Grant Wahl discusses his new book, The Beckham Experiment, out now from Crown
Why do book reviews have to be summaries of the book? I never got that. I understand it but don’t get it. I do get jacket blurbs, though. Those few sentences of praise on the back of a book–I’m always curious what names are there and what they say.
“Through the prismatic window of its most famous player, Wahl masterfully traces every intersection, follows every turn through the disjointed world of American soccer’s season on the brink… of what exactly is the lasting question.”
“There’s your jacket cover blurb” I wrote in sappy jest to Grant Wahl, when he asked my opinion of his book this past Spring. It was a joke—as if I’d be chosen over Foer, Deford, and other famous writers who praise the book on its back cover. But I have gotten to know Grant a bit over the four years I’ve been producing TIAS (Wahl was my first in-depth interview as I began to position TIAS as place where soccer journalism, not just the sport, was a topic of discussion). So after signing my life away, I was able to procure one of the first galley copies of the book back in May. And before the mainstream got its grubby hands on him, Grant talked his publisher into allowing him to speak to me before the deluge of requests.
“Given the title, the player, and the hype,” I told him when asked for my first impressions of the book, “I’m very happy with how you balanced Beckham with other Galaxy players, MLS as a whole, and American soccer in general. You know I wasn’t excited for a book about Beckham, so I’m thrilled that this really isn’t one. I love how it reads like a magazine piece and how many times you were able to retell specific conversations, moments, etc, that really pull the larger issues out while having the reader feel as if they are standing next to Alexi or Landon when they’re arguing. Three times through it and I’m still blown away by how much people talked and what they said. I would guess at first that as Beckham’s injury persisted, the idea of writing this book could have been difficult, but in the end it turned out to be a better story than if it had gone to MLS, AEG, and 19 Entertainment’s plans. I know at least one other Beckham book was all but scrapped for that reason, and it goes to show what access is worth, and what it can deliver in the right hands.”
There is a reason why Grant Wahl went from researcher to senior writer in just a few years at Sports Illustrated, and there is a reason why this book and all that is held within its pages exists today. Wahl is without equal in the soccer world, and American soccer is without equal in the sports world. Both of those statements speak to quality in their own way, as well as soccer’s place in this country. Publications and writers and the nation on the whole don’t care about soccer, but thankfully Wahl does; he’s the only true narrative writer working in the industry.
But to say Wahl wins due to lack of competition doesn’t give him enough credit. What Wahl produced after following the Los Angeles Galaxy for two seasons is American soccer’s best chance to explain itself to an unknowing world once and for all, even if in that story explodes a soap opera. It will be interesting to see how the book sells in a world where a soccer story can blow up the front page of the Sunday Times but then completely fail as a popular book, as happened with Warren St. John’s flash in the pan about the Fugees down in Georgia.
If this one can’t do it, no one can.
Every aspect that goes into this book—the reporting, the stories that evolved, the fact that soccer allows for this sort of in-depth interaction with the country’s professional players—add up to deliver what may be the best sports book of the year. Part of that lies with Wahl, and part of that rests in the book’s rarity within the changing universe of American sports journalism. This book could not have happened in any of the “big 4″ American sports.
From the minute details of recreated scenes to the wide angle lens that captures this moment in American soccer history, to the fact that the book is essentially being released in real time, Wahl has delivered a masterpiece that no one else working in the sport could have done. There are many fine reporters working in soccer. Even a good satirist or two. And probably too many aging curmudgeons and former Europeans. Unfortunately, there are almost no fine writers. Like everyone involved in the Beckham experiment, a writer wants to get paid too. And like too many players in MLS, very few writers can earn good money with soccer. This book, this story, this writer come together for the perfect storm.
The following conversation took place over Skype on June 3rd, as Wahl was finishing his 7-month sabbatical from Sports Illustrated in South Africa.
(for more on David Beckham’s impact on the American game, join me, the Lalas brothers, and others in New York this Thursday evening for a panel discussion as part of the 1st annual Kicking and Screening Film Festival and then stay around to watch RBNY take on Beckham and the Galaxy.)
Thanks so much for taking the time Grant.
I’m excited. This is actually the first time I’ve been allowed to give an interview for the book. Glad it was you, because I have a feeling I won’t have the same energy as future interviews and reviews come in.
