...Wherein we take a break from regular film blogging to discuss football again.
Breaking news from Major League Soccer; David Beckham, one of the most famous sportsmen in the world and recent transfer acquisition of the Los Angeles Galaxy, may miss his projected debut tomorrow night against Chelsea FC in a friendly. Beckham injured his ankle a couple of months back while playing for Real Madrid and continued playing on it as Real pushed to win the La Liga title; While he accomplished his goal of bringing glory to the Spanish giants, his decision to keep playing on his injury may have cost MLS a golden opportunity. ESPN, ever-ready to latch onto whatever potential rating-grabber they can get their hands on, has scheduled a 19 camera shoot for the friendly (a game which has no bearing on the league or any competition), and had booked a "Beckham Cam" to follow the player around for a Zidane: 21st Century Portrait-style presentation. We've been here before; When Freddy Adu made his DC United debut, ESPN pushed the hell out of the game not realizing his manager wouldn't play him in the match. That hurt the league. With Beckham, the stakes are infinitely higher; With the world's most recognizable athlete likely missing his debut, MLS and football in this country will probably take another hit, the curious may be put off by his absence and the league will have to continue to push for the media spotlight, as "soccer-haters" in the press pile on and "anti-soccer" ramblings continue to be á la mode. Another battle lost in the on-going war to bring the game some meaning in America.
I am completely torn about Beckham, primarily because I have deeply felt conflicting interests regarding the man, the game of football and the growth of the game in this country. First and foremost, when I hear the name David Beckham, the image that instantly pops into my head is the player in a red #7 jersey whipping crosses and free kicks in for Manchester United. This, of course, makes my blood boil; David Beckham will always be a Manc in my mind, the most bitter of rivals to my own team (Liverpool), playing for the enemy when they were at the height of their league and European success. That feeling never goes away, and so, there is a part of me, a nonobjective, passionate and seething part of me, that will always hold Beckham in contempt for his success in making great the team I loathe.
Pure Torture: Beckham and Roy Keane In The Bad Old Days
That said, Beckham seems a genuinely decent guy and as captain of the English national team, he's been nothing short of a savior; After a controversial sending off in the 1998 World Cup, Beckham went from pariah to messiah, lifting the ever-underachieving England team to relative glory with stunning barrage of crosses and free kicks. See for yourself what he means to England:
Without You, We're Nothing: Beckham Sends England To The World Cup.
I absolutely respect him as a player and a man. Now, he is undertaking a herculean task that the greatest player in the history of the game, Pelé, was unable to accomplish in the 1970's; Make football relevant to the lives and sporting passions of Americans. His decision to walk away from Real Madrid and to take a contract with the absolutely woeful LA Galaxy is certainly not about the money; Wherever Beckham plays, he sells and earns. Period. Instead, I think the move serves a dual purpose; To engage the American people in the celebrity and storylines that accompany football everywhere else in the world in the hopes that the expansion of coverage will build the game in this country, and to allow his wife to build her career and have access to the life she longs for.
Victoria Beckham aside, it is the former that interests me the most, because what football and MLS need more than anything is to create a league and a game that tells a story. The NFL, MLB and NBA have succeeded in this country over the long term because the leagues have learned that sports are about storytelling and hope for the average fan; Not only do the games themselves have an inherent drama, but rivalries, player disputes, contracts and transfers are a year-round business; Who will your team draft? Who will they recruit? Will they defeat your most hated rivals? Will they upset the most unbeatable team in the game? Will they become that team themselves?
The league that has perfected this archetype is the NFL; A season lasts only 16 games, and each game matters because, in order to qualify for the post-season and a chance at a Super Bowl title, you must win enough games during the regular season. And so, the NFL regular season becomes a race to see who will qualify for the chance to compete in the playoffs where, as the saying goes, you can "toss out the regular season records because it is one loss and you go home." They also have the good sense to play one game a week; This allows the tension to build, the stories to be reported, injuries, drama, analysis, etc. Much like English football. Thus, the league, like all US sports leagues, becomes all about the playoffs. Each playoff game is fraught with peril and drama; Will we win? Will we lose? Will we be upset? Will we cause an upset? This is how a league tells a story in this country, and Americans by the millions tune in to watch how a fumbled snap, a missed field goal, a goal line tackle or a hail mary pass can change the history of the game.
