Beckham and Pele – two different eras, two different challenges


Los Angeles : Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

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Former US president John F. Kennedy's patriotic plea seems tailor-made to adapt for David Beckham's mission statement: Ask not what football can do for me but what I can do for football.

After all, Beckham is coming to the US to save football. Isn't he?

Well, actually, probably not. The perception is that Beckham will do for soccer what Pele could not do and put it right at the heart of sport in the US, says a commentary by John May on the BBC website.

But the Major League Soccer (MLS) that greets Beckham is a far different beast than the North American Soccer League (NASL) that Pele and England striker George Best desperately tried to promote.

Soccer now is far more deeply entrenched in American sport than most people imagine.

Consider a few facts to dispel the myth that US sports fans couldn't care less about soccer:

– The 2006 World Cup final attracted more television viewers than baseball's 2005 World Series pulled in on any single night.

– Soccer is the most popular recreational sport for boys and girls in the US. More young people play it than any other sport.

– The MLS is the 12th most attended top-flight football league in the world.

So, Americans do like soccer and the MLS has tapped into the market, having learnt from the mistakes of the NASL.

The NASL came into existence in 1968 but almost immediately lost its vital TV contract with CBS because of poor ratings.

Any sport wanting to gain a foothold in the US needs a strong TV presence and back then soccer was effectively trying to wean Americans off mom's apple pie to feed them fish and chips.

The New York Cosmos epitomised the NASL's brash razzamatazz style – with Pele as the poster-child, they averaged gates of 40,000 and topped 70,000 in the Meadowlands stadium they shared with the New York Giants, the city grid-iron football franchise.

But elsewhere, the national average was 15,000 and some clubs struggled to pull in 5,000.

Amid spiralling wages, too quick an expansion and young American players with whom the public might have associated being left on the bench, the NASL folded in 1984.

It might have been different had FIFA, the world football governing body, awarded the 1986 World Cup to the US instead of Mexico but, like a firework, the NASL took off, had its moment of glory as it exploded, only to fizzle out.

With that, soccer slipped back into obscurity, kicking around in the novelty emporium of various indoor formats.

In 1986, FIFA rectified its mistake by awarding the 1994 World Cup to the US, with the stipulation that a proper professional league be founded.

The Americans' love of a big event ensured the World Cup would be a success. The problem was always going to be what happened when the show left town.

MLS was formed on Dec 17, 1993, but it took until 1996 for the 10-team league to begin and was a sickly child whose chances of survival looked slim. It was not helped by the US' poor showing at the 1998 World Cup, which only gave fuel to the naysayers and doom-mongers.

A revival came about on the back of committed owners like Lamar Hunt and Phil Anschutz, who through his Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) owns Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo, and the building of soccer-specific stadiums.

Slowly and unassumingly – two qualities not normally found in American sport – a new generation of players developed and the US' romp to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals rekindled interest at just the right time.

The irony was that US players turned their backs on the league that developed them and left for Europe to improve their game.

The MLS structure also started to pay dividends, with teams controlled by the league and shared income and player contracts negotiated by the league keeping costs in check, while making clubs more appealing to owners and investors prepared to pay the $30 million franchise fee.

Crucially, TV is now more interested. Every MLS match this season will be screened live, many of them on cable channels.

Although Sportsweek magazine estimates that since its inception MLS' losses have totalled $350 million, soccer in the US has turned a corner.

Galaxy made a profit in 2003 in its first season at the Home Depot Centre, way before England midfielder Beckham galloped over the horizon from Real Madrid.

Dallas are also in profit and MLS commissioner Don Garber expects all clubs to be profitable by 2010 as more build their own, soccer-specific stadiums.

So at the risk of raining on Beckham's tickertape parade, this Hollywood plotline does not involve our hero riding to the rescue of soccer in the US.

But if he can build on what is already there, he might turn the Little House on the Prairie into a mansion.