Yeah, I’m thrilled. I don’t think any piece of media this year will be more in my wheelhouse than this. I’ve read it three times, and I’m gonna keep you for about 9 hours if that’s ok with you. So so much to cover, so right into it. Starting general and moving toward the specifics, I wanted to know if while writing it you saw this as your only book on American soccer.
I hope not. This is the first time an American publisher—a big New York publisher—wanted to do a soccer book. You know what, that’s probably not true, but as far as I know, there hasn’t been a book that gets heavily into MLS. The Women’s team has had a book, Mia Hamm has a book, but I cover two sports for Sports Illustrated—college basketball and soccer—and I always thought that my first book would be about college basketball or something other than soccer because there may not be enough demand in the U.S. market. Obviously in this case, it’s different. When Beckham came to MLS, the publisher, Crown, was interested in doing a book to the point that they came to me instead of the usual way of me going to them as the writer with a pitch. So, that’s fantastic. It gave me a chance to write a 300-page book—it’s hard for me to find a lot of space to write about soccer in Sports Illustrated magazine.
What was your reaction when the publisher came to you?
Surprise, a little bit.
Kind of like when Charlie Rose called?
Yeah, exactly. For me it was great. I was looking to do a book right around that time for several reasons. One, I have been at SI for 12 years now and wanted to do a book project that I was really excited about. And I knew I was going to be living in South Africa for 7 months because my wife is working here as a doctor. The advance that I got for the book allowed me to pursue the book and take a leave of absence from SI and write the book over here in South Africa and not have to really worry too too much about finances.
I won’t ask you to name the actual figure, but I’m curious given it is a soccer book, where did that advance fall in regards to your knowledge of what it was worth or what other SI writers had received for books in the past. Did it being soccer affect the advance at all?
I don’t know a lot about the market for that sort of thing. I signed a two-book contract with Crown. This is the first of those books—I don’t know what the second book will be yet. From what I am told, I should be thankful this came around in 2007 because of the economy and book business these days—if I were to get a book deal now, it would have been for a fair amount less. It was enough money for me to follow Beckham and the Galaxy around for two years and then to take off six months from SI and not take a pay cut. So that’s how I judged it.
This book is about much more than Beckham. How did you balance the idea that this is a book about Beckham with its expansion into a larger story of MLS and American soccer? Was that just how the story unfolded, or was that a conscious effort on your part?
Well I knew the guy on the cover was going to be David Beckham. And that is what drove the interest in the book. but at the same time I was confident that there would be a lot of other really good stories to tell in this book because you had a lot of people’s lives being effected by David Beckham coming to the United States. Whether it was Landon Donovan dealing with Beckham’s arrival or someone a lot lower down the recognition scale, like say Alan Gordon—what would it be like for him? How will his life change going from a pretty unknown player to a guy who was going to be seen on broadcasts around the world. So I thought there was going to be a big world’s colliding theme with the world’s most famous athlete suddenly spending all this time and playing with players who were making in some cases less than $20,000 a year, and actually playing. How those worlds collided on the field and maybe more interestingly off the field was going to give up a lot of stories to tell. I thought it would be the case, and I think that is the way it turned out.
There was at least one other Beckham book in the works—by Andrea Canales—that has not been shelved, but the publisher tells me they aren’t sure of its future. What was your thought process after the book was assigned and the story unfolded and the success of the experiment coupled with Beckham’s injury appeared derailed? With the worlds colliding theme being premeditated, was it just part of the story or did you worry at that point? I could argue all of those negatives actually helped the book.
I knew from the start when he arrived in 2007 that none of us knew how it was going to play out. No one knew if it would be a success on or off the field. I have to admit when he was injured so much at the start there, I was beginning to get worried. The original plan for the book was just for me to follow that first season—first half season really. And do it in real detail and write an 80,000-word book about that. The only thing that was going to cause a problem for that was if he was injured for any significant amount of time, which ended up happening. In the end I think it was a blessing for the book as long as Crown continued to support it, which thankfully they did. I owe a lot to Crown for sticking with it. I ended up spending a full year more than was planned reporting the story and following Beckham and the Galaxy through the 2008 season as well. In my mind that is where the best parts of the story come in. A lot of good stuff happens in 2007, what with the players and team dealing with a completely different universe—from travel arrangements to a worldwide crush of media. But then there is an entirely new set of plot lines that take place in 2008 that I think make the storyline of the book much richer.
