anecdote concerning flights). As for Abel Xavier, well, the less said the better.

It's hard for me to judge a book like this impartially as I have such strong personal feelings against David Beckham -- since Real Madrid, I feel like his playing abilities were never worth the hype, but it didn't stop him pillaging free money from teams desperate for the Beckham that hadn't existed since the 2002 World Cup -- but I can say this: Wahl is an excellent writer and researcher who has put together a fantastic account of a franchise that tried to purchase success but ended up worse off than they'd ever been.

It's engaging, enlightening and pulls no punches when looking at Beckham in the USA, and for that, I'm grateful.

When he gets to AC Milan, it's hard to feel like he put in his best efforts for Los Angeles in 2008. It's passages like this that make you wonder about his integrity and commitment to that grandiose, gargantuan task he'd charged himself with in coming to MLS in the first place:
"From the moment David Beckham donned the famous red and black striped of AC Milan in January 2009, he looked like a completely different player from the one who'd gone 70 percent, sullen and out of shape, during the last half of the Galaxy's 2008 season. This Beckham was fully fit, buzzing up and down the right flank like the Goldenballs of old. This Beckham saves his emotional outbursts for his teammates, not just the referees, jumping on the back of teenage phenom Alexandre Pato after feeding him a perfect pass for a goal."
Reading this makes it tough for even the most ardent Becks fan to give him the benefit of the doubt when you see the MLS version and the England/Serie A version existing so brazenly separate from one another.

But ultimately, the book isn't just about Beckham, but the hopes, dreams and day-to-day operations of the team that relied upon him to turn them around. The Los Angeles Galaxy make for a wonderful case study in what not to do when trying to build a franchise, and the decisions made since 2005 will haunt this team for many years to come. Make no mistake; there is plenty of blame to be spread around, and Wahl leaves no involved party free of culpability.

I fear that when Beckham finally does leave, it'll be an eternity before they get back to where they want to be and with Wahl's controversial expose, it might take even longer.


Goat said...

In the wake of all of this, I'm curious about what the fan reaction to Becks will be--not just in LA but on the road as well. I'm not quite sure if fans of US soccer will close ranks around Landycakes or if their general disdain for Lando will make them side with Goldenballs (or if their desire to support MLS will make them give Beckham a pass). I certainly hope there won't be the same level of love fest on the road that his first seasons saw.

The NY Kid said...

as I have such strong personal feelings against David Beckham

Thou dost protest too much.

WhiteSpeedReceiver said...

I would hope that even the most ardent Landykins critics (such as myself) would be able to see that he's absolutely right in his criticisms of Beckham. All you needed to see was 1 Serie A match he was in to know that he was mailing it in for a paycheck here before he found out he could make the England 2010 squad. Absolutely deplorable.

I'm looking forward to reading the book. Should be good stuff.

Mike Georger said...

So is Beckham still playing for LA or what? I stopped paying attention after his first few games with Milan. I did notice a new 'he may be coming back to England!' article today on Soccernet.

ΓΌ75 said...

Yep. He'll be in La for four months or so until he weasels his way back to Europe in January. Earlier if an approved loan deal comes through. I'm actually thinking that the $10 million that LA/MLS got for his last extension of a loan to Milan was a down payment for the next move.