Muhammad Ali, according to Norman Mailer’s account of him in The Fight, epitomised the ascent of boxing to a twentieth-century art form. It is complicated to ascertain who exactly stands as footballs relevant pioneer. Those who attempt to present sport and art as two malleable entities often come undone by the presupposed snobbery each side sheepishly claws to. Yet while either side may sarcastically depict the apparent pointlessness of ‘pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop’ – a sardonic line of everlasting use from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – when discussing basketball, or the exclamations that anyone could have done that when presented with say Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the argument for incompatibility between sport and art has already reached a disappointing void. This is not how it has to go however.
Mailer’s depiction of both Ali and George Foreman in the build up to their World Heavyweight Championship fight of 1974 was of two men under the duress of immense intensity and staggering mental fortitude. These were two athletes at the pinnacle of their respective field, battling on so many more fronts than the ring alone. How then did Ali overcome Foreman? Poignantly Ali represented the cause for suggestion that boxing was more than a fight. His tactical nous inside the ring – the result of incomprehensibly hard training – was not reason for Mailer’s claim. Ali’s artistry was not simply the fact that he was the world’s best boxer (of all time?) but that the fame this position rendered him allowed for a global pedestal to be erected. Without divulging into the use he had for this pedestal – it is simply not of relevant interest here – his excellence in boxing was only as important as the resultant excellence he displayed in self-aggrandisement, such is the reasoning behind boxing as an art form. Twentieth-century art in particular allowed for the extremes of advertisement and salesmanship to become art forms in themselves.
Football, unlike boxing, sacrifices a degree of this individual pedestal due to the restrictions of the team element in the game. While there have always been superstars, rarely have they had the direct ability to map out a global plan at will as Ali did. Their fates are somewhat tied to the decisions of the club they represent. However, when David Beckham departed Manchester United in the summer of 2003, he reclaimed the seemingly adrift individuality unto which his best laid plans could quietly ferment. While he would continue to represent club and country on the very highest stages, the celebrity status he had earned as a footballer in Manchester became a commodity worth much more to Florentino Pérez and Real Madrid than it ever was going to be for Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
Beckham, unlike Ali was never going to command the same respect for his relative sporting endeavours. He featured in wonderful teams, but was never the wonderful player in those teams. Why Real Madrid paid £25million for him in 2003 was the same reason that L.A. Galaxy, A.C. Milan and Paris St. Germain would retain his services in subsequent years; he was then and still is now a master of Ali’s other great talent, self-aggrandisement. David Beckham – due to what I’m sure has been incredibly hard work – sells an image of himself that all the biggest brands in both football and business desperately wish to get a hold of.
However, as is well known of Ali, his ‘fame’ and what he chose to do with it was largely associated with his adopted religious faith. Agree or disagree with his social views, Ali had a vision of what he wanted to achieve. Does David Beckham present such a goal however? Both Ali and Beckham mastered the social interest that they generated and they each became global superstars. His (Beckham) diplomatic work on behalf of the London 2012 Olympic Games bid and the failed F.A. bid for the 2018 World Cup were incidental events that perhaps suggested that he may forever be attached to people with money wishing to incentivise public support. However, recent developments in the world of Beckham reveal that he is not quite yet satisfied with his journey through his American Dream. It has been revealed that David Beckham has wishes to extend his own carefully cultivated brand to the extent of a footballing franchise. Like Will Smith before him, David Beckham is going to Miami.
What is worth paying initial attention to when one considers the prospect of a Major League Soccer Club commenced by the funding of Beckham is the contractual advantage he leveraged in 2007 on joining L.A. Galaxy. Sir Alex Ferguson, commenting on this move in his autobiography, reiterated what most of the footballing world knew; he didn’t go to Los Angeles for strictly footballing reasons. His astronomical pay packet was a well documented topic at the time. However, it has now come to clearer attention that Beckham – perhaps under the advice of a shrewd associate – acquired at least one contractual ‘perk’ that was not of immediate financial worth; the potential for future ownership of an MLS expansion team was offered to Beckham at a knock down rate.
