David and Victoria Beckham touched down in Los Angeles two years ago like celebrity meteors, sparking showers of attention and speculation about which restaurants they would favor, which A-listers they would befriend and what Victoria would do with herself.
After all, the whippet-thin fashion plate was already a pop culture force in her own right. In the 1990s, as Posh Spice, she was a member of one of the best-selling girl groups of all time, the Spice Girls. When she met her future husband, she was far more famous than he. Eventually, his fame eclipsed hers.
Helped by their good looks (including obvious surgical enhancements, in her case), the Beckhams marketed themselves as a single commodity. They choreographed their move to Los Angeles from Madrid with precision and an eye to what one wag called "world domination."
Almost predictably, it didn't work out, and the Beckhams now have Milan in their sights -- he for soccer reasons, she for the fashion opportunities the Italian city might present.
David Beckham managed to finagle a two-month loan from Major League Soccer's L.A. Galaxy to the Italian club AC Milan in the MLS off-season. He is supposed to be back in his Beverly Hills digs by March 9, readying for the 2009 Galaxy season that begins 13 days later. But he has repeatedly said he would prefer to stay in Italy.
He has "rediscovered" himself as a player, Beckham said, after two essentially futile and unsuccessful seasons in MLS. In Milan, surrounded by international superstars from half a dozen countries, Beckham is back on familiar turf and doesn't want to leave. "The possibility to play at Milan is something special," he said.
If Beckham's loudly debated transfer from the Galaxy to Milan becomes fact in the next week or so, as expected, he will have left only a modest imprint on the American soccer landscape, meteor or no meteor.
The Galaxy publicly says it is trying to keep him, but privately it already is resigned to losing him. Meanwhile, AC Milan, the eighth-richest soccer club on the planet, has offered only a $3-million transfer fee, a fraction of the Galaxy's asking price. Milan looks at Beckham and sees a soccer player who will turn 34 in May. The Galaxy, or at least its owner, AEG, looks at Beckham and sees a global icon who can rake in marketing millions.
"Ridiculous," Tim Leiweke, AEG's chief executive, said in response to Milan's paltry offer. The Galaxy wants four or five times as much.
There are figures to support Leiweke's position. Since Beckham joined the Galaxy, more than 600,000 Beckham shirts have been sold nationwide at roughly $80 apiece. MLS' television ratings, according to ESPN, were 67% higher for games featuring Beckham in 2007 and 22% higher in 2008 than for non-Beckham matches.
Similarly, Beckham's presence brought sellouts in several MLS cities, the high-water mark being the crowd of 66,237 at Giants Stadium for his 2007 appearance, and the Galaxy's average road attendance last season was almost 10,000 fans per game higher than any other MLS team.
Despite Beckham's arrival, though, soccer remains a second-tier sport in the U.S., distantly behind the NFL, NBA, baseball, college football and basketball, and golf whenever Tiger Woods plays.
Still, for the Beckhams, it was a good ride in the U.S.
In the space of one week in July 2007, he played his first game for the Galaxy, she starred in a one-hour NBC special ("Victoria Beckham: Coming to America") and they were honored at the Museum of Contemporary Art at a bash hosted by their new L.A. pals Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. Helicopters buzzed above while police kept crowds at bay.
With their three little boys -- Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz -- the couple moved into a Mediterranean-style mansion in Beverly Hills near the Cruises, paying $18.2 million for 11,497 square feet.
Paparazzi agencies were delighted at the prospect of their new quarry. The Beckhams almost always seemed to enjoy having their picture taken, and Victoria, now a budding fashion designer, would gussy herself up just to go to the store.
X-17, one of Los Angeles' highest-profile paparazzi shops, immediately created a Beckham team. "We always have someone working on them when they are in town," X-17 co-owner Brandy Navarre said last week. "We just got pictures yesterday of the boys having a play date in the park with Gwen Stefani's son, Kingston."
Unlike many celebrities, the Beckhams have been at ease in the eye of the media storm. They generally drive their own car, accompanied by two vehicles carrying bodyguards.
"As a family, they don't really hide," Navarre said. "They have been friends with all of the most famous people here, and that made them interesting to watch. . . . If they leave, it will definitely leave a void here."