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Friday, January 12, 2007


Yesterday MLS and David Beckham announced a 5-year, $250M deal to bring him to the LA Galaxy, and make the pop-idol the face of MLS. Now there’s plenty of cynicism surrounding MLS, and perhaps even more surrounding David Beckham, but I doubt that anything will have the nay-saying sports writers around the globe salivating with anticipation as much as this dog and ponytail show certain to arrive at a stadium near you in June of this year.

But before you purists poo-poo, consider this theory: David Beckham is the best thing to happen to MLS in its history - full stop. No single player has or will bring more money to the league, as he will the day he dons the green and gold jersey of the Galaxy, the most profligate franchise in the league, I might add. No single event will do more to raise the profile of the entire league than the first ball he strokes over the wall and into the back of the net - it will be replayed on every newscast in the world the day it happens. In fact, if Zinedine Zidane came out of retirement to play for DC United, it wouldn’t mean as much commercially as the peroxide-blonde boy from London, via Manchester and Madrid. The truth is that despite the whopping sum of a quarter of a billion dollars, in its majority tied to advertising and promotional considerations, and as such commercially sound, I’d be hard pressed to bet against this guy alone doubling the leagues advertising revenue in a year.

But before the man stroking a golden comb through his hair has even set foot stateside, questions are already being raised about his ability to raise MLS to NFL level popularity in the US. I have to say that this is the single most disingenuous question that the enemies of soccer in the US have raised in their 30-year old quest to block the importation of the world’s favorite game, to the world’s favorite economy. Make no mistake about it – there are people both within the US and in the global sports writing community that would love nothing more than to label this venture, and MLS altogether, an abject failure. It hinges on one thing: setting the expectation of the league so high that it could only be reached if Jesus Christ blessed himself wearing the black and red of DC United, before entering the pitch at RFK. It makes you wonder if they don't think it will work, or if they really don't want it to?

Sporting vs. Commerical Considerations

When signing a player like David Beckham, there are two considerations – sporting and commercial. On the balance, MLS has made it pretty clear that this deal has been driven by commercial interests. But for a moment, let’s examine the sporting decision first. Before you flippantly dismiss Beckham as a has been who can no longer cut it at the biggest club in the world, ask yourself if anyone else in MLS today could have? For that matter, neither could Ronaldo or Luis Figo, but you'd be hard pressed to find a team in MLS that wouldn't take either of those so-called rejects. In fact, can you name 3 midfielders in MLS, right now, without going to web, that are demonstrably better than David Beckham? From a sporting perspective it’s a good move for the Galaxy.

To date, they have on their books one Landon Donovan – the single most overrated player in America, Santino Quaranta – a DC United reject who lost his place in the team to Freddy (Much) Adu (About Nothing), and Cobi Jones, who to this day, still looks like he just recently learned how to kick straight. Will Beckham make them contenders in just one year: absolutely. Why? Because the regular season means nothing in a league where all but two teams make the playoffs, and there a player of Beckham’s qualities can make a game-breaking contribution with one swing of his foot. In fact, MLS may even suit Beckham in his current incarnation better than most leagues. He doesn’t have the quality of players to target with his crosses and through balls from the wing, and he himself lacks the pace and close control to be a threat running at defenders and scoring goals from the run of play. But if he can eek out a role as a playmaker whose sole responsibility is to enable his teammates, I could even envisage Beckham playing so well that he'd be considered for the England team – maybe for a friendly or two, if nothing else to thank him for his past contributions.

Truly great players inspire us, and if Beckham weren’t married to Posh Spice, or play for one of the two richest clubs in the world, he wouldn’t. But for MLS, and particularly for the LA Galaxy, he’ll do just fine, thank you very much. That’s not a knock on the league, but a statement of the obvious – Beckham’s sporting value is in enabling his teammates, and while enabling the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, or Raul is not likely to be on the cards in MLS, he will certainly make his teammate’s lives a lot easier. Furthermore, by all accounts, Beckham is a model professional who, aside from his extra-curricular distractions, practices as diligently as and even more so, than most professionals today. That alone will have a great impact on the young players who will come into contact with him. If he plays at full capacity, there's no doubt he’ll be a big success in MLS.

