It's never too late for professional soccer to become a popular spectator sport in America, though one only says that to the extent he believes the world will never end. A more hard-bitten voice says pro soccer in America is doomed by the same fate as human existence itself and that a sport said to reflect existential themes re-enacts the myth of Sisyphus in its emigration to the United States.
On Jan. 11, officials for Major League Soccer (MLS) confirmed that the league reached agreement with the glamorous galactico David Beckham to play for its Los Angeles franchise. Beckham's arrangement with the Los Angeles Galaxy constitutes a bold move to enhance MLS's profile, though it can't be denied that only his decline as an international soccer star made it possible.
The past year has not been kind to Beckham, who resigned as England's captain after a quarterfinals loss in the 2006 World Cup, then was dropped from the team entirely last August. His role with Real Madrid has taken a similar dive: After more than three seasons with the top Spanish club, Beckham has scored only 13 goals in La Liga; the Madrid manager saw fit to start him only seven times in the club's first 25 games this season.
But Beckham retains the star power to make it in America, so he might be worth his $250 million over five years, which reportedly includes his salary, sponsorship contracts, merchandising sales and a share of the club profits. The pro game could use a push in the United States, where the average MLS house last year barely topped 15,000. A good first division European club will attract three and four times that many people.
Again, though, the American game is cursed.
It's not just public indifference. It's almost, if not entirely, fateful.
Once Beckham signed with Los Angeles, the Real Madrid manager declared that Beckham would never again play for the club. If only. MLS officials hoped for a while that they could bring Beckham to the Galaxy in time for the MLS season and the new Super Liga competition, which both begin in April.
But Beckham played on March 4 for Real Madrid against Getafe, running into an advertising sign after a cross and bashing his right knee. Worries began to circulate that Beckham could miss a year with major ligament damage.
Real Madrid officials confirmed on March 5 that Beckham injured an internal ligament in his knee, which will leave him out for a month or more. But the chance that Beckham could miss longer raised an interesting question, based on another heavy development in international soccer: Could MLS have legal recourse against Real Madrid for Beckham's injury?
The question arises because a very similar question is in the European Court of Justice with the case of Abdelmajid Oulmers and his Belgian club, Charleroi. The club is suing FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, because Oulmers injured himself playing for Morocco in international competition and was thereby unavailable to his club the following year. Charleroi wants financial compensation from FIFA.
The scales of justice will undoubtedly take a long time weighing this case, because the decision will leave a massive impact on club soccer and international soccer however it goes. FIFA officials fret publicly that a win in this case for Charleroi will end the World Cup as we know it, because very few national teams can afford to compensate clubs while players are on the international stage. Brazil and Argentina would never be able to put its best players in the World Cup, nor could any but a handful of the wealthiest European countries.
The G-14, a pressure group comprised of 18 leading European clubs, has joined the suit on Charleroi's behalf. For reasons that aren't mysterious, the leading clubs have always lived unhappily with the parallel international competition.
Clubs pay enormous money for top players, often to the point of unsound business practice. When national teams take those players for periods of time, the clubs receive no compensation.
"What the national coaches are doing is like taking the car from his (club manager's) garage without even asking his permission," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told the BBC. "They'll then use his car for 10 days and abandon it in a field without any petrol left in the tank. We then have to recover it, but it is broken down. Then, a month later, they'll come to take your car again ... and you're expected to be nice about it."
Meanwhile, there's no question that soccer fans are much more interested in the international competition than the club game, even if that's only because of the World Cup. But a huge part of the World Cup's appeal is precisely that it showcases the world's best players in one encompassing competition. As it happens, many of those players work for G-14 clubs. Of the players in the 2006 World Cup, 22 percent were G-14 players.
The G-14's interests and motives can be debated endlessly. In its dealings with UEFA, the sanctioning organization of European clubs, the G-14 wants guaranteed spots for its own membership in the Champions League. The G-14 is essentially trying to protect its members from competition, since the loss of Champions League spots to smaller clubs that are better run would be financially disastrous.
Such guarantees would undermine the inherent meritocracy of European football, where every club has to prove it every year just to stay in the first division domestically. At the same time, one can understand the G-14's point about losing players to national teams without compensation.
But if clubs can recover compensation from national teams for players injured on international duty, then how far are we from saying that clubs with players under contract for the future can recover compensation from clubs for which that player is injured? In other words, it would become a smaller stretch for the Los Angeles Galaxy to recover damages from Real Madrid if Beckham's injuries were to keep him out long term.
Should Charleroi and the G-14 win their suit against FIFA, the World Cup, in essence, would be destroyed. It would figure that the United States will succeed in procuring the 2018 World Cup just in time for it to become a rinky-dink competition. That's right in concert with the fate of spectator soccer in America.