David Beckham is an aging athlete who plays a game that Americans don’t care about and is married to some bird of no talent and even less brain who used to be a pop star. They are Brits and they have come over here to expectations of the kind that accompanied General Burgoyne back in 1777. But things didn’t work out so well for Gentleman Johnny. American troops, hiding in ambush and using Kentucky long rifles, repeatedly shot his officers out of the saddle — which the Brits thought exceedingly unsporting — and eventually forced him to surrender his whole army at Saratoga. It was the battle that won the Revolution. But for some reason, the Brits keep coming back, trying to conquer America. One difference: Where once upon a time, they wore red coats, they now wear nothing but tattoos. No matter.
The Brits have nothing to tell America about either sports or rock. We’ve got Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Michael Jordan . . . and on and on. They have . . . David Beckham, who plays soccer. Soccer. As for rock . . . everything the Brits know, they learned from Chuck Berry.
Still, the great engine of celebrity promotion is running at full throttle. Pictures of the Beckhams are everywhere. In some, they are even wearing clothes. Mr. Beckham is supposed to do what the great Pelé, before him, could not. That is, get Americans excited about soccer as a spectator sport. Most likely the theory breaks down into two components: First, Americans have an insatiable appetite for sports, ergo they will tumble to soccer which the rest of the world adores. And, second, Americans cannot resist the lure of celebrity any more than a junkie can decline a fix.
I can’t speak to the celebrity-octane rating of the Beckham phenomenon. I’ve never seen American Idol and would rather be drenched in molasses and tied down on an anthill than do so. But that’s just me.
On the other hand, I can pass for a sports fan. An American sports fan. I wrote a book, once upon a time, about the Alabama/Auburn football rivalry. I’ve been to a NASCAR race and seen Manny Ramirez put one over the Green Monster. I can handle myself in debate about man-to-man vs. zone coverage. And I wouldn’t go to a soccer game if you paid me. Not even if David Beckham were playing — in or out of his clothes.
One can make all the arguments for the game — the athleticism of the players, the intricacy of the play, etc. — but that dog will never hunt. My theory is that the superficial resemblance to real football simply ruins it for Americans. No blindside hits on the quarterback. No collision of 300-pounders at the line of scrimmage. No middle linebackers with fire coming out of their nostrils. Might as well pay money to watch kids playing tag. Many soccer advocates are nothing more, really, than football haters who hope to turn Americans against what they think of as a too-violent, militaristic sport. They really do miss the point on that one. Recalls what someone once wrote about the people who try to keep their boys from playing with toy soldiers. Toy peace negotiators don’t quite make it as a substitute.
There is plenty of violence associated with soccer, of course; it’s just that the fans are the ones doing the violence. Could be that American football — real football — is cathartic. Who knows? Or cares?
Soccer may collect a few scraps from the table of American sports. There are fans who will watch anything where they keep score. And the Beckhams’ celebrity may draw a few people to a few stadiums. (Though one suspects it will be better for the sale of magazines than box seats.) But celebrity these days has a pretty short half-life. It won’t be long before the Beckham phenomenon is deader than Diana. Meanwhile, Auburn/Alabama, Red/Sox Yankees, Carolina/Duke . . . these things — these American things — will endure.
– Geoffrey Norman is editor of www.vermonttiger.com.