The news that David Beckham, the country's most famous sports star, is to end his career playing soccer in Los Angeles has caused Britain to splutter into its collective cup of tea.
Angelenos may have heard of Beckham, if only because he married the artist formerly known as Posh Spice — Victoria Beckham — who remains a staple of the British celebrity gossip industry. David, though, is known as an international object of desire for Japanese schoolgirls as much as for his sublime football skills. Those skills might be on the wane, but he retains the aura of a global phenomenon, known as Beckhamania.
In Britain, the general reaction is disbelief. David Beckham? Moving to a country where football is played in helmets?
The British persist in believing that Americans care little about the world's most popular sport. My newspaper, the Guardian, once published a parody of U.S. sports commentary that ran like this: "Two soccer points to no score! Eddie Lewis makes a cross-pitch play from the left zone, finding Landon Donovan alone in the danger area. He top-bodies the sphere into the score bag, and Mexico have a double-negative stat!" A commentator on the BBC thought it was real, however, and read it out live on air as amusing evidence of American illiteracy.
I suspect that Beckham, well versed in celebrity lifestyle, will feel at home in Los Angeles. After all, he's already had a movie named after him, "Bend It Like Beckham" (2004). The movie's stars, Keira Knightley and Parminder Nagra, went on to greater things ("Pirates of the Caribbean" for Knightley, "ER" for Nagra). Now Beckham is joining them in Hollywood.
And why not? Either he moves to California for the eye-watering $250-million, five-year contract being offered by the Los Angeles Galaxy — money only a hedge fund manager would sniff at — or he could return to Britain to a team in, say, Bolton. For various reasons — the threat of physical violence, mainly — I don't want to say much about Bolton. It's like Detroit but without the cutting-edge glamour and vibrant economy.
In any case, the Beckham phenomenon has long ceased being about football. At 31, he still has a few good years left on the field. But mostly there's his post-playing career to think of. He's undeniably handsome, has an exotic accent (to American ears) and is smart enough to avoid punch-ups outside the Viper Room. His PR talents are such that in a few years he will simply be famous for being famous.
So, ignoring the "Sunset Boulevard" angle of the fading star looking for one last close-up, Beckham's move is a win-win. Major League Soccer gets one of the game's biggest names — one that could expand the sport's appeal beyond its Latino base. Beckham gets a wheelbarrow full of cash and an unconquered media market.
Beckham's arrival also marks a significant change in the MLS' policy of developing young talent and keeping a tight rein on spending, aimed at avoiding the boom and bust of the New York Cosmos in 1970s — the team that hired Pele to promote soccer here. Last year the league changed the rules, allowing each franchise to bust the salary cap for a single star. At the time, the change was nicknamed "the Beckham rule."
The team salary cap is $1.9 million. Beckham's $50 million a season, in comparison, reveals how deep the pockets of soccer's U.S. backers now are — a thought to wipe the smile off the faces of British fans.