I couldn’t agree more. As long as we are admitting our reservations, as I told you before I don’t have a lot of interest in a book about David Beckham, so it was a pleasant surprise when I got my hands on it and found it to be so much more. In some ways it is the Galaxy Experiment more than the Beckham Experiment, although the two are impossible to separate. The second half of the book and the unfurling of the Galaxy machine is a treasure trove of stories and behind the scene anecdotes that are unique not just to soccer and MLS but to professional sport franchises the world over.
I have to give a lot of credit for people who had agreed to speak to me one-on-one in 2007 at the start of things when everyone was so optimistic, and then when things started falling apart on the field, at least in 2008, a lot of those guys could have just told me to buzz off, and they kept sitting down with me and talking—guys like Landon Donovan and Alexi Lalas, Chris Klein, Alan Gordon. They continued to answer my questions even though there were a lot of losses and ties and bad vibes piling up.
That speaks to my #1 question for you. Access. It appears you had tremendous access to players and some management. The candidness of your sources is unbelievable. Take me through how you negotiated those usually tepid waters for sports journalism as you went along.
With Beckham I had done two major stories about him for SI. One in 2003, kind of introducing him to the American audience, and then a cover story in 2007 for his arrival to Los Angeles. We had a good relationship based on the time we spent together. Both stories involved significant one-on-one interviews with me and him, about an hour each time; photo shoots in both cases. I didn’t know going in how much one-on-one access I was going to get with Beckham, but I knew he would do media availabilities before and after every game, which is more than he had ever done in Europe. But when I brought the idea of the book to Beckham’s people, even though we had always had a very good relationship, their stance was that David had done books before that were “by David Beckham, ghost written by somebody else” and that he got significant advances for those books—over a million dollars. The implication being, if I wanted to have special one-on-one access to David Beckham for this book itself, that was the sort of money that had to be paid. That wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t angry about that, and I would not have accepted the book deal if I thought that was a possibility. I knew that Beckham’s voice would be throughout the book, and I would be able to ask him all sorts of questions because of the access before and after most games. So I wasn’t all that concerned to be honest because Beckham is not the most colorful source ever, and I don’t know how much I would have gained one-on-one.
But I did know that everyone else within the Galaxy, just because of my relationships that I developed over the last 12 years at SI, would be interested in sitting down with me throughout the reporting process, and that is what happened. It worked out really well in the end. Hypothetically, I guess if Beckham’s handlers wanted money they also wanted approval over what went into the book, and I don’t work that way. I’m a journalist. No past stories I’ve written about Beckham were subject to the approval of Beckham and his people, so the best way for me to put it is that this is neither an authorized chronicle or an unauthorized chronicle. It’s just a straight-up chronicle of what happened, good and bad, from the inside.
Going from the big fish to the minnows, one of the lesser players that ends up playing a big role in the book is Alan Gordon. You could edit out his story from the book and have a stand alone feature on him. Why did you decide to go with Gordon over some of the other players?
From the start the plan was to follow this apartment of three Galaxy players. There were three guys all making less than $50,000 a year, which is why they were rooming together in an apartment in Redondo Beach. That was Alan Gordon, Gavin Glinton, and Kyle Veris. The plan was to follow those three guys and see what happens with them. I had spent enough time around the team at that point to know that these were three guys who had pretty interesting stories, and who were pretty good interviews. They may not ever be quoted in the LA Times or many media accounts, but a lot of these MLS guys are college educated, they’re thoughtful, and they don’t have big egos because they aren’t making a ton of money. It was really good to talk to these guys and get a sense of their stories and how they were experiencing all of this.
When we decided to push the book back one year as far as the release date, Gordon was the one of those three guys who ended up sticking around. Glinton was taken in the expansion draft by San Jose, and Veris got waived and went to Norway last year. So that left Gordon, and the more time you spend talking to Alan Gordon, you just realize that here is a guy who could tell a great story and wasn’t self conscious about his situation and was just funny. He was one of the funniest guys on the team. My feeling was that Alan Gordon and Peter Vegenas were the two funniest guys on the team, so I wanted to get as much of them in the book as possible.
Those stories open up that larger story of American soccer, and the realities of life in MLS for a player, team, franchise, and even the league. How different would this story be if those situations didn’t exist?
