Although it's only 7:30 a.m., prepubescent girls already ring the Today Show set. They are kept securely behind a chain-link fence, inside of which David Beckham will shortly demonstrate his famous bending kick in a promotional event for adidas. With the girls stand their mothers, wearing windbreakers and track pants and holding their daughters' purses, the girls having traded their bags for cardboard signs scribbled with impassioned avowals for Becks.
"Marry me David!"
"We love you in Iowa!"
"Bend me, Beckham!" (This from a windbreaker-clad mom.)
A security guard minding the perimeter barks into his walkie, "Beckham? Like from the movie?"
"Yeah," comes the crackling response. "That's the one."
Moments later, Katie Couric introduces her guest as "international soccer star David Beckham," and he lopes onto the faux turf, chin squared and eyes crinkling. The crowd squeals. Beckham smiles and lowers his head. He walks over to a line of children assembled for a quick soccer tutorial and unselfconsciously tousles the hair of the nearest boy. The audience exhales a loud ahhhhhh, as if they'd just been handed a basket of kittens. Matt Lauer, gripping his microphone, seems stunned, like you might be after encountering a minor deity, which in most of the world is precisely the role that Beckham fills.
Beckham, seemingly unaware of the halo of light emanating from his flaxen head, ambles over to Lauer, stands perilously close and slouches almost imperceptibly. Lauer straightens his back, then interviews Beckham about his upcoming season with Real Madrid, his captaining of England's team in the next World Cup and his future plans as the world's most visible soccer player. "We'd love to have you play in America," Lauer says with palpable eagerness.
"I'd love it too," Beckham answers with a broad smile, tempered as always by his eyes, which he deliberately softens, looking at you with a mixture of humility and apology, as if to say, "I'm sorry I am so supernaturally beautiful. I intend no harm."
When Beckham speaks about his love of America, you get the feeling he means it—that perhaps at age 30, after 12 years of professional play, he has grown weary of being the U.K.'s whipping boy, of having his every butt scratch photographed and dissected in the tabloids—an average of five stories a day. He named his son Brooklyn, after all, not Slough (roughly the London equivalent).
"The American dream is founded on the same principles as my own," he writes in the intro to his 2003 autobiography, Both Feet on the Ground. "If you work hard enough, there never needs to be a limit on how far life can take you." Beckham loves his country, but it is a love oft unrequited, a messy affair, rife with highs and lows not excluding public calls for his head on a platter. "Being a soccer player in England is unfortunately about how you conduct yourself on and off the pitch," he explains after the Today Show spot.
America, Beckham rightly suspects, would be different. A big bowl of sunshine and hugs. A land where the spankings would be fewer and the tabloids more interested in his hair than his IQ. A place where his athleticism and his iconic status would be equally celebrated, where his aquiline nose would be an asset, not fodder for jokes about stupidity, because everyone knows that stupid doesn't count in America. "In Europe, people want to know about more than just football," Beckham says with characteristic understatement. "Over here, everyone is so positive."
DAVID BECKHAM grew up the son of a gas fitter and a hairdresser in a working-class London suburb. His father, Ted, ached for his own pro soccer career and passed that longing onto his only son. "All I ever wanted to do was play soccer for Manchester United," Beckham says. That ambition governed his youth to the exclusion of all other interests, including girls and grog. (On the rare occasions he went to a pub, Beckham drank milk.)
Instead of cutting loose, the boy trained, practicing with the intensity and focus of someone unable to entertain the notion that his dream might not come true. He kicked balls from age 3 to age 15, and was rewarded for his efforts at 16 when he signed as a trainee for Man U, a commitment that required him to move away from home to clean boots for his beloved team in the hope that, in time, he might be asked to mount the pitch.
His day came in 1994, and two seasons later, Beckham scored the goal that would forever sear him into public consciousness and invite the klieg lights of fame to shine on his face—a midfield Hail Mary against Wimbledon, scored after he noticed the goalkeeper had come off his line. From inside his own half, Beckham lobbed the ball over the keeper's head, a goal that most who witnessed it would have never believed possible.
Man U quickly made the handsome, self-effacing Beckham the focus of its marketing strategy, a role he took to like lungs to oxygen. The exposure, along with his unparalleled play, took the club to new heights. Man U dominated, winning the treble in 1999—the FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League titles—a feat unprecedented and still unmatched in English football. The manager, Alex Ferguson, was knighted, and Beckham, bearer of the brand, was irrevocably transformed from first-rate soccer player to pop star.
Which, predictably, was about when English fans decided Becks needed to be knocked down a notch, a cultural instinct hastened not only by his marrying Victoria "Posh Spice" Adams, but also by his drawing a red card in a 1998 World Cup match against Argentina. England lost the game on penalty kicks, and Becks was blamed. He returned home to watch his countrymen burn him in effigy and chant for the slow death of his children.
Soccer fans are famed for their virulence, a result of too much beer and the uniquely frustrating experience of watching a match. Unlike football or basketball, soccer suffers from a lack of punctuation. Devoid of slam dunks and sacks, the game can be maddening to witness. Emotions run high with nowhere to go and 50,000 people waiting to exhale. Beckham, with his uncomplicated talent and pinup wife, was easy prey.
