How Beckham Blew It
When he came to L.A., David Beckham was supposed to push MLS to new heights
Instead he failed as a leader and alienated his most important teammate
In his forthcoming book, Grant Wahl goes inside the failed Beckham experiment
This article appears in the July 6, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
Reprinted from The Beckham Experiment, by Grant Wahl. Copyright © 2009 by Grant Wahl. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.
After his five-month loan to Italian superclub AC Milan, David Beckham is expected back with the Los Angeles Galaxy and scheduled to play on July 16 against the New York Red Bulls at Giants Stadium. But when he takes the field the mood will be far less giddy than the one that heralded his arrival in the U.S. in 2007. In Beckham's two years with the Galaxy he has successfully sold jerseys and served as celebrity eye candy, but the soccer story has been an epic disaster, from his injury-plagued season in '07 through a loss-filled campaign in '08.
Beckham's side made sure he became team captain, and later they engaged in a behind-the-scenes takeover of Galaxy management. Yet L.A. failed to reach the MLS playoffs both years. By the end of the '08 season Beckham was barely speaking to his teammate Landon Donovan, MLS's leading scorer, who questioned the Englishman's commitment to the team.
The Beckham Experiment is a story of worlds colliding, bringing together the planet's most famous athlete with teammates who earned as little as $12,900 a year. But that inequity was only the start of a downward spiral that, on the eve of Beckham's return, has turned into a soccer fiasco.
The summit meeting took place at Mastro's, a high-class steak house in Beverly Hills. On July 25, 2007 -- three days after their welcome-to-Hollywood party, hosted by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith -- David and Victoria Beckham joined Landon Donovan and his wife, Bianca Kajlich, for a get-to-know-you meal. At the Home Depot Center, 10-foot-high profiles of Beckham and Donovan stared at each other from huge banners. Now, for the first time, the team's two biggest stars were facing each other across the dinner table.
Nearly anywhere else in the world, Donovan's achievements would have made him a household name, a fixture on the covers of sports magazines and (considering that his wife starred in the CBS sitcom Rules of Engagement) celebrity rags. As a 20-year-old at the 2002 World Cup he had scored the goal that sealed the most important victory in U.S. men's soccer history, a 2-0 second-round defeat of archrival Mexico. Now 25, Donovan had won three MLS titles and been voted the national team's player of the year a record three times. Yet it was his fate -- equal parts fortune and misfortune -- to have been born in the U.S. Which is to say that the three dozen paparazzi outside Mastro's were not there for him.
Beckham was supplanting Donovan as the main attraction in U.S. soccer, and if MLS's Beckham Experiment was to work, Donovan needed to be happy. Beckham knew it. So did Frank Yallop, the team's mild-mannered coach, who had left nothing to chance. Yallop put Beckham's locker next to Donovan's, the better to encourage their interaction, and the coach had arranged this dinner, bringing along his own wife, Karen, in the hope that there would be less pressure on the two couples if it were a table for six.
As the wives chatted among themselves and Yallop got the conversation going among the men by asking Beckham about his playing days in Europe, Donovan recalled two exchanges that had taken place just the week before. On successive days he had met with Yallop and Galaxy president and general manager Alexi Lalas, and each had told him that "people above me" -- meaning Tim Leiweke, CEO of AEG, which owned the Galaxy -- thought Beckham should be the team captain. Both men tried to sugarcoat the blow. "I don't really look at who has the armband," Yallop told Donovan. "You're a leader to me, a great player. It would just be great if you could have a relationship with David and you pass it on to him." Lalas, for his part, issued Donovan a challenge: "Let him be the captain; you be the star."
What they didn't tell Donovan was that the request that he give up his captaincy had originated not with Leiweke but with Beckham's camp. The topic had come up when Lalas and Yallop visited Beckham and Terry Byrne, Beckham's best friend and personal manager, in Madrid the previous spring. After a lunch at Beckham's house, the host stayed inside as Byrne walked Lalas and Yallop onto the porch. "What are you doing about the captaincy?" asked Byrne, who felt that Beckham should wear the armband as soon as he joined the team. Neither Lalas nor Yallop felt comfortable deciding right then, so the men agreed to table the idea. But in subsequent months, Lalas says, Byrne made his best friend's wishes explicit more than once to Lalas and Leiweke. (Beckham declined to comment on this or any other issue in this story. Sources close to Beckham confirmed that Byrne had brought up the captaincy, but only in Madrid, and denied that the request had come from Beckham himself.)
Donovan's first thought about his bosses' request? That's pretty s-----. He didn't have a problem with someone else being captain, least of all a player with Beckham's credentials, but he did have an acute sense of being disrespected. So he decided not to act immediately. Lalas and Yallop might sweat, but before he'd consider surrendering the armband Donovan wanted to get to know Beckham. That night at Mastro's, over thick steaks and fine red wine, was his first chance.
Donovan gave up the captaincy three weeks later. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he had only two options. He could dig in his heels, force Yallop to make the change himself and create tension with Beckham in the locker room. Or he could accept that he was boxed into a corner, give up the armband and hear public praise from Beckham and Yallop for his selfless act for the good of the team. Of course, nobody -- including Donovan -- would tell the media the real story behind the change.
Meanwhile, Beckham made an effort to fit in, and on his first MLS road trip he endured an only-in-America experience. After his first training session with the Galaxy, in Washington two days before a nationally televised game against D.C. United, he helped organize a dinner with 10 other players at Morton's steak house in Arlington, Va. Beckham had enjoyed the players-only meals at Real Madrid, and if he was going to be just one of the lads in the Galaxy locker room, things needed to get off on the right foot. Not long after they took their table, the waiter asked if anyone wanted wine. They all raised their hands.
"O.K.," the waiter said. "I need to see some I.D.'s."
"I don't have my I.D. with me," Beckham said.
"No I.D., no wine!" the waiter announced, theatrically snatching Beckham's wineglass.
Beckham thought it was a put-on. "Is this guy taking the piss?" he asked. But the waiter was serious. When the Galaxy's Portuguese defender Abel Xavier couldn't produce an I.D., his wineglass disappeared too. "What is this?" the 34-year-old Xavier thundered. "I have a kid who can drink." The other players laughed hysterically, partly because the waiter hadn't recognized the world's most famous athlete and partly because Beckham and Xavier were so used to being mobbed in Europe that they didn't bother carrying identification. Welcome to soccer in the U.S., guys.