I think it would have taken out a big, interesting part of the story—this world’s colliding narrative. I found it fascinating. Going in I knew that would be one of Beckham’s biggest challenges to try and relate to teammates who were making such a microscopic fraction of his salary and his income and whose fame was minuscule, nonexistent really, compared to him. And yet a guy like Alan Gordon was going to play a lot and be relied upon to finish a lot of the passes that Beckham was giving him. That to me was a crucial part of the story. Alan Gordon to me is very symbolic of the MLS player. So many players in MLS, most of them American, make almost no money—Gordon made $30,000 for four years and only later got a bigger contract, which was still not guaranteed. But he kept performing and was asked to do a lot of things in front of crowds of 66,000 people in New York when he is getting paid $30,000 a year. He represents this huge section of MLS players who don’t get a lot of recognition and probably deserve a lot more.
In a lot of ways this book once and for all explains American soccer, or at least MLS, to foreigners who up to now may not be very familiar with it. Is that something you thought about while writing it?
Yeah. I wanted to give a sense of what American soccer and Major League Soccer was at this point in time. Someday it may be a more lucrative enterprise for a lot of people, but this is a real stage of this league’s development that is, I think, a pretty fascinating thing—what it is like to be a part of this league that is very different from one of the top European leagues, from the on the field product to the travel accommodations. The idea of David Beckham staying in some pretty dreary, mediocre hotels with his teammates is a far cry from what he was used to over in Europe.
You knew you needed Landon Donovan to participate in this book. What was Landon’s reaction when you told him about the book and asked for his participation?
With Landon, it’s weird because I have written about him a lot over the years and gotten to know him pretty well. But I had never written a major piece in Sports Illustrated about him—not a personality profile. And yet, I know he respects my writing. It was just a matter of sitting down with him once the book came about and explaining what it was I wanted to do. That ended up being something that he was intrigued by and was willing to do. I’d be curious now to hear how he feels about his participation in the book. He’s tremendously candid in the book. Landon has always been a very candid interview, and I think he is a fascinating character in the book as a result, and is completely honest I think. As a journalist, as a writer, you totally appreciate people who are honest with you.
Beyond the outrageous candor in this book, I was struck by the way you recreated private scenes that happened when you clearly weren’t present. Break down for me how that information comes to you and then how you decide how to present it.
Sometimes when I’m quoting Donovan or whoever it is in sit-down interviews with me. There is a scene late in the book after the Milan loan deal comes out, and that came over lunch with Landon. A lot of the things in the book are scenes where I was not there. What you end up doing as a journalist is talking in extreme detail with as many of the people there as possible to recreate the scene. People have different recollection sometimes of the same scene so you have to sift through the parts that don’t agree and try to find the best way to show where they do agree and get the closest thing to the truth. Thankfully, a lot of people did participate with me and spent a lot of time, many hours, going over memories and answers questions that I had because it can get pretty detailed when you are trying to recreate conversations.
Adding to that, the book is basically in chronological order, but that isn’t the way I would pick up information. Like the information about Donovan and Lalas arguing over his team MVP bonus or lack thereof at the end of the 2007 season—I didn’t find out about that for probably 8-10 months. And then I did find out about it and got Lalas and Donovan to speak in detail about what happened. That was a real benefit of doing a book because sometimes people are really sensitive at the time and are much more willing to talk about it a few months later.
That’s a great point I’m glad you made. And that is also probably the best anecdote in the book. Beyond the intimacy of it, I thought it captured many of the different characters and problems of that time that didn’t have anything to do with what were the stereotypical Beckham Circus issues. And of course Landon and Lalas are at the center of that.
Yeah, that was the thing. I knew going in that two guys in particular, Lalas and Donovan, were two of the main reasons I wanted to do the book. I thought that they would continue to do interviews no matter what happened, and they would be candid. And they didn’t hold anything back. Ever.
Maybe its obvious because they are two of the larger personalities in American soccer, albeit with very different personalities, but from the opening page I was wondering where those two would begin to steer the narrative. It was sort of inevitable.
Yeah, sometimes that was connected to Beckham, sometimes it wasn’t. But you definitely leave the book knowing how they feel about Beckham.
How did you first find out about the MVP money? (Landon was upset the MVP was given to another player after most votes went his way. It cost him the monetary reward.)
