Bending an expert's ear on the virtues of Beckham

Updated: July 5, 2007, 2:50 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

I wouldn't know David Beckham if he bent a corner kick into my jaw. Now if Posh were with him, maybe the face would ring a bell. But otherwise, nothing.

It's not that I'm anti-soccer, I'm just anti-dull. To me, soccer is hockey on a Valium overdose, but with no glove dropping or board checking.

David Beckham and Victoria Beckham
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesThe Beckhams -- David and Victoria -- are polarizing figures in England. And elsewhere.
Yes, I'm aware it's called "The Beautiful Game" -- and I'm sure it is, much in the same way folding your laundry is "The Beautiful Chore." And, yes, I know all about Beckham's much-anticipated official introduction to the MLS on July 13 in Los Angeles. I've also heard of the World Cup, the boffo CONCACAF Gold Cup TV ratings, and the fact that every available suburban sports field will be infested with soccer kids this weekend.

But I can't name you a half dozen active soccer players -- and I'm not alone. I'm not sure I can name you six soccer players, dead or alive. Let's see: Pele, Freddy Adu, that French dude who headbutted that Italian dude, Mia Hamm, Sylvester Stallone and Keira Knightley?

This will upset some soccer snobs, who tend to go all hooligan on you if you don't "get" the game. Look, I've got no problem with a Brit lad telling me he'd rather eat English food than watch a Royals-Pirates interleague game or, worse yet, the Raiders against anybody. But don't jump me just because I yawn at the mention of the Premiership.

I'm trying to understand, I really am, why Beckham should matter to sweat-sport Americans hardwired for the NFL, MLB, the NBA and, just to be polite, the NHL. So I ask longtime friend, soccer psycho, and Los Angeles Times sportswriter Christine Daniels to give me one good reason to care about the arrival of Dave and Spice wife.

Some background: Daniels has covered three World Cups and four Olympic soccer tournaments, watches way too much Fox Soccer Channel and Gol! TV, played stopper in her weekly league and now manages the team, picks up World Soccer at the newsstand, has a crush on Tony Adams, considers Nick Hornby's "Fever Pitch" the greatest sports book since "Ball Four," and will happily burn you a CD with Morrissey's "Your Arsenal" on it.

Daniels has pitch cred. I don't.

David Beckham
Denis Doyle/Getty ImagesDavid Beckham may not be the player he was, but he's still plenty dangerous.
But thanks to ESPN Research, I know the Beckham basics: Made his pro debut with Manchester United in 1993 ... supposed savior of English soccer ... first and only player in England soccer history to score in three different World Cups ... led Man U to wins in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League, in the same season ... Google search favorite ... signed LA Galaxy contract that, with endorsements and merchandising, could be worth $250 million ... married to Victoria Adams ... friends with Tomkat (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes).

OK, I can identify with the athlete/celebrity wife thing. This is like when Wayne Gretzky and Janet Jones came to the LA Kings, right?

"No, bigger," says Daniels. "The difference is, Gretzky was at his peak. Beckham is past his prime."

She goes on to say that the Galaxy wants Beckham to play center midfielder, which is meant for playmaking, attacking types. Think Steve Nash in soccer cleats (Nash actually was the British Columbia high school player of the year). Problem is, Beckham is too slow, too small and not strong enough with the ball for center mid.

"He's best at outside mid because he has a great right foot," says Daniels. "He's great at setting up teammates, when he has time. He's not great at setting up his own shot. But on set pieces, dead-ball pieces, he has a great, special talent for putting it on a head, curving it around the wall. That translates to [TV] highlights."

Got it. Bend it like Beckham.

Daniels says Beckham is one of the most recognized and popular sports figures in the world.

"He's an interesting character," she says. "Old-time England greats would have slit their throats if they saw him: a metrosexual guy who wears sarongs, makeup and is married to a Spice Girl. He was initially hated in England."

Daniels goes into a detailed explanation about Beckham's getting a red card against Argentina, then something about breaking his foot, then something else about nonchalanting it in a game against Brazil. She tells me about a penalty kick Beckham airmailed against Portugal, how he was a semi-flop with Real Madrid, and how he lost his captaincy and his place on the England national team until team officials got desperate and asked him back.

Just before I nod off, I ask Daniels where she would rank Beckham among the world's best players. Top 10? Top 20?

"He wouldn't be in the top 50 soccer players in the world right now," she says. "Maybe just at 50."

"And the MLS -- what kind of league is that?" I ask.

"The MLS is Triple-A baseball compared to the major leagues," she says. "It used to be Double-A."

"So let me get this straight: he won't have Gretzky's impact, he's not one of the top 50 players in the world anymore, and the MLS isn't an elite league," I say. "This sounds like Michael Jordan going over to England to play hoops -- now."

"That's a good way of putting it," she says.

"So why do I care about this guy again?"

Long pause.

"I'm not doing a very good job selling this, am I?" Daniels says.

But she recovers.

"He's insanely popular," Daniels says. "Part of it is the connection to Posh, and part of it is the way other cultures and countries look at him. He's kind of this little elf. He's not an oaf. He's like one of the Beatles. The English media, grudgingly, is infatuated with him. He has this reputation as an effete, airheaded, say-nothing guy. But I had a 30-minute interview with him about two years ago and he was soft-spoken, but intelligent."

The MLS needs something. Adu was supposed to be the league's Beckham, but that was wishful thinking. So now the Galaxy hires the original, but with the high mileage on the original Beckham equipment. Worse yet, who knows how many Galaxy games he'll miss while playing for the England national team.

For old time's sake, I'm going to give Daniels -- and Beckham -- the benefit of the doubt. But I've got a bad feeling that six months from now we're going to be asking, "Beckham who?" and "Beckham why?"

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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