Many reporters predicted that the vilification would lead to early retirement. Instead, he trained harder, ignoring death threats and booing and bullets with his name on them mailed to his home. And in 2001, he redeemed himself with a last-gasp goal against Greece to secure England's place in the 2002 World Cup. "The most important goal of my life," he says now. The goal would later inspire the international hit film Bend It Like Beckham, which served for many as Becks' first shoutout to America.
At home, Beckham was forgiven, if not fully embraced. He remains a thorn in England's side, a national anomaly: too pretty, too happy, too tacky, too sexy, too rich, too visible, too shameless—in short, too American—to admire. He wears Posh's knickers. He cuts his hair into a Mohawk. He listens to hip-hop. He works the bling. Worse, he is self-made, a walking meritocracy, a success born not of breeding but of sustained effort, and if there's anything that irks the English more than a tall poppy, it's a tall poppy with no apologies. "I am who I am," Beckham says. "I haven't changed because I am famous. All I am is a footballer."
But Beckham is only a soccer player the way Michael Jordan was only a basketball player and Tiger Woods is only a golfer. Corporeal gifts aside, he makes an impact merely by being. Charisma happens. It is not his fault. But he has been apologizing for it since he was a teenager. In 2003, Beckham left England to play for overtly flashy Real Madrid, a move hotly debated and one he thought might ease the daily tensions of his celebrity life.
No such luck. "There are still five cars outside my house every morning," he laments. Add that Real Madrid, stacked with an embarrassment of talent, has yet to win anything, and the move is looking to be less than fortuitous.
All the better for America, where, it may interest you to know, soccer is also played. And unless the people building stadiums and funding ever more teams are collectively insane, the game is primed to morph from carpool destination to bona fide American sport, one in need of a bona fide American hero. And who better than Beckham?
"There is a lot of interest on our part," says MLS commissioner Don Garber. Beckham's four-year commitment to Real Madrid expires in 2007, making his playing future a source of manic international speculation. "David is a transcendent figure. And all sports experience unprecedented growth with a transcendent athlete."
Garber says that while Freddy Adu ushered in a new wave of interest, nothing compares to the possibilities Beckham might bring. "I hate to use the expression 'magic bullet,' but David is a guy who crosses over from athlete to influencer. And MLS could really use an influencer."
MORE THAN 25 camera crews have assembled outside the New York City adidas store. Beckham is in town to launch his new soccer boot, a silver number emblazoned with a dragon and called the Predator. "I love how patriotic America is," Beckham says, glancing around the store. "You see the Stars and Stripes on every car and house. I think that's incredible."
He widens his eyes. "Two years back, I would come here and maybe one or two people would recognize me," he says. "Now it's different. And for me to be noticed with so many great athletes here, that is incredible."
There is much that is incredible in Beckham's life.
"The fans in the U.S. have been incredible."
"Being a dad is incredible."
"My wife is incredible."
"To get this sort of attention is incredible."
"Soccer in America could be incredible."
Maybe, if Beckham were at the helm, and if advertisers had someone to get behind, and if would-be fans had a star to adopt, an idol who has already surpassed the sport, a man compelling enough to jump-start their latent interest, a man even a soccer hater could admire and watch, openmouthed and proud to call his own.
Beckham does a quick shop in his Predators, swiping up XXL track pants, T's for his wife and kid-size shorts for his three sons (Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz). He piles his loot neatly in the makeshift greenroom, then stops to have his hair tweaked for the event, which starts in five minutes. He smiles wanly as his blond locks are ruffled into shape. Publicists and product reps swarm, nervously barking into their BlackBerrys, faces tight with worry. "You realize the World Cup doesn't get this many press requests," says one, exasperated by the media overflow.
Beckham remains placid, arms loose behind his back, the hint of a smile on his lips, the picture of venerable ease. It is an expression he will keep for the next two hours, through the shoe launch and a deluge of photographs and shouting press: Over here! Left! That's hot! More! Through 20 succeeding one-on-one interviews during which—when he is not being asked the same facile questions by various members of the international press—he is being forced to defend his popularity.
How do you get the whole world to love you?
"I'm lucky. I just try to be who I am."
You love clothes. Would you ever design for Dolce & Gabbana?
"I don't think they need my help."
Have you considered modeling?
"I'd rather play soccer."
Do you think England can win the World Cup?
"I believe we can win. It's all about hard work and a little bit of luck."
Is the fame worth it?
"How could I ever complain about my life?"
Are you real?
Are you real?
"What you see is what you get."
No matter how inappropriate the question, Beckham is deferential and genial to every reporter. He inquires about their flights, signs jerseys for their kids and, to one novice writer from Japan whose trembling hands make it nearly impossible for him to grip his pen, offers comfort.
"Lovely interview," Beckham says softly. "Well-done."
Later, as he packs up for yet another press appearance, this one under the Brooklyn Bridge, he explains what he sees as the key to his success. "All I have ever wanted is to be known as a great footballer," he says firmly. "The rest is a bonus. I want to be remembered and respected for what I've done on the pitch. Because that is where I feel the most myself. Always has been."