One of my sources told me about it, and I asked Donovan about it and Lalas. It’s one of those things that you hang around enough and spend enough time with the team—I traveled to cover the team a lot, so process wise I was around and people got comfortable talking with me. I did a sit down every two or three weeks with everyone involved and had a nice regular schedule going. I think Woody Allen said 99% of life is showing up. Well, if it’s not 99, its pretty close to it. Just being there really paid off. A lot of times you wouldn’t get anything but sometimes you would. I live in Baltimore normally, and it was not easy to cover a team that was based in Los Angeles, but I made a lot of trips to LA and their road games. I kept constant contact on the phone and in person. You keep gathering string and eventually you will have quite a bit.
One of the players I knew very little about, and that I enjoyed reading about was Peter Vegenas. And I think he may be one player who doesn’t come away psyched about the book, not necessarily because of your portrayal of him, but just his having to relive that part of his life where through no real fault of his own he became a lightning rod for a lot of issues.
Yeah, I think the 2008 season was really hard for Pete. He was the longest reigning Galaxy player at that point and had been the captain of the team when they won the title in 2005, and he really bled for the Galaxy. He just had a rough time with Ruud Gullit. I remember Pete saying he would remember 2008 because of the birth of his first child and how great an experience that was, but other than that, 2008 was pretty tough. Pete was working a real difficult locker room situation where everyone knew he was really close friends with Alexi Lalas, and because there was built in tension structurally between Lalas and Gullit, that extended to Pete, who Gullit thought was feeding negative information to Lalas, who would then go to Tim Lewieke. Pete ended up getting in the doghouse after the first game of 2008 and then played something like 13 minutes total in MLS games [over the next two months]. That was, he felt, retribution from Gullit for these supposed exchanges with Lalas. So, look, the Galaxy became a completely dysfunctional organization, especially in 2008, and I think Pete as much or more than any other player got caught up in it.
MLS never seemed to get involved with anything Galaxy, which bucked the trend of the reporting out there about them meddling in every little soccer affair that goes down throughout the league. Did that lack of oversight surprise you?
I think a lot of the ideas about MLS meddling are probably overblown. I think as the league has gone on through the years, MLS Head Quarters has had less and less influence on what goes at individual teams. Plus the Galaxy was the flagship organization in many ways for MLS once they signed Bekcham. Tim Lewieke is a very big personality and so were just about all the people he hired and signed from Lalas to Gullit to the influence of Simon Fuller and Terry Byrne by 19 Entertainment and Beckham’s management. Maybe also too it’s a distance thing. LA is on a different coast from MLS HQ, but I don’t think Don Garber was going to spend too much time trying to influence Lewieke’s organization.
You mention Fuller and Byrne, both largely shadows in the book. You spoke to Fuller as Beckham arrived, but never attribute a quote to Byrne. What was your overall access to those guys and how did you deal with the lack of access to Byrne who ended up playing a big role in the book at the end?
It was interesting. Even going back to May of 2007 when I was getting a lot of one-on-one access to Beckham and I had a long one-on-one conversation with Simon Fuller as well for the Sports Illustrated story, I asked if I could speak to Terry Byrne, because here is a guy who is Beckham’s best friend and personal manager. I have never seen Terry Byrne quoted in much of anything, and he seemed like a figure who could provide good perspective on Beckham and his experiences. Quick Background: Byrne and Beckham had been good friends ever since the 1998 World Cup when Byrne was a masseuse on the England national team and on the bench when Beckham got the red card for kicking Diego Simeone. Beckham obviously went through a horrific process that night and the months following from the British media, but the first guy to greet Beckham as he left the field was Terry Byrne. And he walked him to the locker room while Glenn Hoddle and other players gave Beckham the cold shoulder, Byrne was there and supported Beckham, who never forgot that and repaid him by being best friends with him. In 2003, Byrne became Beckham’s personal manager. Knowing all of that, of course I wanted to speak with him. I found it interesting that Simon Fuller was made available to me—a much more famous and wealthy guy, creator of American Idol—but they did not make Terry Byrne available to me. He has never done an interview that I know of since Beckham’s arrival in 2007.
Maybe you can’t answer this next question because who knows what Byrne would have said, but how much did his exclusion hurt the book? or how much did you worry about that?
I did everything I could to get the Beckham side’s take on a lot of events in the book, and I did in part from talking to people from his side on background. Beckham’s side didn’t really want to have their names on a lot of stuff because they viewed that as making this an authorized book. I wanted to get as many takes as possible on things, so thankfully I was able to talk to sources on Beckham’s side and get their take on stuff, but I do think Beckham’s people and Terry Byrne will wish that they had maybe been a little more available and willing to talk to me for the book, because they would have had probably a bigger influence on the narrative.
