If there was ever a sheen on David Beckham for the American soccer fan with a Y chromosome, if he was initially given a pass, if anybody believed anything he said, well, that patina is gone. Beckham can still build urban soccer fields and set up summer camps and buy a MLS franchise, but you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
“Senator,” someone needs to tell him, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Not that it would do any good.
I have two words followed by three exclamation points written in my notes. Yallop partying!!! Break down that scene for us. Were you there?
I was there. That was the first stop on the first road trip with Beckham that the Galaxy took. It was in Toronto, a horrific game. Beckham didn’t even play. It ended 0-0. But Toronto is a pretty fun town, and the Galaxy had made this deal with a local promoter, which allowed them to stay for free at a really nice hotel downtown, and they had all of their meals at this club, called the Ultra Supper Club, which was the hottest club in the city. Part of the deal was this big blow-out party the night of the game. In return for all these freebies, the club was allowed to promote the fact that Beckham and the Galaxy were there. Beckham’s people ended up getting upset about that, and the Galaxy never did those promoter deals again.
It was a pretty amazing scene. I was there, I think, with Allen Hopkins from ESPN. He had somehow located some wristbands, so we didn’t have to stand in line forever outside. It was what I imagine it must have been like to be at Studio 54 with the Cosmos in the 70’s. This was a huge huge event in Toronto, and it was fascinating to see that this was all for one person. I remember talking to Galaxy players about that – guys like Pete Vegenas wondering what it must have been like to be in Beckham’s shoes, knowing that if you suddenly got up and went to the other side of the club that so many people would just gravitate toward you. That was the first time the Galaxy experienced what it was like, at least off the field, to be a SuperClub.
The way you have it positioned in the book, it plays like the climax, because from then on it begins to unravel. You write that it was strange to see Frank partying with the players because it was not the personality you expected out of him—as if drinking that night in the club is where he and maybe the whole team drank the Kool-Aid.
Keep in mind that Frank was the guy who did the deal with the promoters. He has contacts in Toronto, and the Galaxy signed off on it. But Frank is known as a players’ coach and, you know, people noticed he was out that night, and some people had a problem with that and some people didn’t. Frank is a really good guy by the way; I love Frank. But I also don’t think he was a good fit. Once Beckham signed it was a hard fit for him. He wasn’t really in a position where he could tell David to do something he didn’t want to do. That really came back to haunt Frank when Beckham played two days in a row in London and Los Angeles, 90-minutes each.
In regards to American coaches in general, what kind of coach would it have taken to make that situation work? They had two polar choices in there back-to-back and neither could get it done. Does a lot of it just come back to the special beast that is the MLS structure?
Yes. That is one of thing that definitely comes out of seeing what happened to Ruud Gullit. It’s no coincidence that the only foreign-born coaches who have had success in MLS had spent time in the United States for quite awhile and got a sense of how this league works, which is very different than any other league in the world. Guys like Steve Nicol have been around forever. Nowak, Rongen, guys who have won MLS Cups. Juan Carlos Osorio, even though he isn’t doing well now, has had success in this league and has been in MLS at a level below head coach and knew how the league worked. Then you look at guys like Gullit, Carlos Alberto Pereira, Bora Milutinovich—these guys were failures, pretty abject failures in MLS, and I don’t think that is a coincidence at all, because these guys are wired to coach in a different way, which is the European way.
Is that a problem for MLS?
I don’t know. In the end, I think it helps American coaches. Most of the guys who have had success are Americans. I don’t think you want to get a reputation as a league, though, that every European or South American coach that comes in is going to have a real problem. I think you want as many influences as possible, but for big name foreign coaches who come into MLS, there are no exceptions—they always fail. So I wouldn’t mind seeing a guy come in and have success. As for Gullit and the Galaxy, you had, in a sense, someone in Terry Byrne that didn’t really understand these issues picking a coach. But also Tim Lewieke is at fault for making the final decision in going down the road of hiring a big name foreign coach, and he knew the history of those coaches in MLS.
How much of it is the handcuffs MLS places on their teams and how much of it is this often discussed idea that the American player is different.
I think the American player is different. They are more educated in most cases than foreign players. The American has been conditioned to not just accept everything but ask, “Why are we doing this?” I found it interesting that a European player, Abel Xavier, really came around to what MLS was as a league and how as a coach you did need to have a different relationship with the players than you do in Europe. You needed to be in contact with them more often; you couldn’t just not talk to your team. And because there were so few veterans on the Galaxy, you really needed to create a sense of leadership in that group instead of exiling guys like Pete Vegenas for two months at a time, when here is a guy who knows more about the Galaxy and MLS than just about anybody on that team.
The controversy over the captaincy speaks to the team leadership as well, and it gave you another great series of anecdotes, which for me still stand as the brilliant part of this book. Take me through piecing that together.
