'The Beckham Experiment' by Grant Wahl

'The Beckham Experiment' by Grant Wahl
David Beckham hasn't quite been the rainmaker for U.S. professional soccer that the L.A. Galaxy wanted. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
You have to give soccer star David Beckham this: His contributions to the Los Angeles Galaxy on the pitch may be negligible, but he's always good for a headline in what so often seems like the Rodney Dangerfield of professional American sports.

This week, there's been coast-to-coast publicity over Beckham's return to L.A. from Italy, where he's spent five months playing for AC Milan. In the meantime, his teammate, Landon Donovan -- America's leading native-born player -- had given an interview in which he accused the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star and British national captain of giving up on the Galaxy and not giving anything like his best effort or attention. Donovan's criticisms are contained in a book published this week -- Grant Wahl's "The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America" -- and the two reportedly have had words over the comments and patched up their differences . . . reportedly.

Like everything else said about Beckham, who signed with the Galaxy in 2007, it has to be taken with a shaker of salt, as this sometimes annoying, but far more frequently shrewd, compelling book demonstrates. Beckham's foray into the United States was engineered by entertainment conglomerate AEG, which owns the Galaxy, and from the start the English football icon's tenure has been a story of disappointment, miscalculation, manipulation and disaster -- at least on the field, which is sort of Donovan's complaint. Beckham arrived with a first-class air cabin full of advisors, including the manager who'd created both his wife Victoria's career with the Spice Girls and "American Idol."

In essence, "The Beckham Experiment" is a detailed, carefully reported account of the carnage that occurred when the international entertainment industry's culture of celebrity collided with the essentially blue-collar ambience of American soccer.

English-language sportswriting traces its origins to William Hazlitt's 1822 article "The Fight." Hazlitt was his era's most illustrious philosopher, critic and man of letters, and his revolutionary personal account of watching a bare-knuckles prize fight not only expanded notions of the essay form, but set a high literary bar for the sporting journalism that followed. For all the clichés and hack work the sporting press since has churned out, it's remarkable how many sportswriters in succeeding generations have -- to gloss the bare-knuckle boxing phrase -- come up to literary scratch.

Wahl, 34, is a senior writer and 12-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, a historic venue for literate American sportswriting, so one brings certain expectations to "The Beckham Experiment." They're met -- in part. One of the unfortunate attributes of a good deal of our contemporary magazine journalism is the staccato salesmanship that has infiltrated the prose. This book's early chapters suffer from that defect; too much of the opening reads like an extended pitch. Wahl seems to feel that a significant point is worth making repeatedly.

Perhaps it's that same habitual selling mode that allows for Wahl's slips into self-promotion, such as multiple acts of self-congratulation for the "open-minded" character of his early stories on Beckham and for SI's rather routine refusal to give the athlete's handlers the right to approve its stories and photos. At the same time, there's a certain lack of generosity toward colleagues; the sporting press generally is faulted for its gullibility concerning the actual size of Beckham's five-year contract (the original $250 million included jersey royalties and other potential incentives -- actual salary: $6.5 million per season) and Wahl singles out The Times' Bill Plaschke and T.J. Simers for their negative comments on the signing (based on the author's own work, both columnists seem rather prescient).

Still, it's worth making one's way through the book's unnecessarily histrionic, occasionally irritating early going, because when Wahl relaxes into his material, his superb reportorial strengths come to the fore. He has a remarkable ability to win the confidence of knowledgeable sources -- and, better yet, to get them on the record -- as well as a telling eye for personal traits and biographical detail. Wahl seems at his very best when he allows his love for this game to come through and when he describes Beckham in action on the pitch (as in the memorable match in which he scored his first Galaxy goal). Then, the prose soars in a way that reminds you of that synchronous, ineffable joy that binds a gifted athlete and a knowledgeable spectator in the triumphant moment's transcendent communion.

Wahl has a particularly good eye for the social and economic distinctions that made Beckham's integration into the Galaxy so problematic. He arrived as the world's most recognizable sports celebrity and a certifiable jet-set fashion icon. He joined a team more than half of whose roster makes less than $100,000 per season, with some players making as little as $12,000. These are guys who still live with their parents, share fleabag apartments with teammates, live on takeout fast food and, in some cases, even have second jobs. Until Beckham arrived and demanded a charter aircraft and decent hotels, they flew commercial and coach, collected a $45-a-day per diem on the road and stayed in third-rate lodgings. They played for pride and love of the game.

Donovan, the team's then-captain and the U.S. national star, makes $900,000 and, from the start -- as Wahl skillfully shows -- was on a collision course with Beckham, not least because he'd been asked to surrender his treasured captaincy to a guy who'd never played a match for the club. Wahl reconstructs a dinner Beckham, Donovan and their wives had at Mastro's Steakhouse in Beverly Hills and uses it to sketch the remarkable similarities between the two athletes. Both essentially were raised by mothers in straitened lower-middle-class homes; both had distant fathers and sought older male substitutes throughout their careers; both are handsome with an interest in fashion; and the strongest influence on both are iron-willed wives with show business careers. The difference between them, however, isn't simply economic. Beckham had proved himself in the crucible of first-rank European soccer -- starring with three of the world's greatest clubs -- and, by this season, Donovan had twice failed to find a place on leading German teams.

The Galaxy and American soccer are an interesting and lucrative opportunity for Beckham; for Donovan they're the pillars of an identity-creating career. The notion that conflict wouldn't ultimately erupt between them is the wishful thinking of somebody who doesn't know really competitive athletes or team sports firsthand.

That brings us to Wahl's fascinating portrait of AEG honcho Tim Leiweke, architect of the Beckham experiment and one of the sources to whom the author seems to have won exceptional access. Clearly Leiweke's intentions for American professional soccer have been the best, but the application of what, essentially, is the unadulterated culture of the entertainment industry to the complex chemistry of a sports team may be the Beckham experiment's biggest failure. First AEG tried to graft an international star and his whole branching celebrity establishment onto the wood of a club that simply wasn't strong enough to bear the weight. When the team began to crumble, he handed it over to the star and his handlers to run and, when that inevitably failed, grabbed it back, creating a disgruntled, dysfunctional mess where there'd merely been a gutsy, struggling franchise in want of a little attention-grabbing glitz.

The ultimate lesson here is that, while mediocre professional sports teams may be good for big entertainment companies' bottom lines, those companies and their values have nothing to contribute to what's really magical in sports.