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Pitch Perfect

Why David Beckham deserves our respect

You may measure the scale of an injustice by the reaction it provokes. So when a Scotsman feels the need to rally to the defense of the most celebrated English soccer player of his age it's clear that calumny is in the air. Yet such is the case with Aleksandar Hemon's attack on David Beckham, a hatchet job soccer's greatest butchers could only admire.

Where to begin? Hemon's argument is, by turns, thin, implausible, manifestly unfair, and illogical. Cumulatively his arguments are, alas, just silly. Since I am an admirer of his work this saddens me.

Like most of Beckham's critics, Hemon rests his argument upon twin considerations: Beckham's limitations as a soccer player and the consequent absurdity of his fame and fortune. The first, however, is a straw man. No sensible observer - nor even Beckham himself - has ever claimed that he is the finest soccer player on the planet. He's been a very good but not great player. What one may say, however, is that he has made the best of his abilities. Furthermore, those abilities have not been trivial. Even Hemon concedes that Beckham has been the world's deadliest crosser of a soccer ball for the last decade.

Unfortunately Hemon then tries to claim that Beckham is a loser. This is absurd. Beckham won six championships in England plus another this season in Spain. Add in a brace of English Football Association cup triumphs and a European Champion's League victory and you have the sort of success 99.9 percent of soccer players can only dream about. For what it's worth, I'd also remind Hemon that though it took Beckham four years to win a title in Spain, it also took Manchester United four years to win a title without him. Coincidence? Perhaps. What's certain is that until the flowering of Cristiano Ronaldo this season Manchester United had failed to replace Beckham.

None of this is enough apparently. Laughably Hemon cites England's failure to win the World Cup or European Championships as evidence of Beckham's inadequacy. I have my own reasons for being thankful that such success was never achieved, but Hemon is being unfair. One the one hand, he asks us to believe that Beckham should receive no credit for his teams' victories in years of fat, and then, with a shrill and tabloid certainty, he demands that Beckham shoulder responsibility for their barren seasons in leaner times. Regardless, it's worth recalling that England owed their qualification for the 2002 World Cup to an injury-time Beckham free kick against Greece.

Four years earlier, of course, Beckham had become the most hated man in England. His petulant kick at Argentina's Diego Simeone brought a red card and disgrace and, in the eyes of the brutal English press, made Beckham responsible for England's eventual defeat. I cheered that disgrace.

But Beckham's reaction to trial by tabloid was interesting and spoke well of him. He never complained or indulged in the lachrymose self-pity in which celebrities routinely consider themselves entitled to wallow. Beckham took his vilification like a man, bearing the abuse with a dignity and a decency that, in the end, impressed all but his harshest critics.

Beckham appreciated the realities of modern fame. Those whom the tabloids create, they seek to destroy. With the arguable exception of Princess Diana, the Beckhams understood that better than anyone. One may regret this aspect of the culture, but doing so says more about our frustration at being in thrall to the shallowness of celebrity than it does about the Beckhams. And in a world fascinated by the antics of Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton, Beckham can at least point to genuine achievements on his resume.

Hemon sniffs that he prefers players who do the "unfashionable" (I think he means "rare" or "exclusive") "work of winning." Yet, in addition to Beckham's more-than-fair share of medals, even his critics generally concede his willingness to work. He is, in soccer parlance, an honest player.

His triumphant and surprising recall to Real Madrid's colors this season, like his return to the English side, was based upon the work he'd done on the training ground to demonstrate that he was still worth his place. In neither case did he complain that he'd been treated unfairly. Whatever else he is, Beckham is no prima donna. It would have been easier for him to have shrugged off his relegation to the bench and just waited for his American pay day.

Even that however, is not without its risks. Hemon asks us to believe that Beckham's arrival signals the death of U.S. soccer. If he is right (though I doubt he is) then Beckham will bear a weighty responsibility. More likely, however, is that he will play a part in the steady but irresistible expansion of American soccer. This is not the 1970s and Major League Soccer (MLS) is not the North American Soccer League. That was an alien league, relying on aging foreign stars to give it a whiff of glamour; MLS, by contrast, has had a decade to root itself in the American sporting scene. Much to the horror of some Americans (and the concern of many foreigners) soccer is here to stay. You might not know it but the 2006 World Cup final had a higher U.S. television audience than the 2006 baseball World Series.

Beckham's arrival may be what MLS needs to break through to the next level. The diehards are there, what's needed is the casual fan. Beckham will be charged with attracting them. To borrow from politics, Beckham is tasked with expanding the base. With average crowds of around 15,000, MLS is roughly analogous to the National Hockey League (NHL); unlike the NHL, MLS is growing.

So, yes, his arrival owes more to commercial realities than the Los Angeles Galaxy's need for a right-sided midfielder. But so what? That investment may pay off. D.C. United has already sold more than 30,000 tickets for the visit of the Galaxy next month (twice its normal gate). And Beckham's new squad, according to a team official expects to make "a pretty good percentage" of $6 million from each of a half dozen international friendlies they plan to play in the next twelve months. His presence in the United States will be a boon for MLS internationally, especially in tapping lucrative Asian markets where Beckham's celebrity is, well, extraordinary. He will earn his contract.

Celebrity sells. Who knew? To complain about this is to complain about the realities of modern America. One may despair of this, but it's futile to do so. The Beckhams are vulgarians, but their ceaseless self-promotion is at least allied to hard work, while their determination to seize and maximize every opportunity at hand is typical of the working-class made good. Beckham, the son of a kitchen fitter and a hairdresser, is typical of this type, which is one reason for his appeal: Men can think he's a decent bloke while women consider him "such a nice lad." It's snobbish to sneer at this.

This is one reason why Beckham has been able to make an ass of himself and get away with it. With his hair and his clothes and his ghetto tattoos Beckham has played the celebrity game better than anyone else, leveraging each new "look" into yet another payday. Ordinarily this would prompt ridicule, yet it has not caused lasting damage to the Beckham Brand.

Of course their celebrity is plastic and phony and trivial and superficial. They are, after all, emblematic of their time and products of our age. They are our products. So, really, could there be a more perfect location for Posh and Becks than Los Angeles?

By Alex Massie