Becks: Myth or messiah?

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:35 AM ET

His admirers insist he will be bigger than Pele in North America. His detractors mock him as Harry Potter minus the magic.

Whether he appears on the field or not on Sunday at BMO Field, the curiosity factor will bring a record crowd for any glimpse of David Beckham at the stadium, many searching the stands for his equally famous wife. But can the Beckhams make a full five years' worth of Major League Soccer memories for $250 million US?

Alexi Lalas, president of the Los Angeles Galaxy, is betting the house that the midfielder can do for pro soccer's virgin territory what Wayne Gretzky did when he shifted from Edmonton to L.A. almost 20 years ago.

"There will be an interest in Beckham over here that exceeds anything else," Lalas told mls.net. "Tiger Woods has that international appeal, but with due respect to Woods and Michael Jordan, David Beckham is at an entirely different level."

IN FOR LETDOWN

However, columnist James Lawton of the London-based Independent newspaper who covered the old North American Soccer League when he was based in Vancouver, believes serious soccer fans are in for a letdown with the 32-year-old.

"I've got nothing against the man, but I believe he's a creation of hype, the most amazing separation from reality I've ever seen," Lawton said. "He's talented, has a great right foot, can cross the ball all day and is great at free kicks. But this is like comparing a great NFL punter to a great receiver such as Lynn Swann.

"Can he (emulate) Gretzky? Imagine if Gretzky only took slap shots. If you look at Beckham's record for England in the World Cup and the European tournaments, he's not made a lot of outstanding contributions. There's no hope in hell that Beckham can do what Pele or Johan Cruyff did for the NASL."

Had Beckham appeared on these shores right after the 2006 World Cup, the reception might have been cooler. Another undistinguished performance by England hastened Beckham to surrender the captain's arm band he'd worn for 58 of 95 international appearances. His three years with Real Madrid had not seen him help the Spanish club to any major titles. A change of managers with both teams, notably the arrival of the national team's Steve McLaren, saw Beckham cut, as if to justify claims that predecessor Sven Goran Eriksson was too lenient with the star.

But as he'd done for years with Manchester United and in snapshots with the national team, Beckham was somehow able to restore himself to prominence. While he had his fingers in many endorsement pies and triggered at least nine different U.K. hair-styling fads, at heart he is a small-town boy and a dedicated trainer and thus able to re-establish his place among star-studded Real.

He factored heavily in snatching the 2007 league crown from arch-rival Barcelona, while McLaren, his team struggling for Euro 2008 qualification, ate crow and reinstated him in June.

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Long after Ted Beckham and his teammates would conclude evening training with a drink on the Wadham Lodge 'social club' terrace, they'd marvel as his seven-year-old son practised free kicks in the park's flickering floodlights.

"At least once every session, (the lamps) would go out," David recalled in his autobiography, Both Feet On The Ground. "Somebody would have to run in and put coins in a meter.

"I'd stand on the edge of the penalty area and chip dead balls towards the goal. Every time I hit the bar was worth 50 pence, extra pocket money from my dad that week. And, just as important, a pat on the back."

Such simple gestures and humble beginnings have become the stuff of soccer legend. Beckham is an English sports icon who is being considered for knighthood, while that token monetary reward for shooting accuracy became a nine-figure salary.

Ted was good enough to play semi-pro soccer and it was natural his son, the middle child between two daughters, would want to tag along to his games. When David was eight, Ted recognized a child prodigy in his slightly undersized lad and quit playing to concentrate on coaching him, even letting him join his team's rough five-on-five scrimmage games.

As a student, Beckham sang in the choir and excelled in art, penning credible imitations of Disney characters, graduating to sketches of great soccer goals.

But news of the pre-teen's prowess quickly spread to youth team scouts for the big London clubs. West Ham, Wimbledon, Arnsenal and Tottenham expressed interest.

But even when touring other teams' turf, he wore Manchester red, continuing Ted's unwavering support for United that stretched back to the 1958 plane crash that had killed many of its best players. Manchester scout Malcolm Fidgeon made an early impression with visits to Chingford, while the personal touch of manager Alex Ferguson worked wonders with the Beckham family. On his 13th birthday, Beckham signed for two years as a schoolboy player, plus two as a member of the youth team and two as a pro.

Beckham and the Manchester kids, including Gary Neville, worked diligently the next few years as well as doing menial chores for the big team such as cleaning the clubhouse showers. But as many as 32,000 came out to watch the 16-year-olds play at Old Trafford and there were soon trials with United.

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Beckham would score 62 goals in 265 games for Manchester, including the famous boot from midfield against Wimbledon in 1996. But the tradition-bound Ferguson grew uncomfortable with Beckham's celebrity off the field.

Beckham's marriage to singer Victoria (Posh Spice) Adams made them tabloid fodder in the news vacuum that followed the death of Princess Diana.

Life was still grand when Beckham helped Man U to the '99 FA Cup and European Champions League. But when it came to the world stage, he has had as many hiccups as triumphs. In 1998, England's shot at its first World Cup since 1966 was scuttled in part because Beckham lost his temper and tried to kick Argentina's Diego Simeone in a second-round game, leaving his mates short-handed in an elimination loss.

Beckham was guilty by association when England was quickly bounced in Euro 2000 in Holland.

When Portugal rallied for a 3-2 win, a rogue element of English sopporters enraged Beckham with comments about his wife and newborn son and a photo of him giving them the middle finger was widely circulated.

BEGAN SNIPING

A missed free kick against Portugal at Euro 2004 also haunted him.

Beckham and Ferguson began sniping at each other and in an infamous fit of pique after a loss in 2003, Ferguson kicked a soccer cleat that struck Beckham in the face.

With Beckham no longer sure of his status at Man U, Barcelona led a parade of teams in England and Europe anxious to whisk him away.

But prefering a team with the world-wide glam of United, Beckham called on Real Madrid.

The move stunned the whole of England and led to a marital crisis when Victoria refused to move herself and children Brooklyn and Romeo to Spain. She stayed home to further her music career, until reports of an affair between Beckham and his personal assistant Rebecca Loos rocked the family.

Yet they survived the personal and public storm and completed the four-year hitch in Madrid.

Now the famous duo is about to take North America.

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THE SKINNY ON BECKHAM

- Born May 2, 1975 in Leytonstone, East London, England, also the birthplace of Alfred Hitchcock. Raised in nearby Chingford.

- Joins Manchester United's youth program in 1991, wins '92 FA Youth Cup.

- Debuts in 1992 for Man U's first team, signs his first pro contract in '93, scores first Champions League goal in '94 and first Premiership goal in '95 vs. Aston Villa.

- A low point at the 1998 World Cup where he lost his temper against Argentina's Diego Simeone, incurring a red card that factored in England's elimination.

- Marries Victoria Adams in July 1999. Brooklyn, first of three children born in 1999, followed by Romeo (2002) and Cruz (2005).

- Named captain of English team in 2000.

- Finishes second to Liverpool's Michael Owen as FIFA's world footballer of the year in 2001.

- On Oct. 6, 2001, his last-minute free kick against Greece saves '02 World Cup qualification.

- Meets Queen Elizabeth in 2002 and Nelson Mandela in '03.

- Sold by Manchester United to Real Madrid on July 1, 2003, for a transfer fee of 35 million euros (about $52 million). Named to Order of the British Empire.

- Misses penalty kick against Portugal in Euro 2004.

- Gives up captaincy of England after quarter-final defeat in 2006 World Cup and loses place on national team, but his strong play for Real Madrid changes manager Steve McLaren's mind.

- After World Cup, announces intention to play for Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, a deal that could be worth $267 million.


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