It's time for Becks to go evil
First came the hype. Irrationally exuberant magazine covers, breathless salary reports and a dedicated in-game camera devoted to his every in-game sock adjustment. Next, the bubble burst. Injuries and unexceptional play fostered widespread public indifference. Fed up Los Angeles Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan publicly eviscerated him. Now, superstar European soccer import David Beckham -- the man tasked to make America love the beautiful game, or at least make Americans change the channel from poker -- is feuding with MLS fans and nearly coming to blows with hecklers, developments many consider the surest sign yet that the so-called Beckham Experiment has failed.
Me? I think it's an indicator that the Beckham Experiment finally has a chance to succeed.
Last weekend, Beckham confronted another jeering spectator in Kansas City, this time opting to shake the fan's hand. Wrong move. Classy, for sure. Even sportsmanlike. But totally, thoroughly misguided. Beckham shouldn't shrink from his burgeoning status as a footie villain. He should embrace it. Own it. Wear it like a favorite shirt. Pull a Hollywood Hogan, and become MLS Public Enemy No. 1.
In short, it's time for Becks to turn heel.
Don't laugh. I'm serious. Going to the dark side is Beckham's best option -- his only option, really, if he wants to salvage the sinking remains of his shipwrecked, "who-cares?" trans-Atlantic venture. (As for his wife's reality TV aspirations? All the duct tape in the world can't patch up a nuclear fallout crater.) Beckham needs to taunt opponents, razz fans, trash sponsors, badmouth U.S. soccer, amp up his feeble English accent from woodland elf to annoying Gallagher brother, grow a dark, steel wool-looking goatee, wrap himself in a Union Jack cape, commit a couple of outrageously dirty slide tackles, wear sunglasses indoors (and at night), start a feud with MLS commissioner Don Garber, make a clumsy pass at Donovan's wife, hang out less with loveable Will Smith and more with creepy Tom Cruise, pledge undying fealty to the Queen, start wearing cryptic T-shirts reading BECKS 3:16, blow his nose on American flag toilet paper, tear up a red card, refuse to pay the fine, refuse to stand for the national anthem and generally make an ass of himself whenever possible.
Trust me: It's all for the best.
Beckham supposedly came across the pond to sell soccer. The problem? Like tennis and golf and everything in America not involving fantasy football or Ryan Seacrest, soccer doesn't sell. Not to a casual audience. And especially not when the player doing the hawking is something less than transcendent. Beckham isn't Michael Jordan on a court or Tiger Woods on a fairway; he isn't even Pele or Maradona on a pitch. He's simply a brilliant ball-striker, something of a specialized savant, the equivalent of a great 3-point shooter. Beckham may be handsome. He may be a global icon. And that may be enough in Tokyo. But to indifferent American eyes awash in home runs and touchdowns, forever a click away from even more poker, he's not a guy who demands your sporting attention. Is it any wonder Beckham's first Galaxy match at Giants Stadium drew 60,000-plus fans, while his most recent outing saw some 40,000 fewer spectators show up? Is it even surprising that the only headlines made by Beckham in the past year involve his squabbles with Donovan and fans? Novelty sells. Controversy sells. Becks needs more of both.
Enter the heel.
Think Terrell Owens' driveway sit-ups, Dennis Rodman's assorted antics -- the first and last time the NBA's leading rebounder enjoyed equal publicity to its leading scorer -- and all things Tonya Harding. Think Brett Favre, whose drawn out, irritating employment decisions regarding the upcoming NFL season are inversely proportional to the amount of coverage he receives. As spectators, we hate heels. That's their job. Our job, too. Because the truth is, we love the hating. We love to watch. And why not? Heels are wildly, undeniably entertaining. Hulk Hogan turned heel and revived his career. Anakin Skywalker turned heel and redeemed the entire "Star Wars" film series (except for Jar Jar Binks). Brock Lesnar spent 10 minutes, max, channeling Stone Cold Steve Austin with his bird-wavin', sponsor-dissin', crude-talkin' post-fight performance at UFC 100; in doing so, he kept mixed martial arts atop the news cycle for nearly an entire week.
Heel power. (Clenched fist, Darth Vader voice.) If you only knew ...
Back to Beckham. He already has the raw materials to be a AAA-grade villain. No faking required, no new stringy haircut and/or extreme heel makeover necessary. Consider: He's a first-class talent in a second-class league, a millionaire celebrity surrounded by workaday nobodies, a metrosexual glamour puss trading shin-kicks with scruffy scrappers. Beckham came stateside to escape the European soccer fishbowl of bloodhound tabloids, pushy paparazzi and relentless on-field expectations; meanwhile, MLS players desperately wish their sport was popular enough to warrant any of the above. Hello, socioeconomic fault lines! It's storytelling 101: conflict equals drama. Start with arrogant Beckham versus irate fans. Add snobby Beckham versus down-to-Earth players. End up with evil Beckham versus reluctant-cowboy-spurred-to-action America. Too ambitious? Hardly. We put a man on the moon, made a Saddam-sympathizing monster out of one-time patriot Sgt. Slaughter. We can muster something similar with Beckham. Not to get all George Tenet here, but it's basically a slam dunk -- after all, Becks comes equipped with at least four heel accoutrements to make a WWE scriptwriter blush:
1. A perfect baby-faced rival in Donovan, who not only serves as the face and conscience of American soccer, but also has a literal baby face;
2. An utterly lampoonable, eye-candy spouse, who can be used, Miss Elizabeth-style, to distract opponents and goose ratings;
3. A conniving best friend/personal manager/fellow heel in Terry Byrne, who reportedly all but took over the Galaxy front office, finagling the team's captaincy from Donovan to Beckham and hand-picking a Becks-compliant coach;
4. Loan retainer status with Italian superclub AC Milan, for whom Beckham has played with far greater, ahem, enthusiasm than the Los Angeles teammates he reportedly won't even treat to dinner.
Also -- as previously mentioned -- Beckham is English. And didn't we fight a war against them?
Look, soccer's most attractive quality isn't skill (not in MLS, anyway). It's passion. Passion fueled by animosity. An intense, near-pathological dislike for the other guy, the secret sauce that makes a 1-0 match thrilling and -- in a more familiar context -- an Oakland Raiders-Denver Broncos game watchable. The darkness at the heart of sports fandom. Turn Beckham into a larger-than-life heel, and perhaps he'll inspire similar loathing, winning soccer converts in the process. Through hate, sweet hate, America will finally see the futbol light. The time is right. The tools are there. Is Beckham game? Prompting fans into angry, pro wrestling-style behavior is a good start. Steadfastly refusing to apologize to Galaxy supporters shows promise. Scoring a bending, physics-defying own goal, then ripping off his Los Angeles shirt to reveal an AC Milan jersey before whacking Donovan in the back with a metal folding chair would be better still.
Do it. Turn heel. At this point, it's not like Beckham can make things any worse.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2.