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BOOK REVIEW

'The Beckham Experiment' by Grant Wahl

Why has soccer golden boy David Beckham's move to the Los Angeles Galaxy generated so much hype and so little results?

July 15, 2009|Tim Rutten

You have to give soccer star David Beckham this: His contributions to the Los Angeles Galaxy on the pitch may be negligible, but he's always good for a headline in what so often seems like the Rodney Dangerfield of professional American sports.

This week, there's been coast-to-coast publicity over Beckham's return to L.A. from Italy, where he's spent five months playing for AC Milan. In the meantime, his teammate, Landon Donovan -- America's leading native-born player -- had given an interview in which he accused the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star and British national captain of giving up on the Galaxy and not giving anything like his best effort or attention. Donovan's criticisms are contained in a book published this week -- Grant Wahl's "The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America" -- and the two reportedly have had words over the comments and patched up their differences . . . reportedly.

Like everything else said about Beckham, who signed with the Galaxy in 2007, it has to be taken with a shaker of salt, as this sometimes annoying, but far more frequently shrewd, compelling book demonstrates. Beckham's foray into the United States was engineered by entertainment conglomerate AEG, which owns the Galaxy, and from the start the English football icon's tenure has been a story of disappointment, miscalculation, manipulation and disaster -- at least on the field, which is sort of Donovan's complaint. Beckham arrived with a first-class air cabin full of advisors, including the manager who'd created both his wife Victoria's career with the Spice Girls and "American Idol."

In essence, "The Beckham Experiment" is a detailed, carefully reported account of the carnage that occurred when the international entertainment industry's culture of celebrity collided with the essentially blue-collar ambience of American soccer.

English-language sportswriting traces its origins to William Hazlitt's 1822 article "The Fight." Hazlitt was his era's most illustrious philosopher, critic and man of letters, and his revolutionary personal account of watching a bare-knuckles prize fight not only expanded notions of the essay form, but set a high literary bar for the sporting journalism that followed. For all the cliches and hack work the sporting press since has churned out, it's remarkable how many sportswriters in succeeding generations have -- to gloss the bare-knuckle boxing phrase -- come up to literary scratch.

Wahl, 34, is a senior writer and 12-year veteran of Sports Illustrated, a historic venue for literate American sportswriting, so one brings certain expectations to "The Beckham Experiment." They're met -- in part. One of the unfortunate attributes of a good deal of our contemporary magazine journalism is the staccato salesmanship that has infiltrated the prose. This book's early chapters suffer from that defect; too much of the opening reads like an extended pitch. Wahl seems to feel that a significant point is worth making repeatedly.

Perhaps it's that same habitual selling mode that allows for Wahl's slips into self-promotion, such as multiple acts of self-congratulation for the "open-minded" character of his early stories on Beckham and for SI's rather routine refusal to give the athlete's handlers the right to approve its stories and photos. At the same time, there's a certain lack of generosity toward colleagues; the sporting press generally is faulted for its gullibility concerning the actual size of Beckham's five-year contract (the original $250 million included jersey royalties and other potential incentives -- actual salary: $6.5 million per season) and Wahl singles out The Times' Bill Plaschke and T.J. Simers for their negative comments on the signing (based on the author's own work, both columnists seem rather prescient).

Still, it's worth making one's way through the book's unnecessarily histrionic, occasionally irritating early going, because when Wahl relaxes into his material, his superb reportorial strengths come to the fore. He has a remarkable ability to win the confidence of knowledgeable sources -- and, better yet, to get them on the record -- as well as a telling eye for personal traits and biographical detail. Wahl seems at his very best when he allows his love for this game to come through and when he describes Beckham in action on the pitch (as in the memorable match in which he scored his first Galaxy goal). Then, the prose soars in a way that reminds you of that synchronous, ineffable joy that binds a gifted athlete and a knowledgeable spectator in the triumphant moment's transcendent communion.

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