Okay, Let's Just Get to the Gettin'

The real reason for this transaction is commercial - I mean, let's be honest. Even if there were no quality left in his game, he would still certainly be a good draw. Beckham’s enormous global branding, particularly in Asia, really makes the advertisers drool, where his midas touch make tours and television rights lucrative. Consider that today, the most heavily spectated game in the history of the English football was between Everton and Fulham FC in 2003? That’s because each team had a single Chinese player on the roster, and if 3% of the Chinese population tuned into the game, it would have meant more viewers then there are people in the UK. Today, interest in the EPL in China remains, even if the Chinese players do not. That, in a nutshell, is the commercial appeal of Beckham in Asia.

As a part of a large contingent of world class players at Real Madrid, commercially Beckham completed a package that was unrivaled in football. At one time, Zidane, Ronaldo, Figo, Roberto Carlos and Beckham all wore the Real Madrid jersey. It seems now, only Roberto Carlos will remain. At the LA Galaxy, the story will be a team of Beckham and everyone else, and one has to wonder how many times a team like that can tour the US or the Asian continent profitably.

As such another consideration has to be included in the analysis – can Beckham begin to draw other well known stars to MLS in similar arrangements? Could Ronaldo follow? How about Luis Figo? Could even Zinedine Zidane be drawn out of retirement, as was Pele in 1974? In all likelihood, the answer is no, but a single MLS team with those types of marquee players on the roster, touring the country, could be very lucrative indeed. This, however, is unlikely given the structure of the league, and the so-called Beckham rule, that allows a team to max out the MLS contribution to their salary cap at $400K on just one player, and the team can kick in the rest. More likely such players would be dispersed throughout the league, rather than concentrated in one team. But could Beckham alone be enough. Let’s analyze the numbers, shall we?

$250M over 5 years is a figure that’s been bandied about, but most of this money would come from endorsements and a share of profits, conditional on his performance and ability to draw advertising revenue to the league. The first season will certainly bring in the attention they want, but without the addition of other marquee players, it will be impossible for MLS to have that kind draw. I doubt that at the end of his contract, a 36-year old Beckham will continue to draw the numbers required to justify $1M per week potential contract. As such, I think it's pretty clear that MLS are betting on the Beckham's ability to draw more marquee players as well as fans.

Consider the numbers: in order to make sense, giving Beckham $1M per week, would require that the league bring in, as a direct result, at least as much in advertising, with additional money coming from ticket, concessions and merchandising, otherwise it’s a net zero transaction. Imagine for a moment that there are only 1 million avid soccer fans in the US – myself included. It’s not hard to imagine that advertisers such as Gilette, Motorolla, Adidas and Pepsi would collectively be willing to share the burden of paying MLS a dollar a week to advertise specifically to me, just in the hopes that Beckham’s image will generate more than $52 a year in additional sales to their companies. That's not a very high threshold given the existing margins on all of their products. Much of the cost would be covered in renegotiated TV rights, which advertisers would pay to the networks anyway, and possibly redistribute to advertising during MLS games. It's more than plausible, and ultimately the difference between MLS and the other successful leagues around the world is TV rights.

Or how about this scenario – a tour of the US and Asia with two MLS teams, each with two of the following four players on the roster – Beckham, Ronaldo, Figo and Zidane drawn out of retirement. Now that would put assess in the seats. It harkens back to a time when Pele, Cruyff, Best and Beckenbauer all played in the NASL at the same time, but let’s be honest – 3 of those players were broke and needed the money (Beckenbauer excluded) and that’s not the case with our modern wish list. Nevertheless, it would be interesting, and it’s possible now that the first step of buying Beckham has already been taken. While an avid fan will be relatively unmoved by such a setup over the long run, the avid fan never seems to be the concern of the cynics who want to destroy soccer in the US. Somehow, the idea has become ingrained that soccer needs to pull fans from other sports, namely the NFL. As if NFL fans don't also watch baseball, basketball or hockey. I mean, it's not like you have to go to three stadiums in a day to watch the Redskins, Nationals and Wizards. I believe they've invented something called television, where you can enjoy any of the above in the confort of your own home.