There are other, less successful sporting models (MLB and the NBA), but again, these are not good models for showcasing the dramatic arc of football; Major League Baseball has 30 teams playing 162 meaningless games among themselves in order to have 8 teams (it used to be 4 teams) make the playoffs (by having the best records in baseball). That's a great season if you're Red Sox fan, a Yankees fan (will they catch Boston?), a Tigers or Indians fan (neck and neck... Go Tigers!) or say, a fan of the San Diego Padres. But for almost everyone else, the season is 162 games worth of disappointment and meaningless games followed by a LONG playoff season of seven game series until the winner is determined. Which is why most people don't give a toss until the playoffs start. The same with the NBA, which features 82 meaningless games, 16 playoff teams and TWO MONTHS of playoff basketball to determine a champion. Which is why, again, no one really cares until the playoffs. This is the story of classic American sports. We are the "crunch time" nation.
In all professional football leagues (save for our own MLS, and more on this in a minute), no such playoff system exists. There are no playoffs at all. Instead, you win a championship by winning the most points during the regular season (3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, 0 points for a loss). You play every team in the league twice; Once at home and once away. In the football model, every regular season game REALLY counts and the league season tells a similar story to the NFL, only without the extraneous requirement of a bracketed playoff system; Will we beat our biggest rivals? Can we upset the best teams? Can we bring in new players to help us compete for the title? In the case of football, you never throw out the records and have a "lose and you're done" system whereby unworthy teams win the championship by getting "hot" at the right time; You win a league title by being the best team over the course of the entire season. A great storytelling device in and of itself.
But there is a second, and equally compelling story; The battle against relegation. In most football leagues, the worst three teams in the league are demoted in their entirety to the minor leagues while the three best minor league teams are made into major league teams. With TV contract money, league revenue sharing, etc. on the line, no one wants to be relegated and everyone wants to be promoted. It's the equivalent of say, the Kansas City Royals being sent to the minor leagues and replaced by the Toledo Mud Hens, who would be promoted to Major League Baseball. Now, talk about drama...
How could you fail, as a footballing league, to properly use the game to tell these stories? You do exactly what the MLS did; You create a league where you try to have it both ways. The MLS has a regular season not like a football league, but like the NFL, where teams are placed in "divisions" play a random number of games (playing some teams three or more times, some fewer), in the hopes of making the playoffs and winning their way to the "Super Bowl" of the MLS, The MLS Cup. The problem? With so few teams in the league, almost every team makes the playoffs. And all of the work of the regular season makes no difference because there isn't even the drama of "lose and go home" or home field advantage that you find in the usual playoff system. The league follows a traditional football cup format by playing two games for each match-up; One at home and one away, until the final which is played on a neutral site. Oh, and you eliminate the relegation battle too, so the worst teams continue on and there is no real disincentive to being at the bottom of your "division".
The way in which the MLS has structured the game in this country is a turn off to both football fans and regular sports fans; The regular season games don't lead toward a league title (angering football fans) and the playoffs follow a traditional footballing Cup competition structure, alienating a casual observer who, for example, likes the World Cup because of the "lose and go home" drama of the knock-out rounds or watches the playoffs to see the drama of the chase for a title. In each phase of the season, the MLS has a chance to tell a compelling story to sports fans; They could have both a league Cup competition and also a traditional League Championship, single table structure where teams play each other once at home and once away and the best record wins the league. Instead, the league has forsaken both options and, in my opinion, undermined the inherent storytelling ability of a football season in the process.
Enter David Beckham. All the glitz, all the glamor and all of the best free kick goals in the world will only serve as an exhibition of a tremendously gifted player unless the MLS builds a sound football league in this country; The quality of play and players aside, what the MLS needs more than David Beckham is a sense of meaning and purpose to the game in this country. The game has built-in rivalries (DC United vs NY Red Bulls, Chivas USA vs LA Galaxy, Houston vs Dallas, etc.), but needs a way to tell the story of those rivalries in a sports journalism environment dominated by "personalities" (LeBron, Tiger, Peyton, Bonds etc.). It needs stories not about individual players and their abilities, but about feuds and meaningful victories, heartbreaking losses and fans dislike for other teams, etc. In fact, what football in America needs more than anything else is for fans to turn out and watch their local MLS sides be tormented by David Beckham, to inspire fans to want to see him lose the game, and to support their local club with more passion than any paparazzi cameraman could ever inspire. But we have to cheer against Beckham for the right reasons; We have to cheer against Beckham because we want our own team to triumph. We have to care about club football in America.
