Saturday, August 18, 2007

Beckham’s Gift for Glamour and Goals

Published: August 18, 2007

He was born with the gift. Even at 8 or 9, he could thump the ball harder and farther than his friends.

David Beckham’s weary eyes, already burdened with more time zones than he ever encountered in Europe, actually gleamed a bit yesterday when he recalled one ball he drilled as a tyke.

“I scored one from the halfway line,” he volunteered — and this does not seem to be a man who embellishes.

From 50 yards? At 8 or 9? Yes, Beckham nodded solemnly. This mysterious gift was just there, like the rifle arm of a born right fielder like Roberto Clemente or the slap shot of a born right wing like Mike Bossy.

The gift survives to this day, and an entire league is counting on the one individual skill that can produce a goal at any time. His talent produced the aura that had men chanting his name in Harlem yesterday during a youth clinic and tourists lining a Midtown lobby to catch a glimpse of him.

“A bit of glamour and glitz, some people like that,” he said unapologetically during a news conference.

Beckham’s club, the Los Angeles Galaxy, plays the Red Bulls in Giants Stadium this evening. Not many Major League Soccer matches come with this notice: Tickets are going fast, a tribute to Master Beckham.

He is being paid at least $32.5 million over five years, with up to $250 million in incentives. And in his first start for his new team the other night, he drilled one goal from an estimated 28 yards and laid out a perfect pass to set up another in a 2-0 victory against D.C. United.

Let’s be perfectly honest about this: despite the hard core of soccer buffs in America (more of us than one would think following European soccer via the Internet and cable TV), the sport will not grow easily in the United States. It needs some glamour, some glitz, and, oh yes, some goals. David Beckham, 32 years old, formerly of Manchester United and Real Madrid, husband of Posh Spice, is that rarest of players who can make a goal by himself once in a while.

Beckham’s coming to America is not like Babe Ruth’s advancing the home run past its rudimentary stage, but just the possibility of the occasional 30-yard free-kick goal is enough to float a league, give it a buzz, move jerseys, sell tickets.

The other night, the lad who boomed free kicks for the Ridgeway Rovers outside London at the age of 8 or 9 did it in his first start for his new team, after hobbling around for a month with a bad ankle. How many promises are kept that well? Did you ever like that 10-in-1 kitchen tool you bought off a late-night television commercial? Or a used car off a lot?

Beckham actually produced. His free kick in the 26th minute had Beckhamesque spin, swerving into the side netting, untouched by the only two human hands that mattered, those of D.C. United goalkeeper Troy Perkins.

Afterward, Perkins told reporters that he had come up with the amazing strategy of “cheating,” meaning he chose to move in one direction, hoping to guess right.

“I was in a bad spot and he caught me,” Perkins said, adding, “You get a player who can hit a ball to either side and you have to pick a side to make him beat you.”

Well, yes. Been going on for some time now. And Beckham could do it again. Free kicks are awarded in just about every match. Sometimes it is stunning how many players flub their chance into the mezzanine, but Beckham sometimes puts them into the netting. He’s also one of the more brilliant passers with a live ball.

M.L.S., however, is coming to grips with having to share Beckham with England whenever there are international dates on the calendar. On Wednesday, Beckham will be in London, where England plays Germany in what it is called “a friendly.” (“I’m not sure that any match with Germany is a friendly,” Beckham said.)

He had been cashiered off the national roster by the new coach, Steve McClaren, after the 2006 World Cup 13 months ago, but McClaren surveyed his roster and, to his credit, recalled Beckham, apparently not for a farewell tour, either.

Beckham hopes to play for England on Wednesday at the rebuilt Wembley, then fly to Los Angeles for a Galaxy match Thursday, putting him in the same intercontinental mode as the harried traveler in the old Arlo Guthrie song (“Coming in from London, From over the Pole,” although that song was not about soccer).

He never thought he would be recalled, but hopes to play at Euro 2008 next summer and still be in the mix for the 2010 World Cup. His life has turned even more complicated. The prodigy at 8 or 9 still has that gift.



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