The Haters

I have always been of the opinion that this expectation, that MLS compete directly with the NFL, is merely the result of a two-pronged attack on soccer in the US by those who cynically set absurdly high expectations hoping that it will fail. Why in the world does MLS have to reach NFL level popularity, anyway? To date, the richest NFL franchise is probably the Dallas Cowboys, and with their new stadium coming, you couldn’t sell that team for less than $2 billion today. Real Madrid, on the other hand, the richest club in the world is worth barely more than half that sum – about the same that a rather average NFL team like the Washington Redskins is worth today. So why does MLS need to reach NFL levels in order to be a success, when the richest football clubs in the world are worth less than one of least successful teams in the NFL?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Malcolm Glazer, the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, certainly not one of the marquee teams in the NFL, just buy Manchester United - the second richest club in the world? So I ask again, why is the NFL the standard for the success of MLS? I'll tell you why: because there are enemies of soccer in the US that want to see it fail who are putting these ridiculous expectations on MLS with the full knowledge that they can't even be matched by baseball, basketball and hockey. And there are those outside the US who want to see soccer fail here because they enjoy the fact that despite all our power and might, we still have one of the worst national teams and leagues in the world’s favorite sport. It’s just one (of the few remaining) ways to feel better about their economic inferiority to everyone's favorite villain. Sure, they're rich and they make good movies, but we've got the best cheese and soccer team in the world!

Deep down inside, they want this to continue, because they fear that if soccer ever really did reach NFL levels in this country, that the collective buying power of our economy would rob them of their favorite players domestically. And they’re right. If you don’t believe me, just ask our neighbors to the north how they feel about NHL, and all the Canadian teams who have relocated to the US. So, to sabotage us, and setup the headlines they love to run, they set the bar at a level that no soccer team on earth has reached, much less any MLS team, waiting gleefully to savage our efforts when ultimately we don’t reach that pinnacle.

Remember which World Cup sold the most tickets in history? It wasn’t Spain82, Italia90 France98 or even Germany2006. It was USA94. Why? Because no place on earth has as many 70,000 seat stadiums to fill that could even host an event like the World Cup, much less sell them out. And that was before we had a league of our own or a national team to speak of. Today, we’d easily surpass the records of 1994, and if players like Beckham and Ronaldo, or even all these players from S. American willing to play in places like the Ukraine, start to think they can get a piece of the action, both in sporting and commercial terms, on this side of the Atlantic, it’d be a brave new world in which the cynics have no interest. But the possibility has them shaking in their boots.

But there are enemies within our borders as well. Those who don’t understand the appeal of soccer, the ones who tell you there isn’t enough scoring – which is basically their only argument against the game. These are the same people who crap their pants at the sight of a double play in baseball, or a 1st down in football, but somehow can’t understand how we get so excited by a string of 10 one-touch passes resulting in a great shot and save. But I digress…

These people fear what they don’t understand, and worse than that, fear their jobs will one day require that they diligently cover a game they are incapable or unwilling to understand. And as such, they also set the bar at the NFL level, in the hopes that when MLS doesn’t reach that level they can call our endeavor a failure, and just be done with it.

Despite the paucity of premier teams and players, average MLS attendance is similar to that of the big leagues in Europe, because most of the stadiums are comparatively small, even if they are full. The difference is revenue from television rights, which some star quality would bring up to a level high enough to start bringing quality players to the US. And it doesn't get any better than Becks for star quality in soccer. If MLS could get, say, $1B over four years in TV rights, that alone would justify the Beckham rule, and make the league a resounding financial success. 10 years ago, German soccer had to experiment with television blackouts because their games on TV were unattended. Even in England, where the fans are admittedly more passionate than anywhere else, you can still get walk up tickets for a game between Manchester United and say, Watford, for less then the price of lunch at TGI Friday’s.

To that end, commercially, the Beckham deal makes all the sense in the world, not to take MLS to an NFL level (a level that baseball, hockey and basketball have not acheived financially) but certainly to the level of say the French Ligue 1 or Dutch Eredivise. It’s disingenuous to suggest that MLS would be a failure if doesn’t reach the interest of the NFL, or say the Champions League – even the EPL can’t measure up that.

