Unprecedented storms have battered the UK over the last week or so, and the weather has been a tad unpredictable too! Of course the raging furore to which I refer is the nation’s outrage at the exclusion of Sir David Beckham from the forthcoming announcement of Team GB’s Olympic Football Squad. Again I say “forthcoming” because whilst Team GB coach Stuart Pearce has yet to formally announce his final 23-man line-up – the official media briefing is scheduled for Monday morning – he has afforded Beckham the courtesy of informing him that his services will not be required this summer. Never one to pass over an opportunity to promote himself in the World’s media, Beckham subsequently failed to contain his eagerness to grasp at this latest opportunity for front-page self-publicity and scrambled his ‘people’ to release a merticulously prepared ‘woe is me’ statement ahead of that official announcement. Team Beckham hasn’t quite lost its ability to frustrate with its questionable professionalism – at least from a sporting perspective if not from the hard-nosed PR angle – and confused priorities in ruthlessly gazumping Pearce’s announcement….
There can be few footballers in the modern era more adept at dividing public opinion than David Beckham. Some would tag him The Marmite Kid – you either love him or hate him – but I think that is too simplistic an analysis. It is certainly grossly unfair to tag anyone who dares to whisper the slightest criticism of Beckham as a ‘hater’! In my case I believe Beckham was an outstanding servant to the England national team with his passion, desire and enthusiasm to represent his country and no little technical skill and stamina in his role on the right-side of midfield. Many observers have remarked that had England benefited from eleven David Beckhams during his peak years then the national team would probably have performed a good deal better than they did. Few England fans will forget his epic contribution and heroics in virtually single-handedly dragging the Three Lions to the FIFA World Cup 2002 with a last-gasp free-kick against Greece in a crucial qualifier! But, unfortunately for Beckham there is the media circus that he and his wife cultivated and nurtured during his early career and fully complied in its rapid development into the modern-day frenzy that accompanies his every movement. This relentless machine of PR and self-publicity has long since gobbled up and overtaken his distant achievements on the football pitch and has many commentators debating whether he can even be considered a professional sportsman these days?
Technically 37yr old David Beckham is still a professional footballer, albeit one that plods around the dubious merits of the American MLS. Beckham surprised many by swapping the footballing citadel of Real Madrid’s Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles back in 2007; turning his back on European football – and some, myself included, would argue also turning his back on his England career – by signing for the Los Angeles Galaxy for a reputed salary of $6.5M per year. There was little hiding the MLS’s hopes that the high-profile arrival of Beckham would spark a renewed public interest and a boost in commercial activities in a sport that languished far behind the popular indigenous American sports of NFL, basketball and baseball. It was hardly the first time suggestions of commercial benefits rather than sporting prowess accompanied the acquisition of Beckham; on his arrival at Real Madrid it was strongly hinted that, whilst he was arguably enjoying his physical prime, the primary motive for his transfer was to increase Real’s presence in the fanatical Beckham markets in the Far East. It is certainly an accusation that continues to rile him. But Beckham made all the right noises surrounding his US ambitions, his quest to develop the game and to establish a signature chain of David Beckham Soccer School’s to encourage youth participation in the sport. And there can be little doubt that he has largely succeeded in those objectives; the MLS is slowly developing and attracting a greater audience both in attendance and on TV, commercial interests have followed that trend and soccer no longer automatically attracts the sporting leper tag within schools.
On the field Beckham has inspired sporadic success for the Galaxy, but he has nonetheless won trophies for his current franchise as recently as this season! But there can also be no arguing that the MLS lags behind almost every European domestic league as a credible football competition. It remains the case that the MLS is seen as a cushy retirement ground for former stars looking for that one last bumper pay-day as they drift well into, and beyond, the twilight of their careers. Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane are just two examples of players cashing in on the MLS riches despite being well past their best and, whilst a big-name presence can be a huge benefit to a developing club, until that perception changes among football fans across the globe, the MLS will always struggle with credibility. The desperately poor performances of Keane during the current Euro 2012 tournament did little to enhance the status of the MLS as being anything more than its long-held retirement home image.
And that argument, for me, is the crucial factor in Stuart Pearce’s decision to omit Beckham from his Great Britain Olympic Squad. Is the Olympic football tournament a credible sporting competition or simply an exhibition event? London 2012 will be the first and, in all likelihood, the last occasion we see a combined Great Britain football team participate at an Olympic Games and Pearce will have been wrestling with the dilemma of how to approach the event. After all, having been predictably and rightly overlooked for the England national football team job, Pearce’s own reputation will come under scrutiny during England’s performance at these Games. We’ve already seen that despite the UK media’s shared belief that England had no hope at Euro 2012 and the common consensus that Roy Hodgson’s role was to stabilise Team England in readiness for the FIFA World Cup 2014 rather than challenge for Euro 2012, England’s meek exit at the hands of Italy was greeted with the usual batch of media criticism. Whilst the Olympic competition does not carry the same weight as the Euro’s or a World Cup Pearce can guarantee himself a hostile media reaction and critique should Team GB underperform.
Some commentators have argued that David Beckham warranted inclusion as some kind of reward for his services to England and his dutiful work in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for London. Beckham’s profile was unquestionably a valuable asset in London’s bid process and, should the authorities deem him worthy, perhaps an MBE or OBE ought to be awarded in recognition of his efforts? With regard to recognising his England international career, I would argue that 20+ of his 115 England caps were awarded to him more out of a sense of sentimentality than professional merit and thus he has been more than amply rewarded in that respect. Personally I felt his England career ought to have drawn to a close when he moved to the MLS; it is simply unfathomable to expect to remain competitive for a suppose top-10 international team when you ply your daily trade in such a sub-standard domestic competition. Beckham’s decision to retire from competitive club football ought to have heralded his retirement from international football too!
Apparently 1.2M tickets remain unsold for the London Olympic football event, hence speculation that the clamour for Beckham’s inclusion was once again motivated by commercial gain rather than sporting credibility. The reason for the lack of interest in Olympic football is very simple in my opinion; excessive pricing! Why would you pay top dollar for a third-rate competition – the football is essentially an under-23 event with three designated over-age players – when you have Euro 2012 and the English Premier League on your doorstep?
I think Stuart Pearce made a brave but correct decision to exclude David Beckham from his thoughts. Leaving aside the inevitable storm of publicity that would accompany his every movement and which could overshadow the Games and the achievements of ‘lesser known’ athletes, Pearce has refused to bow to commercial pressure and has, at least on the surface, insisted on a squad chosen for sporting merits. Some would argue that Ryan Giggs’ inclusion at 38yrs old is no less sentimental than the inclusion of Beckham, but Giggs continues to ply his trade in the competitive arena of the EPL for Man Utd while Beckham saunters around the MLS. In a way I think Pearce may also have done Beckham a favour in protecting him from potential humiliation too! As Brazil prepare to send Neymar and Argentina potentially look toward Lionel Messi, together with the traditionally strong performances from the African nations, would David Beckham truly be able to compete at that level without seeing his decline brutally exposed in front of a worldwide audience? One thing is for sure, David Beckham does not deserve that indignity….