While the construction of an MLS club would not be cheap, Beckham has garnered a way of making it a little bit cheaper and thus much more attractive an idea to sell. For if he wishes to erect a competitive team it will no doubt cost hundreds of millions to start such a project from the ground up. Although the deal that allowed him to make a move such as this was signed in 2007, it is perhaps naïve to assume that Beckham did not know of its possibility in the months or years shortly before moving to America. Could it then be possible that the public relations work undertaken by the globe-trotting Beckham always had a clear destination in mind? By simply being David Beckham he has aided the appeal of numerous sporting and commercial ventures. When and if these strongly plausible rumours of a football club emerging in Miami begins to necessitate increased funds for its expansion, who better than this juggernaut of global commercialisation to start calling in favours? One must be careful here to not forget that acquiring a piece of the Beckham magic is not a cheap trick. However, when one considers that Real Madrid reportedly made back the £25 million they paid to Manchester United for Beckham in the shirt sales he incentivised alone, it’s fair to say it was probably an advantageous venture for Madrid et al.
It would be insulting to suggest that Beckham possesses nothing but a financial eye for the possibility of commencing his own MLS team. He embraced the celebrity of living and working in L.A. with the same vigour that he maintained his professional commitments on the pitch. While the standard of football is not quite at the level of Europe’s elite leagues, Beckham was still capable in his mid and late thirties of re-emerging as a player capable of playing in the Champions League. A man who had simply been taking his physicality as granted for three years in L.A. could not have done that. Thus, it can be assumed that Beckham believes in the MLS. His story, not wholly dissimilar to that of financially prodded trailblazers like Pele and Beckenbauer who went stateside before him, is one perhaps initially stimulated by money but surprised by the passion of the people who paid it. During the heyday of the New York Cosmos, support was extraordinary for such a relatively new sporting event. However, as soccer came and went once before, Beckham will know his game will probably never be to North Americans what football, basketball or ice-hockey is. Yet, he clearly believes that within some controlled realm it can play a decisive role.
Beckham will of course not be the sole driving force behind this effort. Rather like in many of his other endeavours he will be the attraction that lures people in. However, for anyone who would still dare to question the man’s intellectual capabilities there must surely be some kind of punishment such an ill-informed opinion must warrant? Much like Muhammad Ali was a useful figure for the promoters of the Nation of Islam, one would not dare to question his autonomy in the decisions he made. If Beckham was at all ‘dim’ he simply would never have gotten as far as this. Similar kudos is to be paid to his wife Victoria. Panned by Ferguson as a bad influence ‘on the boy’, Mrs. Beckham is currently an award winning fashion designer. She, the not altogether integral part of hugely successful girl group and he, the far more important but nonetheless disposable star of various teams are finding huge success in their second act.
Another element of what may indeed make this a hugely shrewd and successful move on Beckham’s part is the choice of destination for this franchise. While Miami apparently possesses one of ‘the most passionate soccer markets in North America’, it will not escape anyone’s attention that North America’s best basketball team is currently the Miami Heat. Furthermore it offers a sense of great relief I am sure that basketball’s best player at the moment Lebron James just so happens to play for them. This attuned eye to detail – it can appear glaringly obvious occasionally – stems from the same place that changed the fabled ‘Beckham 7’ brand to ‘Beckham 23’ on joining Madrid in 2003. Of course, the number 7 jersey there was occupied by Raul. However, in choosing 23 Beckham rationalised his decision with reference to the fact that his admiration of Michael Jordan – superstar American basketball player – wore the same number on his jersey. Could it have been as simple as that? Or, perhaps more cynically Beckham’s eye for detail allowed him to establish an initial rapport with an American market that Madrid no doubt wished him to pursue on their behalf.
While the prospect of a Miami football team emerging is still only a likely rumour, Beckham must nonetheless be praised for what he has achieved. As both a footballer and a celebrity figure he has embraced a world in which there was a lot of money to be made and ensured that he would be the one earning it. One cannot but echo the thoughts of Alex Ferguson regarding what Beckham could have been as a footballer had he solely honed his footballing ability. With his perennial passing of such esteemed regard it is not altogether impossible to imagine David Beckham approaching an exodus in his apparent twilight years much like Juventus and Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo. However, that role always seemed more suited to one such as Paul Scholes.
Beckham is exactly who he set out to be. It may not be to everyone’s taste – it certainly isn’t to Ferguson’s – but he is a phenomenon to be observed and admired. Like almost everything else he has turned his hand to, do not be surprised to see his MLS team be successful on the pitch while their commercial success soars uncontrollably off it. He was a football man first and a money man second. Now we may see the power of both at full force.