He laughs. "I wouldn't have minded being a basketball player. I think they are the best athletes in the world. My wife always jokes that she wishes I could bounce a ball."
Instead, Beckham is transitioning into an elder statesman of his sport. He will captain England's 2006 World Cup team, his third and likely final shot at the event. "I have 82 caps for my country," he says. "The players look up to experience. They listen. They want to learn what has gone on in the past, and I have been around for quite a while.
"Maybe one day I will come to New York and finish my career," he says wistfully. "I'd love to be a part of the MLS."
By way of Stateside introduction, Beckham is opening a soccer academy in LA, an extension of his $25 million academy in London. "These schools are not for the elite," he stresses. "I remember being asked what I wanted it to be like, and I said like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I want the wow factor. The fun is more important than anything else. Fun is what makes a great player."
Fun and, seemingly, great cheekbones.
"David is the Pele of his age," says Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, which owns four MLS teams and is a partner in the academies. "There is something worldly about him that other players lack, not only as a player but as a personality. He activates people who we couldn't get interested in soccer otherwise."
A necessary ingredient for Stateside success. "We'd like to find a way to up popularity that isn't just, 'Get David Beckham,' " says Garber. "That's the challenge. Americans think in nanoseconds. People here are looking for some quick fix. But building soccer in the U.S. is a long process."
Still, soccer is the fastest growing youth sport, the U.S. national team is ranked sixth in the world and it seems probable that the sport's day in the American sun will come, eventually. Until then, there is the looming lure of Beckham.
"David understands how to make an impact," says Leiweke. "If we want soccer to develop in this country, we are going to need a push from without, and that push is David Beckham."
If Beckham feels any pressure from being held responsible for selling a foreign game to a nation of NASCAR and NFL fans, it doesn't show. For his is not to wonder why he'll matter even if his sport doesn't, or how the love of who he is will translate if we don't love what he does. Pele may have tried and failed, but that was then and this is now and Pele didn't have a beguiling English accent or a Spice Girl wife. And really, even if he falls short of delivering the sport, he will still be hot and his photos will still appear in Us Weekly and no one will blame him, because soccer in America is a tough sell, no matter how beautiful you are.
"David wants to leave a legacy," says Leiweke. "We are the biggest challenge of his career and he knows that. He could energize soccer in this country. The only question is, does he want to?"
SCHEDULING A TV shoot under the Brooklyn Bridge was a bad idea. There is wind off the river, the wail of trains passing overhead and a garrulous, unexpected crowd of teenagers, drawn by the MTV logos and the enormous floating platform anchored in the East River and topped by a soccer net.
The plan is for Beckham to do a bit about the soccer academy, then kick a ball over water into the bobbing net. He plants the ball on a tuft of grass, draws back his leg and with a small hop makes contact, plunking the ball directly into the drink with a splash. Undeterred, he tries again, pausing to yank up his sagging track pants. Once again, ball hits water. And so it goes, kick after kick. He smiles after every miss, shrugs and tries again. Publicists start muttering about the wind, e-mails are frantically sent, minions are dispatched to fetch errant balls. Beckham ignores them all, concentrating on the ball before him. Another miss. The crowd oooohs sympathetically. Photographers lower their cameras.
Beckham has many gifts, not the least of which is that he never looks ridiculous. No matter the chaos around him, he has a Zenlike contentment, an ability to flow elegantly through any situation, from pitch to Oscar party to ill-considered TV spot. So complete is his self-assurance that he could wear a tutu and fairy wings and end up evoking coos rather than eye rolls.
Indeed, Beckham broadcasts no needs, no neuroses, none of the ego-fueled, love-me shtick of so many professional athletes (and civilians, for that matter), and thus he emerges from the cocoon of his talent with something resembling old- fashioned dignity—something American sports could stand to import. It is this containment, this eerie self-sufficiency, that leads many to call Beckham simple, a soccer savant with nary a complicated thought in his pretty little head.
"I don't really listen to what other people say," he explains. "As a kid, I was skinny and small. I was told I'd never make it as a footballer."
Beckham tugs at his pants, a lower cuff of which has gotten soiled from the trademark drag of his foot under the ball, a rubbery drop of his ankle that is the source of the infamous bend. There is one ball remaining. He eyes the net, then the ball, then the net. He runs up, drags, kicks … and the ball takes flight in an improbable arc, catches the wind and whooshes into the net. Everyone cheers. Beckham turns around, lifts his eyebrows and sighs quietly. MTV rushes forward and puts a microphone in his face.
What's in your iPod?
"Jay-Z. John Legend."
Any Hollywood ambitions?
"All I am is a footballer. I'm happy with that."
The interview ends. A cop asks if he will pose for a picture. Beckham obliges, draping an arm around the man's shoulder.
"You really think soccer can happen here?" the officer asks skeptically.
Beckham pauses, wind ruffling his hair. Behind him the sun is setting. A cruise liner toots its horn. Children toss stones into the water. The Brooklyn Bridge glistens with its transformative promise. He smiles.
"I believe the American public just doesn't know how exciting soccer can be."