So the full story is what you read in the book, and I think I got it pretty close. But even the principles didn’t know the full story for a long time. Landon Donovan did not know until the Spring of 2009 that Beckham’s handlers had anything to do with requesting that David take over the captaincy from Donovan.
Where does he find that out?
I told him. It’s kind of crazy because it’s such a sensitive issue but like Alexi Lalas says, it’s also a bunch of high school BS. But the captaincy can be such an important thing on a team—not stepping on people’s toes or showing a lack of respect. So I remember in reporting my SI story in 2007 before Beckham even arrived, asking Frank Yallop, what are you going to do about the captaincy? And Frank got this look on his face like, “I don’t know.” The funny thing was that I didn’t know until over a year later that Terry Byrne had asked the same exact question in Madrid when Lalas and Yallop had visited him there. That is a different question coming from Terry Byrne, because it comes with the power of David Beckham behind it. Now Beckham’s side may say that was not coming from David Beckham, but it has the force of Beckham. It certainly spurred Yallop and Lalas into action, telling Donovan in separate conversations almost right as Beckham was arriving that he needed to give up the captaincy. It’s fascinating to me because Yallop and Lalas—all they said to Donovan was people from above want this to happen. They didn’t say anything about it being Beckham’s handlers. And then when it actually does happen, and Beckham is the captain for the first time in August of 2007, the story that is given to the media is solely that Donovan wanted to do this—even from Donovan himself. There was so much more to the story, so much going on below the surface. Several weeks later Landon was the first one who told me. He said that Yallop and Lalas had come to him about it. And he was upset at first. But this is very different from what was coming out in the daily media stories.
It really speaks to the worth of the medium, writing a book. You’ve said it over and over again, but the time you had and the repeated access you got—we wouldn’t have these stories were it not for that schedule, that expanse of time.
I had so much information. Almost 1000 pages of interviews in my computer shorthand from transcribing recordings. I spent a good two weeks just putting things into a real-time chronology. That took forever, but it was important to organize all that information and get a sense of when things happened and when people were aware of things, so that you could make sense of it for the reader.
Breakdown the time line of the writing process.
I knew all along that the manuscript was going to be due the first of March of 2009. The Galaxy season ended in October of 2008. I wrote the first chapter in October, and then I had to do a lot of work for SI for college basketball and for MLS Cup in November. I arrived in South Africa on Thanksgiving day and knew I would have three months from that point to hand in a finished manuscript. So, I spent just about two weeks outlining and organizing and began to get a little nervous, because I don’t think I started actually writing the rest of the book until December 18th. I ended up writing about 105,000 words in 71 days. When you hear that you are kind of frightened, or at least I would be. I mean, is that going to be any good? But I felt like I had such good material and that always helps. Thankfully I don’t really suffer from writers’ block and didn’t here. I just worked seven days a week, and in South Africa there was no one to bother me; I was on leave from SI. I would get up at 5:15 in the morning and write until about 6pm. It was painful sometimes, but thankfully it worked out. I made my deadline. And then the book was originally supposed to come out in October, in time for MLS playoffs, which was kind of the time hook. But once it turned out that Beckham was going to come back to MLS in mid-July, Crown made the decision to have the book come out then. Which I am very happy about because it gave the book a really good time hook. There are very few books that come out almost in real time. The book goes all the way through early March 2009.
Can we expect an epilogue in the paper back edition that sews up the story after this season, if and when Beckham leaves MLS for good, as many think he will?
Everybody but him, which is funny. If it was him calling the shots, I think he would finish this season with the Galaxy, return to a European club to prepare for the World Cup, and then come back to MLS and finish out his playing days. But sure, I’d do that, I guess it depends on if anybody buys the book. I am curious to see how things go for Beckham with the Galaxy and how the fallout goes with what has been said in this book. Very few Beckham teammates have ever been critical of him, especially the way Donovan is in this book. These are guys who have lockers next to each other in Los Angeles, so I am very curious to see how that plays out.
How do you think Donovan is going to handle this? Surely he knew as he was telling you these things that there was going to be a discussion that needed to take place or a cold shoulder received.
I think the best way to put it is that Landon is not going to be blindsided by what is in the book or what he is saying in the book. How that plays out publicly or privately between him and Beckham, honestly, I have no idea.
That’s the $30 question.
Yeah, and Lalas says a lot of things about Beckham and his handlers. How will that play out? I don’t know. I do appreciate the time those guys spent talking to me for the book and their fearlessness in what they said.
Those two really do in many ways make the book. It’s so rare these days, when athletes prefer to talk publicly through Twitter or their websites. Articles have been written about the death of long form sports journalism and how it affects a fan’s relationship with professional athletes. And I would by lying if I didn’t think this book could scare Donovan away to some degree. But in your experience, how unique do you feel this project was in that regard?
