BILL SHANKLY, the late, great manager of Liverpool Football Club, once said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death; I am very much disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
That quote encapsulates what the Beautiful Game means to many Englishmen, and what it will never mean to most Americans … no matter how much David Beckham bends it.
For starters, it’s Association Football, NOT soccer, or should I say sokkah. It’s played in late autumn, early spring and the depths of winter. And it’s played on grass.
In many countries throughout the world, football is the national sport. In some, notably England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Argentina and Brazil, it’s a religion.
Manchester United v Manchester City, Liverpool v Everton, Celtic v Rangers, Barcelona v Real Madrid, Lazio v Roma, Boca Juniors v River Plate, Palmeiras v Corinthians. Some fans would rather miss a birth, death or marriage than their local derby.
That will never be the case in the United States of America. Not unless they ban baseball, American Football, basketball and ice hockey.
Those are the sports that attract the best athletes; the sports that take kids off the streets and turn them into superstars.
Major League Soccer hardly gets a look in with the media. Unless, of course, the story involves David Beckham.
Beckham’s announcement in January 2007 that he would be leaving Real Madrid to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy briefly put sokkah on the front pages.
But can Beckham succeed where Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and the 1994 FIFA World Cup (staged in the United States, in case you forgot) failed; namely making sokkah a mainstream sport?
Crowds rise by 9% at MLS matches
According to his profile on 60 Minutes last Sunday (March 23), Beckham’s arrival in LA has already led to an increase of 9% in attendances at MLS games, which are watched by an average crowd of 17,000. More than 300,000 Beckham shirts have already been sold in the U.S.
All this after the “one-man brand” played only five games for the Galaxy last season due to a persistent ankle injury.
With Beckham back in Fabio Capello’s England squad, the omens are better for the new MLS season, which kicks off on Saturday (March 29).
Beckham has never been and never will be Pele. He doesn’t glide past players like the great Brazilian. His game is more about precise passing and set plays. There is no better striker of a dead ball; hence the film title “Bend it Like Beckham.”
Some see the U.S. as a retirement home at the end of Beckham’s career. The Londoner, 33 on May 2, scoffs at such a notion. He describes his arrival in the States as a “challenge” and believes it will “take five, ten years to grow the game.”
Personally, I’ve always admired David Beckham. He shoots from the hip. And like Pele, he’s a great ambassador and ideal role model for kids.
His marriage to Victoria Adams, a.k.a Posh Spice, turned him from serious footballer to celebrity. Yet in spite of the media circus that now surrounds him, for the most part he has managed to maintain his credibility.
I wish him well with his venture. Sokkah will always have a following among the Hispanics and expats. But the day it becomes the No. 1 sport in the USA is the day I win American Idol, the brainchild of Beckham’s manager, Simon Fuller … and I’m tone deaf.