David Beckham playing for LA Galaxy in a friendly match against Sydney FC at Telstra Stadium. November, 2007 LA Galaxy

David Beckham at LA Galaxy: A brash celeb project that lit up MLS’s future

“I don’t want to go out to America at 34 years old and people be turning around saying, ‘Well he’s only going there to get the money’.”

David Beckham was insistent. This was not a cash grab, not a PR stunt, not an attempt to grow a brand or lean into the cult of celebrity.

It was, he claimed, about the football. Beckham wanted to contribute to the development of football in the USA, to be a part of tangible growth and progression.

And so in the summer of 2007, he left Real Madrid, one of the most successful clubs in the history of the game, for LA Galaxy. There were, inevitably, some raised eyebrows, but the sentiment appeared genuine.

It helped, of course, that Beckham would become the highest-paid sportsman in the US, earning $250million a year.

The Los Angeles weather and glamour were attractive, too, for a footballer who had transcended sport to appeal to the mainstream, a Kardashian-esque figure.

It was easy, then, to cynically dismiss the move as nothing more than a conscious effort to better a post-football career of celebrity.

“Beckham’s decision marks the culmination of a strategy aimed at preserving his brand long after the footballer has faded,” wrote the Guardian.

“For all his considerable skills, his celebrity has long outstripped his talent, and the move signals the end of his career as a footballer of significance.

“Six months after resigning the England captaincy with a tear in his eye, the most famous footballer of his generation is walking away from the highest level of the game aged just 31.”

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READ: Real Madrid’s English era: How David Beckham’s grit earned glory at last

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That was a view shared by many, particularly those looking on from England. Moving to America was seen as almost downing tools, a financially prudent but minimally challenging pre-retirement sojourn.

For proponents of Major League Soccer and its potential, though, this was significant.

“David is truly the only individual that can build the bridge between soccer in America and the rest of the world,” said Timothy J Leiweke, the president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, who had facilitated the move.

Undoubtedly, Beckham’s mere presence aided the progress of football in the US. Its reputation grew and the average attendance in MLS climbed from 15,504 before his arrival to 18,807 by the time he had left.

“I’m coming there not to be a superstar. I’m coming there to be part of the team, to work hard and to hopefully win things,” he said.

“With me, it’s about football. I’m not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America. That would be difficult to achieve.

“Baseball, basketball, American football, they’ve been around. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could make a difference.”

Make a difference he did. On an individual level, Beckham was twice named Best MLS Player, in 2008 and 2012.

He helped LA Galaxy to three Western Conference titles, too, as well as two MLS Cup victories.

But there was, and remains, an inescapable feeling that this was a mutually beneficial business transaction.

Beckham’s already significant wealth grew, while LA Galaxy were able to bring in several lucrative sponsorship deals off the back of the transfer.

When Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Eva Longoria and Arnold Schwarzenegger turned up to see his first game, a 0-1 friendly defeat to Chelsea, the sense that this was more about Hollywood individuality than any real sporting ambition was clear.

Beckham was good, yes, and Galaxy certainly improved after he joined. But to call it an entirely philanthropic endeavour would be misleading.

There were also two separate loan moves to AC Milan to punctuate his five-year spell on the west coast. Understandably, that didn’t go down particularly well with Galaxy fans.

But there were memorable moments, too: trademark free-kicks swept into the top corner, whipped crosses planted onto the head of a waiting teammate, a goal direct from a corner.

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David Beckham for Manchester United, Coventry, Highfield Road, 25 August 1999.

READ: David Beckham was Man Utd’s hero in ’99: he deserved the Ballon d’Or

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It was, even if slightly contrived, a sporting spectacle, an added element to a league that had previously not been considered worth watching by European football fans.

Beckham, as ever, was a trendsetter: the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Wayne Rooney would all cross the Atlantic late in their respective careers.

This was something of a double-edged sword for MLS: it both enhanced and diminished the reputation of the league.

While a flow of big names arrived from Europe, MLS became known as the league for once-great players who were now over the hill.

Conversely, the revenue generated by this new era, kickstarted by Beckham, allowed American clubs to improve in all areas, to better infrastructure, coaching and recruitment.

There is a feeling now, a decade on from Beckham’s time at LA Galaxy, that MLS is beginning to stand on its own two feet.

Seattle Sounders, in winning the Concacaf Champions League – a competition dominated historically by Mexican teams – will become the first US team to play in the Club World Cup.

Beckham, meanwhile, has continued his involvement in US football, buying Inter Miami and helping them become an MLS team.

His influence on the sport in America has, without doubt, been significant.

But it was a short-lived relationship that, in the end, will be remembered most of all for its financial success.

Capitalism and celebrity were the main event. Football was the sideshow.

By Callum Rice-Coates

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