By Michael Wilbon
Friday, August 10, 2007
Just because something hasn't happened recently doesn't mean it never happened. Hardly anything is truly new. Most things, even in this day of global branding and genius marketing strategies, have been tried at least once. And that includes bringing aging international stars to boost interest in soccer in America.
Don't get me wrong, the excitement David Beckham's presence created last night in Washington was irresistible. From the camera flashes that popped in the 36th minute when he stood and began to warm up behind the visitors' bench you'd have thought Barry Bonds was in the house trying to hit 756. Beckham, with or without his hottie wife, is a stylish, fabulously handsome world celebrity. He's a star even when he sits, or warms up, or indicates before the game he might play 20 minutes of a 90-minute game. There simply aren't a lot of athletes who can pack the house in D.C. when it's 95 degrees or thereabouts, humidity smothering, rain threatening. Beckham did that last night, put 46,686 fannies in RFK Stadium, which is five grand more than ever watched the Nationals at RFK this season.
And despite the rain, he played. Beckham put on a dry jersey in the 72nd minute, exposing his famously cut abs to the kind of screams reserved for only true superstars, and trotted onto the wet turf. Just seeing him in these first few games is enough. He doesn't have to score, doesn't have to make a great pass, doesn't have to do anything yet except be there so the people who pay to see him can see him. Even he said afterward, "It's not nice to disappoint people who've paid a lot of money to come and see [the game]." And by simply playing he didn't disappoint, though he did nothing heroic or special or even noticeable.
But even if Beckham can become great here, it doesn't mean he's going to lift Major League Soccer to unprecedented heights. Signing Beckham is a huge splash for MLS, a league that has been restrained in its 11-year history. But don't think for a minute that last night was the first time RFK was packed to watch a European star. You've got to be nearly 35 years old to have any real sense of the incomparable Dutch midfielder Johan Cruyff, who played for old Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League in 1980 and '81.
Beckham, in his wildest fantasies, isn't and hasn't ever been the player Cruyff was. Cruyff was Steve Nash. He was on the ball. He owned the ball. You never wanted to take your eyes of Cruyff, even when he was past his prime, which is to say when his days of World Cup heroics were over and he came to the U.S. to help lift soccer in America to new heights.
One year, if memory serves correctly, Cruyff and the Diplomats averaged about 30,000 a game. There was a game in the summer of 1979 -- the Diplomats against the Cosmos of New York -- that put 54,000 people in RFK. The game was televised nationally, on ABC, and soccer heads figured this was the dawning of a new day. New York, Washington, network television, NFL stadium packed to the max -- the NASL had made it. The Cosmos had signed Pele in 1975 to an unthinkable $4.5 million contract for three years. The greatest names in soccer followed. Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, Alberto, Best, Eusebio, Weisweiler, Krol. The Cosmos drew 60,000 or more regularly.
The league was so excited it expanded, unwisely, to 24 teams in 1978.
By 1981 the league had lost 17 franchises.
By 1985 it had shut down.
Beckham, at his very best, wasn't as good as any one of the stars of the NASL.
Of course, not one of those other players had a box-office smash movie named after him either.
But at some point in sports, people are sated only by performance. And Beckham is a mature enough man to know this beyond a reasonable doubt. He acknowledged afterward the crowd's obsession with him.
"It was a great reaction for me, very honoring," he said. "It was a great atmosphere out there. Congratulations to the fans. It was a great atmosphere out there. We filled another stadium, 40-odd thousand stadium, and that's what the sport needs."
There's no need in running from the mission. While Beckham isn't going to make anything close to the $250 million talked about, he's going to make lots of money from the venture, probably tens of millions. And with that, by any definition on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, comes pressure to produce. "Obviously, there's a certain amount of pressure," he said, "because everybody's talking about how I've come to the MLS and not played yet."
True enough, Beckham is going to have to treat his years in MLS the way Michael Jordan treated his entire career in professional basketball and the way Cal Ripken approached all those nights of all those years of major league baseball, which is to say like a Broadway performer who simply cannot miss a night, who never wants to yield to the understudy for any reason. Beckham talked about his ankle being tender and about being hesitant to run and cut the way he would if fit, which is understandable because he's barely played or practiced in eight weeks. But people don't sit in the rain on a sweltering night to see mere human beings. If Beckham is going to lift the profile of an entire sport -- "Make this league and this sport bigger and better in this country," is how he stated the goal -- then he's got to arrive in every city figuring the fans have come to see him and only him. Disappointment leads to skepticism, and professional soccer here has had decades of that.
Giorgio Chinaglia, the former New York Cosmos striker and Italian soccer hero, said the MLS will need 25 Beckhams to achieve what it's seeking to do. But as of now, there's only one and people seem quite content to come out and see him, even in only a cameo role, even in impossible weather, even though he plays on a team with no cachet. The traveling caravan goes to New England on Sunday, then back to Los Angeles on Wednesday, then New York on a Saturday night where if he thinks this was a great reaction he ain't seen nothing yet.