I hope it’s not too unique, in that I hope people will want to talk to me in the future. I think I have been straight up with everyone involved, and maybe it was a sign of the dysfunction in the Galaxy locker room that a guy like Donovan would be so candid with me. A lot of that stuff wasn’t being shared to the rest of the locker room or all the guys. I think the level of communication between Donovan and Beckham was in particular pretty low last year. And I know Donovan wants to improve that this year. It’s important to say that as angry as Donovan can get at some points in this book with Beckham that he would tell you that he wants to have a good relationship with David on the field this year and that Beckham can be useful for the team. It was important for Donovan all along—we had this conversation many many times—that it was not a personal thing with Beckham. He simply wanted him to do what was right for the team. By the end of 2008 season, Donovan was very upset because he did not think Beckham had been committed to the team in the last half of that season.
This book will pull the cover off soccer for a lot of people. It’s a sport that doesn’t get a lot of attention, full of players who see equally little attention. I’ve argued that makes soccer ripe for this kind of treatment from writers. Do you agree? Does that help in player access, as opposed to say, a NFL team full of famous, rich guys potentially more leery of media?
I think it is a reflection of where soccer is. It is at a stage where maybe it is kind of like where the NFL was in 1960’s. And soccer probably is not there yet, but I think of the photograph of Joe Namath sitting by the pool before the Super Bowl, talking to all of the writers. It was possible to do that back then. With so many professional athletes today, it is next to impossible to have that kind of access. Landon Donovan is the best soccer player in America as far as I’m concerned, and yet here is a guy who I ate a lot of meals with; we had interview meals in New York and Providence, Rhode Island. I was at his house in Manhattan Beach. He is a very busy guy, but he made time. And because it was over a two-year period, you are talking about a lot of hours at the end of that. And quality hours with his willingness to talk about this stuff. Maybe he also noticed that I was willing to fly across the country all the time while I had a fulltime job at SI, in order to do these interviews and follow the team. Maybe I earned some respect from him on that part.
Does Landon win the award for giving you the most time?
I would say Donovan and Lalas were at the top of the list, but there were other guys, too. Chris Klein and I talked a lot. Alan Gordon, Pete Vegenas, Greg Vanney, Edson Buddle, Joe Cannon. Kyle Martino was a great interview, but he got waived by Gullit. From my purely selfish perspective, I was really upset when Martino got waived because he was such a good interview. Albright also. Great interview, but he got traded. There are a lot of guys on that team who gave me quite a bit of time, and I’m curious to see how they feel about the finished product. But I do hope they know I appreciate the time they took.
Could this happen in any other sport? The book? The story that unfolds? I don’t think it could, and that speaks to soccer’s place in the world of professional sports as well.
I think it does, too. And I’m not sure it could happen elsewhere. We’re at this middle ground where MLS is not just starting, but it also is not where some people would like it to eventually be. It’s a very strange situation where someone who is this global icon comes into the team, and it gets back to the whole worlds colliding stuff. If you had some previous relationships like I did with people inside that team, and they were willing to talk about having this whirlwind come into their lives, then you knew there would be something good there, no matter how it played out. And there is so much more than what is in the book. Someday maybe I will have to unleash the outtakes on my blog or something.
Give me one.
One of my favorite moments was having Abel Xavier yell at me for 10 minutes in the Galaxy locker room’s bathroom at RFK stadium. It was the very first road trip with Beckham, and he was upset that I was writing a book. At that time he was very much coming from a European mentality of, you don’t write books unless you are paying all the people involved, to have their stories. I had to try and explain to him as he was screaming that American soccer was a little bit different, and I was a little bit different in a sense because I knew a lot of the other guys, though I didn’t obviously know him. He had a habit of getting really upset after loses—they had lost that night—and he also had this habit of whenever things didn’t meet his standards saying (in Grant’s best Abel accent) “This Is Not Correct!” He is a total character with a volcanic temper. He kept saying that over and over again. It was funny because after a while a lot of the American players on the team had a lot of respect for Xavier, even though he didn’t play very well for the team on the field. By the end of it, about a year later, Abel, who at one point was going to write his own book about it, agreed to a détente set up through Pete Vegenas, who had put in a good word for me. But he was gone before it could happen.
Further to the point, can you imagine what went down over the last two years with the Galaxy happening at any other franchise in any other pro sport?
I’ve been racking my brain, and while certainly some franchises have been run poorly, I can’t think of one place where this sort of dysfunction has taken place, much less explicitly chronicled in a book. Which will be another test for the place of MLS in the American sporting spectrum. If this story was about the Giants, fans would be furious. But with MLS and the Galaxy, will anyone care?
I guess we’ll find out.