There is more to it than monetary value I guess I would say. I think going into this they only viewed their participation or lack thereof as a monetary situation. But why does everyone in Washington talk to Bob Woodward when he does a book? They know that everyone else will, and they know there is a value that comes with speaking and actually shaping the narrative. I’m not saying I’m Bob Woodward, but there is a similarity in that Beckham’s people could have realized more clearly that everyone was talking to me for this book, and there would be value for them to speak that had nothing to do with getting paid.
Getting paid seems to be a giant string that runs throughout the entire book, whether it is the salaries of the lower MLS guys or the misinformation 19 put out about Beckham’s contract’s worth to the whole relationship between AEG and 19 and why it is beneficial for them to be in business together. Looking back on it, would this story exist if it wasn’t for the AEG-19 braintrust?
Beckham would never have come to America if Lewieke didn’t spend five years building a relationship with Beckham and all the people around him. No matter how you look at it now, the whole Beckham experiment, Lewieke’s efforts to land Beckham for MLS are remarkable. Here’s a guy who is very smart and leveraged contacts he made in the music industry with Simon Fuller and 19 Entertainment. AEG is one of the top concert promoters in the world and owns dozens and dozens of concert venues around the world. So the Beckham signing never would have happened otherwise. Lewieke is an extremely heavy hitter, and MLS and the Galaxy may not be quite at that level but because of the personalities involved and how big AEG is, it allowed a deal like this to get done, which allowed a book like this to get done.
Do you see this book as a positive or negative for American soccer?
I don’t know. Positive and negative are hard terms sometimes. What I feel very good about with this book is that I think people can read a 300-page story and come up with very different responses to the people in the book that run the gamut from positive to deeply negative. I’ll be very curious to hear from reviewers and readers especially what they think of Landon Donovan or Alexi Lalas, and I think you are going to get very divergent viewpoints in some cases. But most of the people I have talked to have come away with a lot of respect for Donovan and Lalas and a lot of the stuff that went on behind the scenes that hasn’t been known publicly yet. It will be interesting to see, after a lot of the details of MLS’s travel arrangements are made public, the players’ thoughts on them. To see what happens there and what impact it might have on the collective bargaining agreement that is going on right now between the players union and the league. This isn’t the first time someone has written about what it is like for a low level MLS player day to day, but I do think it will get a fair amount of attention, and it could maybe have a positive impact for the players. For American soccer itself, and I say this upfront in the book, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the American soccer player. And I do think that comes through. So many of these guys have to be playing for the love of the game because of the salaries. Those guys are the ones who know they will have to be working when their playing careers are done to earn a living and many of whom work during their playing careers because they have to make ends meat. Yet they still in most cases give everything out on the field for not a ton of attention compared to other sports leagues in the U.S. I hope that readers come away with a greater sense of respect for the American player.
It’s funny, I have in my notes—“what will this do to the CBA next year?”
Yeah, I don’t know. I think that a guy like Landon Donovan who is actually very involved with the players union—he’s not going to be upset that a lot of this stuff is going public. Nor will a lot of the players who are living it. But I don’t think the players are in a position to go on strike; I really don’t.
Here’s some practice for future interviews, the question you will get from everyone. What’s the lasting effect of the Beckham experiment?
I think Beckham coming to MLS is an important part of the development of the league, in that a lot more people around the world do know about MLS now. And from a business perspective it has become a tremendously successful venture for Beckham, the Galaxy, and MLS. They all made good business decisions from the start. One of the problems with MLS, and I think they really need to address this moving forward in the development of the league, is that too often it is not about soccer. I think this Beckham thing is not really about soccer. It never really has been, except for some decent attacking soccer in the first part of 2008. Even the deal that brought Beckham back to the Galaxy for July was a really good business deal, but it was really hard to see how it was a good thing for the Galaxy as a soccer team. So often as a journalist covering American soccer, I feel like a business writer. That’s something that is important, but sometimes you really feel like that is more important than just about anything, especially what is taking place on the field. I think the people who read this book will see that it’s about the soccer. It’s about what goes on in the Galaxy locker room and the management of the team from a soccer perspective. The business stuff is important, and it has been tremendously successful, but sometimes we lose sight that it has to be about the sport at some point, you know?
