Photo of David Beckham by rayxhead
These are halcyon days for Toronto soccer fans. Toronto FC, the city’s long-overdue Major League Soccer team, is in its inaugural season. The 20,000-seat BMO Field is open for business, and doubles as Canada’s new national soccer stadium. The Under-20 World Cup, which culminates this weekend in Toronto, is breaking tournament attendance records. And on August 5, David Beckham (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) is scheduled to make his MLS debut for the Los Angeles Galaxy right here in our own backyard. It’s been a great few months.
Comparisons between Beckham and Pele, the Brazilian soccer legend who was parachuted in to rescue the old North American Soccer League during the late 1970s, are inevitable. Both were global icons who transcended their sport. Both arrived in the United States in the latter stages of their illustrious careers. And both were charged with bringing the game to a continent which, for whatever reason, has never fully embraced it. Whether Beckham can succeed where Pele could not remains to be seen. But if he’s going to pull soccer in from the fringes of North America’s crowded sports scene—and a lot of money is riding on his ability to do just that—he’ll need to do more than supply a steady diet of his famous free kicks (Bend it Like Beckham, etc).
In particular, he’ll need to convince a lot of people that what he’s doing actually matters. North Americans have an almost pathological dislike for soccer, which no one seems able to explain. The official explanation is often a variation of the following phrase: “Soccer sucks, man!” In most cases this translates to: “It’s boring.” We don’t like low-scoring games; we need constant gratification in order to keep ourselves stimulated. Soccer doesn’t fulfill that requirement, and so (as the argument goes) it runs counter to our sensibilities. Another school of thought rejects soccer because it’s not “a man’s game,” largely because certain players dive or feign injury; this is a difficult fact for a soccer fan to explain away (and the vast majority find it deplorable, by the way), but it hardly seems like a valid reason for dismissing the sport outright. There’s no doubt that some people genuinely don’t like the game—but when Canadians talk about soccer, there’s a tendency to invoke some pretty Neanderthal attitudes.
The media, meanwhile, channel this boorish ignorance and then pass it off as legitimate criticism. Last summer, for instance, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun wrote a column during the World Cup in which he declared, without a trace of irony, “One World Cup player sums up my view of the tournament: Kaka.” This man is ostensibly a professional writer (this man being Simmons, of course, not the Brazilian midfield maestro). Yet that didn’t stop him from making a joke that would’ve been more appropriate during morning recess, and at the expense of a game that neither he nor the vast majority of his North American brethren seem particularly interested in understanding. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the media see themselves as crusaders who’re setting out to banish the sport from our shores forever so that our children might be safe from fake injuries, theatrically-embellished dives and nil-all draws. (It’s actually similar to how the U.S. media is gamely trying to bury the NHL, to the ire of many Canadians). Again, it’s not like they have an obligation to enjoy the game—but it shouldn’t kill them to at least respect the fact that soccer is the world’s most popular sport.
The media have a profound influence on how we related to popular culture. Say you’re in your car and you’re playing an album by one of your favourite bands (say, Vitalogy by Pearl Jam) and your friend insists on hearing a “good” song (say, “Better Man,” which is actually incredibly overrated). What they’re actually saying is, “Please play me a song I’ve heard on the radio, because if it’s on the radio then it has to be good, and because nothing else on this very good album could possibly be any good if I haven’t heard it on a commercial radio station.” Thankfully for your friend, that’s what the modern media does: dictates what’s good and what’s not. In our culture, “popular” conflates with “good,” and eventually with “important.” Conversely, the more we’re told something isn’t worth our while, the more we’re inclined to believe it.
In that sense, David Beckham is waging war on two fronts. On one hand, he’ll need to influence the North American media to treat the sport more seriously. On the other, he’ll have to convince existing soccer fans that MLS is worth following while at the same time persuading other people to join their ranks. A month ago, Alexi Lalas (former member of the U.S. men’s soccer team and current President/General Manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy) announced, in a fit of pique, that MLS is as good a league as the English Premiership. Which is a laughable sentiment, of course: for evidence to the contrary, Lalas need look no further than New York Red Bulls forward Juan Pablo Angel, who struggled to get games for a middling English Premier League side yet now sits third on the MLS scoring charts. That doesn’t mean MLS isn’t worth watching, or that it can’t grow into a much more competitive venture—but these things do take time.
Beckham’s arrival (which was facilitated by a five-year, $50-million contract which can escalate to a mind-blowing $250-million) is designed to accelerate the process. Contrary to popular opinion, David Beckham was never the greatest footballer alive—not even when he was leading Manchester United to its historic treble in 1999. (Rumours of his demise have also been greatly exaggerated: earlier this year he almost single-handedly inspired Real Madrid to the Spanish league championship, and he also reclaimed a rightful place in the England set-up. Bear this in mind when the Sun calls him “washed-up” in the next couple weeks.) His fame, on the other hand, is unquestionable. For a celebrity-obsessed culture like ours, Beckham is the perfect vehicle to bring soccer to the North American masses; if he can’t make it work, then literally no one can. Yet for all of his star power, he can’t do it alone: first, he needs a fundamental shift in people’s attitudes where soccer is concerned. Again, some people genuinely hate soccer, and that’s fine—but the people who never gave it a chance should set aside their preconceptions and try viewing as soccer as “the beautiful game,” a sport full of skill, grace and passion. Until that happens, soccer is doomed to remain a niche sport in North America, the vestige of ethnic enclaves that become awash with colour during major international tournaments but which otherwise could care less about a “minor” league like MLS. And that, more than anything else, is what David Beckham will be fighting when he takes to the field in Toronto next weekend. It’ll be a fascinating battle to watch.
Photo of BMO Field by phirleh from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.