Even Beckham can’t compete with the fanatical conservatism of sport

By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 19/01/07):

The Premiership football clubs yesterday doubled their earnings from overseas television rights to £900m a year. With Sky television, cable and internet, this will give the lucky 20 clubs an annual income from broadcasting alone of £2.7bn, before even counting sales from tickets and shirts. While Italy received £11m for winning the 2006 World Cup, the team that wins the Premiership will collect £50m. Even the bottom club will get £27m.

The British are hopeless at sports where sportsmanship was once dominant, but unequalled at ones ruled by money, such as horse racing, formula one, boxing and soccer. Wherever government subsidy is involved, as in athletics and swimming, the British collapse. Money plays, and the flashier the better. Who cares if David Beckham sits out matches at Real Madrid if he can earn $250m over five years from an outfit called LA Galaxy? The man is a total pro. As he said last week, “This move for me is not about the money,” but “I want to make a difference with the kids.”

The sports minister, Richard Caborn, last week warned European football that it was “losing touch with the grass roots” and needed to find “a better balance between the commercial side of the modern game and its sporting nature”. He did not say what this balance was, descending into Labour blather about open debate, inclusiveness and stakeholders. But he is way out of line. Even his own department is in retreat before the casino owners and the outrageous demands of the International Olympic Committee. The latest report is that British taxpayers must install air conditioning and extra-large lifts and baths in the “village” for its 17,000-strong stage army for less than a month’s occupation, requiring the village to be rebuilt for subsequent sale. Caborn should be preaching more commercialism rather than this prestige corporatism.

Nowhere has the Thatcher revolution come home as emphatically as in association (hence “soccer”) football. Free trade, mass migration, low taxes and vulgar crowds have made it feared and envied worldwide. Beckham is riding out west on the toughest challenge to face a Briton abroad since Gordon embarked for Khartoum. Cheap sneers such as “Bank it like Beckham”, “Dosh and Becks” and “Mission Impossible IV” should not conceal the difficulty. He has to change America’s attitude to world sport and is approaching it the right way, by demanding $250m. As USA Today commented, “This transcends sport: it is a deal.” Or as Donald Trump put it, “He’s got the package.”

Britons treat America’s disdain for soccer with bafflement and contempt. They imply that Americans can only handle static set pieces, and complain that Beckham’s skill at such pieces is better suited to American crowds. Plodding moves that are over in seconds are designed for minds dulled by advertising breaks, with excitement confined to slow-motion replays. Americans cannot grasp the subtle ebb and flow of skills across the greensward. They cannot thrill to a nil-nil result or a commentator breathlessly declaring, “This 1-0 lead looks impregnable.” The spectacle may seem boring, but the unpredictable outcome of low-scoring matches is suspenseful. Did not the United States draw 1-1 with Italy in the World Cup (albeit by the Italians scoring an own goal)?

American football has not managed to develop internationally. English club football is watched on television by over 200 nations. One reason is that the European game is awash with death or glory, with teams entering and dropping out of the Premiership each year and dependent on massive investment in players who duly acquire celebrity. The American leagues are closed cartels, with no capital punishment for the losers and stingy fixed payments to the players. In other words, American sport is about sportsmanship while British soccer is about capitalism in the raw. Look at the bungs and the laughable “self-regulation”.

The spinning of Beckham’s mission as being to convert the heathen to Christianity is the opposite of the truth. He is out to convert the Christians to heathenism. Nor is he the first to try this hand. As he has been reminded ad nauseam, Pele tried in the mid-70s for $4.5m, as did Beckenbauer, Best and others. The North American Soccer League briefly filled stadiums with 50,000 enthusiasts but eventually went bankrupt, brought down by the lack of stars and boring score-lines. The sport is enjoyed in high schools and among literary intellectuals but, like hockey in England, it has failed to reach the big time.

Indeed, peel back the economics of Beckham’s move and it is not aimed at soccer-loving white Americans, let alone Hollywood and Tom Cruise. He will be preaching to the already converted. He will play for a (very good) Hispanic team based in the poor Hispanic suburb of Carson. Its fans are almost entirely Spanish-speaking and the games are currently shown only on the Spanish-speaking channel Univision. Beckham is not so much going to America as staying in Spain.

The idea that America will abandon its football and take to soccer is doomed. Physical sport celebrates the macho antecedents of hunter-gatherer tribes and involves its deepest and most conservative rituals. The export around the globe of British games such as golf, tennis, cricket and Queensberry-rules boxing was a mark of Britain’s cultural imperialism but, once exported, the rules drawn up in the 19th century stuck with extraordinary tenacity.

Tennis still scores according to the divisions of an English country house clock face. Cricket’s wickets were based on sheep pens and its over-arm bowling was allowed only so that women (with voluminous skirts) could play. Much good came of that. As for the height of a soccer goal, that was reputedly fixed by a student jumping to touch the ceiling of a Holborn bar in 1863. In other words, the low-scoring tradition of soccer was entirely the consequence of that young man’s height.

Sporting rules are all but immutable. Imagine widening the hole in golf or dropping such ancient sports as javelin or hammer-throwing, or reducing the range of strokes in swimming. Imagine lengthening the cricket pitch, or raising the tennis net, or widening the goals in football to increase the score, despite such dimensions having been fixed when humans were some six inches shorter than today. It would be easier to reform the NHS.

Fanatical conservatism in sport is a fixed point in a turbulent world. Only rugby union keeps changing its rules (with admirable effect), and that is literally on pain of death. The absurdity of the rules enhances, or perhaps covers for, the absurdity of taking pleasure from kicking and throwing balls about meadows. But all this is embedded in the cultural genes. Beckham will not succeed in America for the simple reason that Europeans play their version of football and Americans play theirs.