OK, so at some point in the book we get to this point where you quite plainly state that one of two things is afoot. Either David Beckham is a liar or he is completely ignorant to nearly everything around him. When did you come to that choice?
Given how much influence his representatives wielded behind the scenes with the Galaxy, engaging in essentially a shadow take-over of the team in 2007 when Gullit was hired on the recommendation of Terry Byrne, David Beckham’s best friend and personal manager… I mean my experience with Beckham is that I don’t think he is stupid, I really don’t. In fact I have thoroughly enjoyed the interviews I have had with Beckham over the years. When you get through the layers of people around him, I think he is a pretty good interview and fairly stunningly normal acting guy. That’s why it is sort of hard for me to believe he wasn’t aware of the influence Terry Byrne had with the Galaxy, or that Terry Byrne wouldn’t share some of David Beckham’s views about the players on the team and the direction the team should go in. You always got from Beckham, “I am here to play to soccer and not do anything else.” And you know, either he was lying or he really was total head in the sand as Terry Byrne and Simon Fuller controlled so much behind the scenes of the Galaxy.
You retell the takeover largely through the eyes of Lalas. What were some of those conversations like, given Lalas’ well-known personality and the fact that such a thing has never happened in any American sport that I can thing of? Can you?
I can’t. It’s such a strange deal that Beckham’s personal manager would be paid to come in as an adviser for the Los Angeles Galaxy and take over the hiring process for the coach, which is probably Lalas’ most important job. For this to happen and for Lalas not to be fired and not to resign and be there for it as the public assumes that he was the one doing the hiring of Gullit is just bizarre. It’s the only way to describe it. It was certainly a process how I learned things, even with Lalas, who was extremely forthcoming. I’ll be honest with you; I learned a lot more after he was fired. Once he was fired he was a lot more willing to speak in detail about what had really happened and what he had been dealing with. Even publicly when Gullit was hired, Lalas said all the right things about this being a perfect hire when in fact, he had counseled Tim Lewieke and Terry Byrne against hiring Gullit. It’s just such a bizarre turn of events, and I know Alexi is a very emotional guy, and I think it was a really hard spot to be in professionally. Lalas gets a lot of criticism for how he has done as an executive in MLS over the years, but I also think he gets unfairly blamed for a lot of things that he didn’t have much to do with, like with the hiring of Gullit, which he had absolutely nothing to do with. Believe me, Lalas had a much bigger influence over the Galaxy in 2006-07, and those teams didn’t make the playoffs, so it’s not like he deserves to get off scot-free. He deserves a lot of blame for that, but what happened in 2008 he deserves very little blame for.
It really is just baffling the whole affair.
And nobody knew about it. Nobody ever made it public that David Beckham’s personal manager was brought in as a paid consultant to the team. You can understand why they didn’t because it would have looked really really bad. But then it got even worse when Lewieke bailed on Gullit because by pushing him out the door in August of 2008, he really risked ruining the relationship with Beckham and Simon Fuller, because Gullit was their choice to take over the Galaxy, and they thought he deserved more time to try and make it work.
You said you had some sources within Beckham’s camp. Was there ever a time when they just shut the door on you?
I don’t think so. I guess that is one benefit of having a pretty good reputation from the people I cover. People answer your phone calls. But still, a lot of the time those people would talk only on background without their name on it, and that was kind of just the way it had to be.
As I was reading this book I couldn’t help but think of Selena Roberts and all the flack she received over her anonymous sources in her A-ROD book. I don’t know how much you followed that from South Africa, but I was curious how you dealt with that in your book, as there is very little if any anonymous sourcing.
One thing I feel really good about as a journalist in this book is how much of the most controversial stuff and quotes are named. People aren’t ducking. People are saying these things with their name on it, and to me I think that makes it stronger. I think Selena is a really really good reporter, and I haven’t read her book yet because I can’t get it over here, but I also think her’s was a different case, where she came in to write this book about A-ROD after all of these things had happened in his career. My approach was different because I was coming in saying, “I want to chronicle this experiment, and none of us know what is going to happen.” I just hoped that everyone would be willing to sit down and talk to me about their experiences, and then we’d see what happens. I’d write it not as good or bad, but just that it happened. Of course a lot of it is bad. I think too that the people I was interviewing were aware of that, that I didn’t come in with any agenda.