And I want to, because I love the game and I can't take anymore of my countrymen running it down.
My rationale for the growth of the game, to use Beckham's arrival as an impetus to restructure the league and inspire passion through rancor in fans around the country, is not the same as that of the ignoramus American sportswriter. You know the type; Jaded know-it-all bastard xenophobe at a newspaper who was raised on baseball but was never good enough to play it and who takes pleasure in ripping apart soccer as feminine, "less democratic" (because you can't use your hands) and "unAmerican". Let's take a look at some of these dunderheaded quotes to see what the mainstream media is saying and what football is up against in this country, shall we?
"There's really a lack of proficiency in the game. God didn't intend for us to use our feet and our heads. Though what soccer players do with their feet and their heads is extraordinary, it is in the same way that spinning plates is extraordinary. That's simply un-American. We're all about forward, forward, forward, in sports and in our society. From the 19th century onward, we have not taken to soccer. It's almost as if it's not in our DNA to like it. Ultimately, the reason that we don't care about soccer is that it is un-American. It's somebody else's way of life. So most American kids abandon interest in the game when they realize it's not consistent with what they are finding out about Americanism. The same with immigrants and their children--as soon as they discover more appealing games that reflect American spirit, American values. It's really very simple why most of us non-socialistic Americans will forever reject soccer."
-- Frank DeFord, Sports Illustrated and NPR commentator
"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. The 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, and the NBA..."
-- Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN
"We have our own football, you see. And it is not spelled futbol. 'He will make the sport popular and vibrant in this country,' MLS commissioner Don Garber said. Please. America is America, Europe is Europe, and it's senseless to pound Becks and his sport into our consciousness when similar attempts to pound Peyton Manning and the NFL or Roger Clemens and baseball into the Eurosphere also would be met with lukewarm skepticism. I might be more curious about Beckham's arrival if they weren't insulting our intelligence with absurdly extravagant comparisons. When asked if he is on the magnitude level of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods in this land, Alexi Lalas, general manager of a Los Angeles Galaxy team that will facilitate Beckham's metrosexual tour, responded with an answer that suggests he needs a lobotomy. 'He's as big as all of them -- and many of them put together,' Lalas said. As big as MJ? Yeah, right... At least he'll have our attention until Lindsay Lohan's next rehab visit. After that, I'm making no promises."
Huge Twat erm, Chicago-Sun Times, ESPN
The haters will use his celebrity to undermine his athletic prowess, and it is Beckham's quality as a player that is the key to reshaping the game in this country. Sure, Beckham has been a camera's best friend for years but he has the game to back up the good looks. By running down the man and his abilities without understanding the game, without allowing him to kick a ball before passing judgment, the American sports media has latched on to the sport like a pitbull and intend to sacrifice Beckham on the mantle of their own ignorance.
Serious Business: Beckham The Brand Is Built Upon Beckham The Player
Herein lies the true heart of the Beckham dilemma; We need Beckham to be great. We need to love him for being in America and cheer against him because we have to. And we need to build off of his greatness and revolutionize the league and the game around his personality, but not as a star we love and embrace necessarily, but instead as a player with whom we go to see our own teams do battle. I have my tickets for the Red Bulls vs LA Galaxy game on August 18 for this very reason; I want to see LA and Beckham lose to my team, not because I want it proven Beckham is overrated, but because I support my team. I want the league to grow, to develop the drama of a true football league, and the only way to have that happen to get players of Beckham's quality in here and make the matches matter. He is one of the best, and I can't wait until he leaves New York a loser, but I wouldn't want it any other way; To be the best, you need to beat the best. The only way to build the game is to build the passion and David Beckham is the perfect man for the job.