Beckham to Milan, Venus to the Eighth House
by Brian Phillips · October 31, 2008
Is celebrity a net asset or a net liability to a football club? If you leave out his fame and the madnesses it instigates, David Beckham’s loan move to Milan can only be seen as a smart one for the club. Bringing in an experienced, hard-working, technically gifted player on a cheap loan for the cup- and league-heavy middle months of the season is sound policy, and even granting that there’s no obvious place for Beckham in Milan’s current lineup and that he’s at least a year past his best, it’s still easy to imagine how he might be a small but meaningful help to the team.
In training, he sets a good example. Coming off the bench, he’s at the very least an improvement over Emerson, no matter how much he’s declined. In late-game, all-out-attack situations in which he’s not required to track back, his crossing is a threat, and he makes any late free kick more interesting. Pretend you’re Adriano Galliani (or don’t, if it’s outside your comfort zone). Given the opportunity to nab a player like that for free, why wouldn’t you take it?
The only possible reason is…well, here it comes now, rumbling over the horizon in a convoy of identical black Lincoln Navigators with custom chrome styling and a trailing squadron of paparazzi motorbikes. David Beckham isn’t “a player like this,” he’s David Beckham, and wherever he goes is a circus. “Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell,” Satan says in Paradise Lost, and it’s true of Beckham, too, presuming that hell is, as I’ve always believed it to be, a vaguely defined “media event” in which swarms of photographers and hysterical autograph-seekers incomprehensibly surround a coolly smirking man in a linen jacket.
The effect of this phenomenon extends beyond its potentially distracting effect on an impressionable Alexandre Pato. Beckham’s mere presence in a squad is a major leading indicator of Galactico syndrome, and it threatens, in some indefinable way, to change the identity of this Milan team from “collection of aging superstars with a few bright young talents” to “Kaka plus a vanity team of shirt-pushing near-retirees that would have been awesome in 2003.” Somehow the ancillary materialization of Posh at designer boutiques in the given locality—a tendency that won’t be any better in Milan than in L.A.—curdles the whole enterprise into a joke, which is why Beckham seems to move from club to club these days like the sound wave that carries the punchline.
But do those sorts of external cultural impressions matter, if he can actually contribute on the pitch? I think they do, again not because the lifestyle antics of the Beckham household will have any effect on the squad as a whole—it’s not as if Ronaldinho is a stranger to media attention—but because the cloud of expectation around Beckham seems to asphyxiate his managers’ common sense. With the Galaxy, he was made the center of the squad and the focal point of the attack despite having a game that was always more suited to a kind of stealth supporting role. (Even at his peak, building a team around Beckham was like building an army around submarines.) Every indication from Milan, from Ancelotti’s statements to Galliani’s statements to Berlusconi’s bizarre attempt to make Victoria Beckham Italy’s highest-paid television star, suggests that they, too, intend to sail beyond the sunset when it comes to showcasing a player who should be a contributing substitute in order to fill the seats with club-shop-scenting bodies. And that won’t work, as good as I think Beckham can still be.
The problem, as it always is with Beckham, is that his celebrity will always be out of scale with his ability as a footballer, which causes knowledgeable fans to underrate him as a footballer out of disgust and club owners to overrate him as a footballer out of respect for laser bar-code readers. If Milan could use him according to his abilities he might help them win a few games, but the ease of calculating $79.99 will probably make it hard for them to see what those abilities are, and that is why, in today’s installment at least, celebrity is a net liability for football clubs.
Of course, Milan may see a profit out of the whole thing, which may be all they care about during their Europa Cup season, so who knows. In any case, Beckham will be a clear winner, as every hour he spends training in Italy will make it incrementally more likely that he’ll realize his driving ambition to be brought on in the the eighty-seventh minute of an England game.
And it seems as if MLS and the Galaxy will be clear losers, unless the vague “partnership” they’ve announced with Milan gives them a stake in keychain sales. They’re talking very tough about “MLS’s terms” and “final approval,” but what are they going to do if Beckham and Milan decide to make things permanent? It’s very hard to believe that they’d let their marquee player toil away in public misery during the final years of his career rather than let him out of his contract. “Come See David Beckham Suffer” only works as a marketing appeal if you believe people won’t get past the first four words before their eyes glaze over with excitement.
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