Wildly overspending on athletes is a venerable tradition, in America and beyond. But Manchester United's plan to sell David Beckham, the foppish glamour boy of English soccer, is something new. Usually, sports teams justify their expenditure by hyping their new purchase's talent. ("We brought Jeff George to Washington to win a Super Bowl.") In the case of Beckham, the organization that was willing to pay more than $41 million for him barely seems interested in his famously curvaceous free kicks or amazing passing.
Jorge Valdano, sporting director of Real Madrid, the club that has sealed the deal, has said, "There are icons in soccer and Beckham is one of them. We have in our team a lot of [players] from the south. … And Beckham is the north. I think he's a complement which seems especially attractive, above all for the media." For Valdano, to do other than damn Beckham with faint praise would be unconvincing. While Beckham may have superb attributes as a player, he probably does not merit a starting spot in Madrid's all-star lineup. Talent, however, is beside the point. The purchase of David Beckham isn't about building the world's best soccer club; it's about building its biggest brand.
This past year, the NBA began using Yao Ming to crack Asian markets. But the NBA's global reach looks like RC Cola compared to the Cokes and Pepsis of European soccer. Beckham's Manchester United club has spent summers crisscrossing the Far East, hawking replica jerseys. It has plans to launch an Asian chain of superstores and theme restaurants, the Red Cafe. In Thailand alone, its fanzine has 30,000 subscribers. And unlike most firms that went global last decade, they actually bank a profit. Even with last year's dull markets, United took home about $33.6 million.
It's not easy to overestimate Manchester United. When Man U. travels through the United States this summer, however, the American media will do just that. They will describe them as the New York Yankees of global soccer, which gets them wrong. In the battle of the global soccer conglomerates, United has a fierce competitor in Real Madrid. Compared with Madrid, United has accomplished next to nothing in the all-important intra-European Champions League, in which they have won only one cup in the past 35 years. As a result, they have almost 2 million fewer European fans than Madrid. And because European fans have more cash than Asian ones, Madrid sells many more jerseys and makes more money, about $40 million last year.
Like so many European business stories, Real Madrid's success begins with government help. Generalissimo Francisco Franco adored the team, lounging around his palace on weekends and watching it on television; his dictatorship allegedly secured Madrid the best players of the day. And this is not only distant history. In 2000, Madrid's right-wing City Council paid about $350 million to buy the club's training ground. Real Madrid deploys its wealth with patience and acumen. Each year the club commits to one new merchandise-selling megastar. In consecutive seasons, they have imported the Portuguese dervish Luis Figo, the French playmaker Zinedine Zidane, and Ronaldo, arguably the greatest collection of talent in the game's history. (When Real bought Ronaldo, they sold 200,000 replicas of his jersey in two months.)
Beckham could be the final piece that makes Madrid the top conglomerate. He will give Madrid a foothold in Asia, where he is literally a demigod. Bangkok's Pariwas temple had a Beckham statue in a spot reserved for minor deities. The Japanese magazine Shukan Jitsuwa has reported a trend of women styling their pubic hair as homage to the Mohawk Beckham wore during the last World Cup.
And, for the first time, Madrid will have a British following. It is difficult to describe Beckham's significance to English culture. It goes beyond residual celebrity from his marriage to Posh Spice. Like Madonna, he provides endless fodder for cultural studies programs. Each month it seems a new tome makes sense of his effeminate style and its revolutionary implications for English masculinity. Journalists enjoy him more. Every time he unveils a hairstyle—there are several makeovers a year—the British tabs slap his new do on their covers. It has shot him to a level of fame that only Princess Di has achieved in recent memory. Last month, when he recorded a short speech condemning hooliganism, it was broadcast simultaneously on three national TV networks like a prime ministerial address.
In other words, selling Beckham to Madrid may doom United's global empire. So why act so self-destructively? Two possible answers. The first is the simplest: For all their domestic success, they need better results against continental competition in the Champions League. By selling Beckham, the club will finance the purchase of the Jeri-curled Brazilian Ronaldino and vital bit players.
There's also a culture war within United. Since 1986, the club has been run by Sir Alex Ferguson, a surly Scotsman. Ferguson thinks of himself as an old-fashioned guy, most comfortable at the racetrack. He makes no secret of his disdain for Beckham's "flash" lifestyle, which he more or less blames on Posh Spice. (The English press routinely diagnoses Beckham as "pussy-whipped.") For a while, this tension was tamped down, and Ferguson and Beckham enjoyed a mentor-protégé relationship. Now the father wants his son out of the house.
Beckham's game may have glaring weaknesses, but Ferguson has got him wrong. He's a hard worker, earnest mensch, family man, and tasteful patriot, everything you could demand of a sports hero. Perhaps it's fitting that he will leave England. In a national culture that lovingly celebrates losers—Eddie the Eagle, Mr. Bean, Bridget Jones—he stuck out.