I couldn’t hope to get close to Gary’s knowledge of non-league football, so I’m going to look at the exact opposite end of the spectrum: the artificially-created marketing-intensive world of Major League Soccer.
With the new MLS season just weeks away now, David Beckham has dragged it into the consciousness of the European football fan by putting in several good shifts on loan at San Siro, and announcing his wish to stay at AC Milan past the end of his loan spell.
Loyalty is a trait lacking in many footballers today, and it is an issue which permeates the game from the very top to the point at which fifty quid a game is viewed as life-changing.
So what is Beckham up to, and how does it compare to a couple of MLS colleagues who’ve also had decisions to make over their futures?
Beckham’s media campaign
After immense success with Manchester United, Leytonstone-born Beckham became subject to huge speculation about his future in the summer of 2003. Barcelona, AC Milan and Real Madrid were all reportedly vying for the midfielder’s signature in what was sure to be a big-money move. Beckham wound up at the Bernabeu, the last of the Galacticos, for a fee in the region of £25m.
Four years later – after signing a deal with Major League Soccer, being dropped by coach Fabio Capello and then winning him over with his professionalism – Beckham was on the move again, this time to the United States and Los Angeles Galaxy. His transfer was much-criticised in England because it was deemed to show a lack of ambition and a focus on football legacy, leaving a mark and, of course, money. Bluntly put, it was effectively seen as Beckham’s retirement from competitive football.
Predictably, Beckham’s famed love of his country eventually got the better of him, and he began touting for a move to Europe in the Major League Soccer off-season in order to remain in the thoughts of Capello, now England manager. Appropriately enough it was Capello’s former club AC Milan which agreed to take the 33-year-old on a short-term loan, due to end in early March for the beginning of the new MLS season. But Beckham’s early performances for the Rossoneri convinced him – and Carlo Ancellotti, the Milan boss – that he is still capable of playing at the highest level. And, with players like Clarence Seedorf, Kaka, Alexandre Pato and Ronaldinho around him, he’s right.
Everybody knew Beckham wanted to stay at San Siro, but it was not until an interview with SKY Sports in Glasgow that Beckham made his wishes and intentions public. But while Beckham’s fans in the UK public and press – and, of course, in Italy – have been largely behind Beckham’s now-doomed permanent move to San Siro, the atmosphere in the United States’ little corner of the blogosphere has been far more negative.
Beckham’s tactics have been heavily criticised. The former England captain had kept quiet about the widely-accepted possibility of staying in Milan until announcing his wishes on a trip to Glasgow, where Milan played a friendly against Rangers.
His loyalty has been called into question, probably for the first time in his career. Beckham, Pepsi ads and pop star wife notwithstanding, has long been nothing but a consummate professional. But he signed a contract with MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy, and many MLS bloggers believe he has put in place a media machine to force the Galaxy to sell him.
“Over the past ten days numerous stories with no factual basis whatsoever have appeared in the Italian and English press. These stories were wholly inaccurate and served a purpose of making Milan appear to be closer to signing David Beckham that they actually have been.
“My suspicion is that these stories were not planted by AC Milan but in fact by Beckham and his handlers in an effort to put the Galaxy on the defensive and force a quick resolution to the matter. It’s no coincidence many of these stories have appeared in British media outlets.”
Of course, we’re now told by the Galaxy that they have had no contact from AC Milan and Adriano Galliani since a “ridiculous” bid of £2.1m. In other words, the deal is dead. Galliani has been very clear about Milan’s refusal to increase their bid.
Landon’s in Europe too
Another LA Galaxy star currently plying his trade in Europe is Landon Donovan, playing out an off-season loan spell at Bayern Munich. A former trainee at Bayer Leverkusen, Donovan has been open with the Galaxy about his ambitions, believing (correctly, in my opinion) that he is good enough for Europe.
Donovan’s spell with Bayer Leverkusen gave the California youngster a taste for German and European football, and it came as no surprise that the 26-year-old wound up back in Germany this winter. He played out much of his Leverkusen time at San Jose Earthquakes, where his excellent goal record was similar to the rate he’s achieved with the Galaxy. Donovan’s reputation is global. From what I’ve seen, many European football fans think he’d have succeeded in Europe. However, few seem to realise that he’s still plenty young enough to do so.
Like Beckham, Donovan isn’t going to get his permanent move at this time, but it’s his approach which contrasts with Beckham’s.
He has reportedly made no secret in Los Angeles of his desire to try his luck in Germany once more, but has remained professional throughout. When Beckham returns to the Galaxy, I expect him to do the same – but his duplicitous approach to engineering a move will not have endeared him to fans of the Californian club.
I’d rather be in Landon’s boots than Beckham’s when the pair step out at the Home Depot Center in the new MLS season.
There’s only Juan Pablo Angel
Beckham and Donovan are both still easily good enough to play in Europe. So too, probably, is Juan Pablo Angel, and another comparison drawn in the States is that between Beckham’s fidgeting and Angel’s new contract with New York Red Bull.
Angel is such a gentleman and has such a magical football brain that he has an army of worshippers lamenting his departure from everywhere he’s been. The Colombian was a vital cog in a phenomenal River Plate attacking machine, leaving in 2001 as Aston Villa smashed their transfer record to bring the Boy from Medellin to the Premier League.
He took a while to settle due to unfortunate family circumstances, but was immensely popular because he always gave everything he had for the fans who considered themselves a catalyst to his protracted purchase.
Angel scored a lot of goals for Villa, many of them simply astounding, and showed that he has a football brain few can match. Just one problem – he was a good yard too slow to succeed in a poor side in the Premier League. Ironically, many Villa fans believe he’d thrive at Villa with James Milner and Ashley Young providing the ammunition. In the right circumstances, the man’s a goal machine. Trouble is, genius isn’t circumstantial.
Not counting shirt sales, Angel has undoubtedly contributed more to MLS and, despite still having plenty of goals in him, the former Aston Villa striker had no intention of leaving New York and recently signed a lengthy contract extension.
No wonder he’s more popular than Beckham.
The reaction of the MLS bloggers and supporters to Beckham, Donovan and Angel shows that loyalty, honesty and respect can go a long way in football. Angel is revered and Donovan respected (despite harbouring dreams of Germany), while David Beckham is criticised for being just that little bit too cunning about the whole thing.
Nobody hates players just for being ambitious. That’s the right way to play a career, if the player’s goals are high. But there are ways of doing it, and that’s something the likes of Beckham and Gareth Barry would do well to learn.