Importing Real football | Beckham adds his share to U.S. trade imbalance

In the time before Beckham … | Filmed on or about 31 Dec 1897 on South Spring Street in Los Angeles, this 25-second clip from the Thomas Edison catalog shows “equipages … including a tally-ho and six white horses. A peculiar, open-end trolley car comes along.” Notice the absence of L.A. Galaxy replica kit. (Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division)

Carson, California | The bridge metaphor has become prominent with the Los Angeles Galaxy’s signing of David Beckham from Real Madrid. “David is truly the only individual that can build the bridge between soccer in America and the rest of the world,” says Timothy Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy.

Such brainless marketing patter deservedly sinks into the well of words that has accumulated about this player transfer of global insignificance. Were such a bridge required, Beckham, while a well-intentioned person and a fine soccer player, would not be the person to build it. Nor is Philip Anschutz building bridges by paving the driveway to Beckingham Palace West with gold. Leiweke calls boss Anschutz, who owns two other Major League Soccer clubs, Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo, “a pretty good saint for the sport of soccer.”

But whatever this statement means, achieving sainthood, by definition, requires more than “pretty-goodness.”

For Beckham himself, cursed by association with a growing network of glad-handers, bridge-builders and Scientologists, one hopes that at some moment in the American sojourn he will be able to escape the protective bubble wrap. “Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived,” writes Guy Debord, a quote expanded upon by the sociologist deconstructor of all things Beckham, Ellis Cashmore, in monographs and essays on the iconography of Beckham as husband, father, breadwinner, “new man,” “new lad,” hero, consumer. Foundationally, Cashmore, with Andrew Parker, writes in a 2003 article of Beckham as a person existing through others’ representation, almost the definition of celebrity:

With characteristic understatement, the Sun of London (Jan 12) casts Beckham in Galaxy gold.

[C]elebrityhood is a commodification of the human form, the epitome of economic fetishism. It is the process by which people are turned into “things,” things to be adored, respected, worshipped, idolized, but perhaps more importantly, things which are themselves produced and consumed. (“One David Beckham? Celebrity, Masculinity, and the Soccerati,” Sociology of Sport Journal 20, p. 215)

But back to the bridge business. It would be hard to conceive a more inappropriate metaphor for relating soccer in the United States to world football. Curiously, commentators abroad seem to have a better handle on American soccer culture as more of an “underground” obsession that has succeeded through grassroots enthusiasm—nurtured in part by a legion of expatriates making far less than $50 million per year—rather than through the splurging of delusionaries in suits, hoping to create a “soccer nation.” (Grant Wahl‘s report on the mechanics of the Beckham deal shows how the arrangement has little to do with soccer, but more with building personal chemistries, marketing synergies and a “worldly brand.” Our favorite quote from Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas: “When I think of the Galaxy I think of dark blue.”) The North American Soccer League was significant more for helping to start organized youth and women’s soccer than for showcasing global talent on Astroturf and in high-cut satin-sheen shorts, although the investment in talent was important.

In this case, Beckham is following a well-traveled course, not building a bridge himself. Given the large Latino population in South Los Angeles, the site of the first Spanish land grant in California, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian concludes that Beckham “will be preaching to the already converted” (“Even Beckham Can’t Compete with the Fanatical Conservatism of Sport,” Jan 19). Beckham’s stated desire to reach out to youth through his soccer academies in Carson and Greenwich, England, similarly covers familiar ground. Nothing on the David Beckham Academy website suggests that the approach is especially innovative; there is no indication, for example, of special programs for the underprivileged or for Latinos often excluded from the financially straining elite club-and-academy cycle that creates the pipeline for top U.S. players.

A view toward the Bunny Dip restaurant in Carson, ca. 1967, a year before the town’s incorporation as an entity separate from Los Angeles County. The city of Carson’s own website describes the area at the time as a “landscape pockmarked with the dozens of refuse dumps, landfills, and auto dismantling plants which none of [Carson's] neighbors would have in their own cities.” (larrywminor | Flickrâ„¢)

Rather than studying the Beckham transfer, one learns more about the contexts of American soccer by reading about the Dominguez Hills area that includes Carson, 16 miles south of Los Angeles proper. Chris Ayres makes the point in the Times of London that to many Hispanic residents in the area, who have the choice of supporting the Galaxy or Chivas USA, “football is already a mainstream sport in America” (“How an Ageing Galactico Can Be the Brightest Star in LA Galaxy’s Firmament,” Jan 13). With broadcasting giant Univision ubiquitous on terrestrial television and the Mexican national team and sides from Mexico’s top division making frequent visits across the border, speaking of a fixed “big four” (gridiron football, baseball, basketball and NASCAR) in American sport seems outmoded.

The history of this 75,000-acre land grant, in fact, challenges simple narratives of American identity. The future of the land, ranging from the Los Angeles River in the east to the Pacific Ocean, was charted in the 18th century, granted in 1784 to Juan José Dominguez by King Carlos III of Spain. Dominguez had participated in the Gaspar de Portolí  expedition some 15 years earlier, aimed at beating Russia to territorial claims in what then was known as Upper California, north of Baja California, still part of Mexico. The land has remained in the possession of Dominguez relations, although oversight of the territory has moved from Spanish to Mexican and ultimately to American control. Having dwindled over time to less than one-third its original size, the parcel still contains an original Dominguez homestead, preserved as the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum. It holds status as California Historical Landmark Number 152.

During the 1968 referendum to gain city status and to name the new municipality, the name “Carson” prevailed over “Dominguez” by a mere 318 votes. Its population of some 90,000, according to the 2000 census, represents the “melting pot” of fantasy, with Hispanic/Latino residents, numbering 31,000, holding a plurality over the remainder, almost evenly divided among white, black and Asian groupings.

In Ayres’s reading, Beckham’s arrival in the LA region could tip a balance toward Hispanic cultural expressions such as fútbol. “Beckham will represent a completely different side of LA from Hollywood—a side unexplored by most of those who come to LA on summer holiday to visit Disneyland and Universal Studios.” One would not expect Becks, even with his abilities in Spanish, to refer to the region by its original name, El Pueblo de Nuestra Seí±ora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula, yet, Ayres writes, “[s]ome Americans fear that the Hispanics, particularly the Mexicans, will eventually want to claim the land back.”

Were Beckham to build a bridge, one supposes, it would be best to build between these microcultures represented by the Los Angeles Times and La Opinión, the regional Spanish-language alternative. “To white Angelenos,” Ayres continues, “Carson might as well be on a different planet to Sunset Strip and the fashionable nightspots of Hollywood and the Westside.” It is a stretch to believe that Beckham could help unify in the way that the siting of California State University at Dominguez Hills helped smooth race relations following the Watts riots of 1965, but another bridge might help with the traffic.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (3)

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  1. martin wanjohi says:

    However Real Madrid may want to intimidate Beckham they cannot deny him the fame and legacy he has created on the pitch. Long live Becks.

  2. [...] Vancouver, British Columbia | As usual, David Beckham’s North American barnstorming circuit—with a stop tonight at BC Place Stadium—to us raises more interest in pre-existing soccer traditions than in the soccer actually being played (see Jan 22). [...]

  3. [...] only individual that can build the bridge between soccer in America and the rest of the world” (22 Jan and 27 May 07). Tens of thousands of Angelenos and Angelenas who make the city one of the [...]

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