MLS and Beckham were made for each other – a league that needs a marquee player, and a marquee player that needs a league. Commercially it’s is a low threshold considering the structure of the agreement, and the potential for other players to follow. In sporting terms, Beckham will immediately become one of the best midfielders in the league, if not the best, and will likely remain so for the remainder of his playing days, unless more marquee players follow him. and that wouldn’t be a bad problem to have at all, now would it?

On the whole, if you’re an American soccer fan, and want to see better games with better players in this country, then put your money (literally) on Beckham and the MLS.

I certainly will.

Friday, January 05, 2007


In case you hadn’t noticed, a beautiful thing happened in Argentina last month. A team you’ve probably never heard of, with a rich history in Argentine and international football, won its first title in 23 years, and in so doing, provided a path to redemption for a few fallen heroes.

With their 2-1 victory, resulting from an 84th minute match-winner against Boca Juniors, Estudiantes de la Plata won the Argentine Apertura as a result of a long run of memorable matches (including a 7-0 drubbing of their their arch-rivals Gimastica de la Plata) culminating in a play-off match against the men from la Bombonera, which cost Ricardo la Volpe his job, and a few Boca players their reputations. With a seemingly insurmountable 4 point lead with just two games remaining, la Volpe insisted (probably without really meaning it) that he would quit if Boca squandered the lead - but squander they did, and the 70's porn-star throwback looking, chain-smoking, trash-talking manager got the hell out of Dodge.

Outside of Argentina, little is known of the club in the sub-urban Buenos Aires province city of la Plata. It’s been said that while Boca are considered the team of the people, and their rivals, River Plate (arrogantly and at once derisively referred to as los Millionarios) are the team of the well-to-do of Buenos Aires. But it poses an interesting challenge for someone outside of Argentina, and probably Buenos Aires, to accurately capture the demographic make-up of the supporters of this club. One thing is certain – this is not one of the big four of Buenos Aires and Argentina (Boca, River, Racing and San Lorenzo), and certainly not one of the most successful Argentine teams of the last 20 years (Boca and River). For their victory over this handicap, we should all be thankful, because it proves that money, although it drives so much in football, can be overcome by heart, grit, determination and loyalty.

For if nothing else, football is a drama of the highest order; a suspenseful interlude of controlled madness where the result isn’t known until the final whistle, and while we may have an idea, based on the quality and pedigree of the teams and players, all too often, in recent times, domestic Argentine football has looked more like a Greek tragedy. Death, violence, riotous fans, match rigging, player strikes and corruption are the stuff of telenovellas (soap opera) and football in Argentina and it’s no wonder that so many of its greatest players ply their trade anywhere other than their home country, returning only to play for the last remaining source of pride: the national team.

When they return to their domestic leagues, great Argentine players have been received like prodigal sons, with rare exceptions for the likes of Juan Sebastien Veron. But there is one more thing we love about football - there is such a thing as redemption. It happens when a disgraced and discarded hero returns to the summit from which he has fallen. And for Juan Sebastien Veron, once the most expensive midfielder in the world, disgraced at the 2002 World Cup, and discarded by the two biggest clubs in English football (Manchester United and Chelsea), closer to the end of his career than most of his teammates, the victory is all the more sweet.

Unfairly singled out by many Argentines for their dismal performance in Japan/Korea 2002, Veron returned to unrelenting jeers and taunts on his travels. But for la brujita (the little witch ), turned big star, returning to "El Leon" where his father, Juan Ramon Veron (la bruja) made his bones as a footballing sorcerer, the jeers turned to tears for all the right reasons when he addressed the supporters on the field after the final as a beloved champion for the first time in a long time. And all the more important of this victory was the fact that domestic football in Argentina has done little to inspire anything other than match disruptions and violence. The fact is, football in this footballing giant of a nation, needed the boost, and Veron and Estudiantes have given it to them.

