David Beckham played his final game for the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday, taking a final bow to chants of “Thank you, Beckham” more than five years after signing a mega-lucrative contract with Major League Soccer in a deal that was meant to herald the arrival of big-time soccer fandom to the United States.
Whether Beckham succeeded in that task is up for debate. After all, his announcement weeks ago that this season would be his last has in many ways overshadowed the 2012 MLS Cup tournament. Speculation over the star’s next move was immediate, egged on by his remarks that he wanted “one last challenge” before ending his playing career.
Beckham made an enormous splash when he joined the Galaxy in July 2007, bringing his famous wife, Victoria, in tow. At the time, his annual salary of $6.5 million was so large it required the league to change its salary-cap rules; additional endorsements and royalties put the deal at a jaw-dropping $250 million. Simon Fuller, who created the Idol television franchise and introduced David to his wife when she was still known as Posh Spice, coordinated much of the PR around the signing.
Once the initial buzz died down, however, Beckham’s declining performance and questions about his commitment to the team began to cause concern that his move to MLS would benefit neither the league or his new team. Embarrassingly, the Galaxy missed the playoffs in both 2007 and 2008, and the team endured a winless streak of 12 games. Flashes of the impressive skills that made him one of the world’s most recognizable players appeared once in awhile, but Beckham struggled to stay healthy—and insisted on being loaned to larger European clubs in a failed attempt to make England’s roster for the 2010 World Cup.
In 2011, after weathering criticism from the media, fans, and even his teammates, Beckham finally enjoyed a stellar season. He was named to the league’s Best XI (an MVP group of 11 players) and helped the Galaxy win its third MLS Cup in team history.
So his record on the field is mixed. But Beckham’s influence on soccer in the United States is unquestionable. His arrival not only established the Galaxy as a perennial star-studded team, but also helped to create identity in smaller markets such as Houston and Salt Lake City, where local teams could take pride in being highly competitive without flashy, expensive players.
Never shy to be out in front of an issue, Beckham has long prided himself in being considered a gay icon and he has graced the cover of Attitude, a top-selling monthly British gay magazine. Now, Major League Soccer is ahead of its rival sports leagues in accepting diversity, emphasizing a “no-tolerance” policy toward the use of homophobic slurs that resulted in substantial suspensions for two players in 2012.
Meanwhile, bolstered by expansion in seven new markets since Beckham’s arrival, average MLS attendance is now the third-highest among professional sports leagues in the U.S. Importantly, Beckham infused the sport with a grade of celebrity octane that had been missing for too long, with friends like Tom Cruise and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith hosting lavish parties to introduce the Beckhams to Los Angeles. (The buzz also helped to boost David and Victoria Beckham’s international brands, including product lines ranging from colognes to H&M underwear.)
What could possibly be next? Having spent 20 years as a professional athlete and well over a decade as a global icon, many speculated that Beckham’s time with the Galaxy would be his last stop before moving on to the business side of the game he loves. Having missed the 2010 World Cup due to injury, it’s unclear whether Beckham could still succeed at the world’s highest level, although he has said he would like to have one last shot at the Champions League, the ultimate prize for European soccer clubs.
Early rumors included Beckham moving to an up-and-coming professional league in China or Australia, both of which have recently used big-name signings of such international stars as Didier Drogba and Alessandro Del Piero to attract attention and investors. But while both countries would represent new opportunities for both David and Victoria, such a drastic uprooting seems less likely for the Beckham clan.
What about Paris? Becks turned down an offer to play for the city’s high-profile team last year, choosing to stay in Los Angeles with his family, including his newborn daughter, Harper, and three sons Brooklyn, Romeo, and Cruz. Now a move to Paris or, if rumors are to be believed, Monaco, would not be nearly as surprising. Whether his family joins him full time or returns to London to be closer to friends, family, and Victoria’s main office for her clothing line, Beckham could have his “one last challenge” as a professional soccer player while staying close to his roots.
One thing’s for sure: Beckham will almost certainly take advantage of an option included in his Galaxy contract to buy a future expansion franchise in Major League Soccer at an attractively low price. Or, with a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, he could even buy into the Los Angeles team he’s both represented and grown to love over the last five years.
Either way, David Beckham’s legacy in the United States did not end with the final whistle on Saturday.