And so, the brilliant and visionary plan Major League Soccer had to make David Beckham its 2008 Comeback Player of the Year has entered its difficult but necessary second phase.
The down time.
|All the David Beckham hype, at least for this MLS season, is gone after this knee injury. (Getty Images)|
When this started, they looked merely short-sighted and unmindful of history, going for the big splash for the sake of the water displacement. Now they look like clumsy wastrels, too, and that's no way to start your morning.
But let's review anyway, just to prove the points made above.
The league announces it is going to go after Beckham, the marquee player for people who don't really follow the international game. They sign him and bandy about a figure of $250 million, which (a) is for more than merely salary and (b) inflated by a good 500 percent. The league gets lots of grand publicity as it becomes MBL -- Major Beckham League, and in honesty, even at 75 percent of zenith, Beckham is still the best (or close enough to the best) player in the league. It's an odd gamble, given soccer's history. But it is the equivalent of a shipwrecked man setting fire to a box of flares: "They'll see us now, damn it."
Along the way, they hype him to the American audience almost relentlessly, which is fine, but they also send Los Angeles Galaxy executive Alexi Lalas out to compare the league too favorably to the English Premiership, thus undermining the product to people who could have given it some objective props for improvement. He was, predictably, laughed back into silence.
And then Beckham hurt his ankle, and that was that. His debut was delayed, then he played, then he sat, then he played too much, re-injured the ankle, then injured the knee while favoring the ankle, and now he's done for the year. Major League Soccer got a few interviews, lots of one-off attention and 198 minutes for its all-in play.
Let's be fair. The injuries fouled the plan, and that couldn't be helped. Bad luck stinks, and the league had all the bad luck it could eat here.
But the Galaxy still forced him into games he would not normally have played because it needed to show him to the audience, and we know this because coach Frank Yallop said as much. He played successive games on different continents, for God's sake, which was portrayed at the time as showing what a gutty competitor Beckham is (which didn't need to be done, since Beckham wasn't exactly a shirker even in his most difficult times at Manchester United), but which in fact only showed what a bunch of reckless yahoos the Galaxy strategists were.
And now the Galaxy and the league have nothing. Less than nothing, really. They spent a lot of money to make a splash, and succeeded. They said they spent five times as much money as they actually will, which failed. They overhyped themselves to a most knowledgeable and cynical group, the English media, which really failed. They had to delay Beckham's debut, which wasn't their fault, then they rushed him back, which was their fault (though understandable), and then they really rushed him back, which was nothing short of threatening the long-term value of the resource.
That last one, in fact, might help the next big name the league wants stay away. Players know when other players are being physically mistreated, even unintentionally, and nobody with an option signs up for that, no matter how much money is on the table. The next splashy signing will be harder to do, will cost more, and will have the player far more acutely aware of his body's limits.
If you need to apportion the ratio, call it 65 percent bad luck, 17.5 percent loose talk and 17.5 percent impatience/recklessness. That doesn't leave much for upside, save a few mild ratings bumps in the games Beckham did play.
So in the end, Beckham the big deal wasn't, and this time it wasn't because the audience was being stubborn or anti-soccer. People were intrigued, but they didn't get what they spent that intrigue on, so they will be necessarily less intrigued next year. After all, you can only make one first impression, and the unfortunate impression Beckham made, through no fault of his own, was that of the man who wasn't there.
That is, until the Comeback Player of the Year ceremony is held on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next October, and Tom Cruise equates it to winning an Oscar. And the tumbleweeds will roll by, unimpeded by star-struck crowds.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.