There are so many reasons for neutrals to applaud the accomplishment of this relatively small club outside the footballing dominance of the aforementioned big four. First, they are one of only two teams outside the biggest city in Argentina to win the title for several years, the other being Velez Sarsfield. Second, their manager, Diego Simeone, a man loved by his teammates and supporters, and probably nobody else in professional football, who is best known for his less than gracious, imaginary card-waving, knife-in-teeth, and incindiary approach to the game (e.g. getting David Beckham sent off in the 1998 World Cup) has won a major title in his first season at the helm of the club. And finally, the prodigal son, Juan Sebastien Veron, who played only one year for his native team before moving (briefly to Boca Juniors and then) to the Serie A.

The Argentine Football Association and press have openly welcomed this diversion from what has become an ugly truth of Argentine football. So poorly managed is the league that its best players will go to Mexico (for god's sake) to make a living, rather than play in their own country, along with any European country where they can tangentially claim citizenship. This after all the hullabaloo surrounding matches that had to be terminated due to fan rioting, and years of mismanagement which has reduced the league to that of a spring board for young talent, and a graveyard for old hands. Ever since Argentine football professionals went on strike in 2001 over unpaid wages, one has had the feeling that the league, while professional, has been run by amateurs, driving more and more talent to ply their trade anywhere in the world that they can make a reliable living. It’s hard to imagine that with all the transfer fees coming from so many players going to Europe, that somehow the clubs could be short of the cash required to pay their players, but that seems to be the norm. And yet, somehow they seem to turn out great player after great player, a never-ending supply of talent that has only a few youth titles to point to, aside from the Olympic Gold in 2004, since their World Cup victory in 1986. If ever there were proof that football fortune is in the soul of a country, Argentina are it.

Spanish speakers will know that the name, Estudiantes, refers to students. This comes from the history of the club’s inception, where medical students, fed up with the way their eventual local rivals, Gimnastica de la Plata, were running their club, decided to start their own, hence the name. To this day, a player or supporter of Estudiantes is called a “pincha” (not to be confused with the Mexican expletive "pinche") or “pincharratta” , which loosely translates to “rat-stabbers” referring to the laboratory rats their students regularly sacrificed in the name of science.

In all likelihood, if you’re not a historian of football, and don’t watch Argentine football on the FSC, you’d never heard of Estudiantes, and you certainly wouldn’t know that they won 3 Copa Libertadores in a row between 1968 and 1970 (a feat bested only by the 4 in a row of the great sides of Independiente from 1972 to 1975.) It’s true that in those days, the champion was not required to work their way through the group stages, as they are today, but the club can also claim some of of the most important figures in Argentine football in their history as well.

Carlos Salvador Bilardo, the World Cup winning manager from 1986, captained Estudiantes during their glory years (one of two physicians in the club, by the way) and returned to manage the club years later to a title in 1982. Jose Luis Brown – a defender, and goal scorer in the World Cup final of 1986 (where he, in fact, dislocated his shoulder and was unable to lift the trophy he had just won) was also an important player of this club. The manager, Diego Simeone, was also a pincha long before he wore a suit on the touchines, and Juans Ramon and Sebastien Verons are probably the second most famous father son combination in football history (after Cesare and Paolo Maldini). There are other names of note on the list of alumni, but most you’ve probably never heard of, and yet Estudiantes truly are a club with great success in their history. It seems they’ve always been a team of men battling against the odds, and there is something mesmerizing about that in football.

If anything is going to save Argentine football, it’s moments like these. True, there will probably be no end to the assembly line production of the great players coming out of this country, and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t win one of the next 3-4 World Cups, but a domestic league, while not the engine of national teams, is still a source of pride for countries, and can be again for Argentina. For that to happen they need a few things:

  1. The big teams whose directors regularly pilfer the coffers to their own ends need to lose and lose painfully
  2. The revolving door of the same old coaches, kissing the assess of the same old directors needs to be welded shut.
  3. The teams that exhibit all the qualities that we love in football, and none of those we hate, need to start winning – preferably as dramatically as Estudiantes.

For now we can take solace in the joy of watching those pincharrattas in their underwear, taking a lap of honor. But if those things can happen, there just might be a reason for these old hands to turn over the reigns to a new generation of leaders who actually give a damn about the game: then and only then will we stop crying for Argentina.