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Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment: A Review

beckham experiment cover 192x300 Grant Wahls The Beckham Experiment: A Review

Excellent sports’ writing is not simply about analyzing players, teams or organizations. It’s largely about painting a picture that fits into society’s perceptions of the surrounding world. It’s about writing a narrative and properly explaining the parts. It’s about playing historian and social critic while discussing competitions and complex organizations.

Sports’ writing is an art form, and even though I enjoy Grant Wahl’s College Basketball and Soccer writing for SI.com, I was not sure how well he’d do writing one of the most important books in the history of American soccer.

The Beckham Experiment is a brilliantly crafted book. Wahl paints the picture of an organization at war with itself and the celebrity culture of European football and Hollywood colliding with the lunch pail scrappy attitude of the United States.

For the MLS and US Soccer fan, the book provides an objective and highly critical but fair narrative at how the Los Angeles Galaxy and parent company AEG operated from January 2007 until November 2008.

This book through groundbreaking reporting as well as objective analysis paints an accurate but somewhat disturbing picture of the LA Galaxy franchise.  The assumptions many on the outside including myself have made for the past few years can be cleanly refuted by some of the new information revealed by Wahl.

For starters, Alexi Lalas while largely responsible for the decline of the Galaxy organization after Doug Hamilton’s death was in fact the sanest and most responsible person in the front office by 2008. Also interesting was the relationship between AEG and Simon Fuller’s “19″ based around the promotion of entertainment events including the Galaxy. AEG had in fact been in contact with team Beckham since 2002. This partnership became so extensive that the two organizations in fact merged for a time, with 19 in fact running the Galaxy.

Former England National Team and Chelsea back office staffer Terry Byrne, the best friend of David Beckham became the pivotal figure in the Galaxy after the 2007 season. Byrne, a former London cabbie who had burned out as a professional footballer at a young age began working for Chelsea in the mid 1990s. When Glen Hoddle, Chelsea’s manager took the England National Team job, Byrne went with him (while continuing his staff role at Chelsea where he’d work for Ruud Gullit) and his relationship with Beckham was hatched.

Following the coup of signing David Beckham, Lalas and manager Frank Yallop would often be on different pages. The type of players Yallop wanted to surround Beckham with, like the very technical Kyle Beckerman or Jeff Cunningham, one of the leading goal scorers in MLS history was nixed in favor of Lalas’ ideal players.

Yallop had played in England at Ipswich Town against David Beckham and had also played against Lalas when he was with the Tampa Bay Mutiny. He had also managed Landon Donovan with the San Jose Earthquakes. In short, the professional experiences of Yallop made him uniquely qualified to objectively judge the situation. But Tim Leiweke, and Alexi Lalas weren’t terribly interested in Yallop’s point of view. After Beckham’s arrival and the circus that ensued, Yallop would often retreat to the confidence of Landon Donovan. As we knew before reading this book, Yallop’s “resignation” to take the San Jose job was liberation for the manager.

Leiweke, for his part was the brains behind the “Beckham Experiment.”  His goal which was largely influenced by Jurgen Klinsmann was to be the most European looking MLS club. This was a vision that was always bound to fail. But Leiweke’s public statements were so bold and made so confidently, few challenged his assertions within the Galaxy because they sounded so good.

It’s almost humorous to note Wahl’s comparison of Leiweke’s statement about MLS in ten years being a top tier league in US pro sports to Phil Woosnam’s similar statement in 1977 about the NASL. The NASL was in fact much closer to this vision in 1977 with large football stadiums being filled or close to being full and several teams signing well know foreign stars. But the NASL did not have the infrastructure or successful national team to fall back on that MLS does today. No question exists that unlike the NASL which was dead in 1987 that MLS will be thriving in 2017. But chances are MLS will still be struggling for mainstream sports media and fan recognition.

Leiweke was dissatisfied with the results in 2007, which saw the Galaxy struggle with Beckham on the pitch but make strides late in the year with Beckham injured thanks to the likes of Gavin Glinton, Carlos Pavon and Peter Vagenas. But Yallop wasn’t given the proper credit for this transformation and when the Galaxy faced off with Chicago in the final game with a playoff spot on the line, Beckham came on injured, late, and gave the ball away resulting in the winning Chicago goal by John Thorrginton. Wahl writes a great narrative and I know it is difficult to bring in every little detail, but this game needed more emphasis in my mind. Firstly, because it was a showdown with the other big MLS signing of the last five years, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, whose class performances for Chicago made Beckham look silly. Secondly, because the winning goal was scored by Thorrington, a US International who had come through Manchester United’s reserve system while Beckham was the public face of the club in the late 1990s. Wahl writes an excellent narrative, but this particular game being emphasized for the points above could have made a strong book even stronger.

After losing to Chicago, Leiweke, wanted to continue building a European oriented setup, and he forced the issue giving Terry Byrne license to essentially screen and hire coaches. That’s how the Galaxy ended up with Ruud Gullit who had been Byrne’s boss at Chelsea. Byrne as Wahl puts it had a “consistent and multifaceted presence with the Galaxy.” He had become a paid consultant to the team and in fact was higher on the pecking order than Lalas.

Once Gullit was hired, Lalas was completely marginalized. His one potential positive contribution to the Galaxy in 2008 was his insistence that star Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz be pursued. But once Ruiz returned to LA where he has starred for the Galaxy a few years back, he was quickly labeled “Lalas’ guy” by the European oriented duo of Byrne and Gullit and thus spent a frustrating half a season in Carson. The treatment of Ruiz, who after all took up a huge salary chunk under MLS arcane salary cap rules is very instructive in how Gullit dealt with players he associated with Lalas.

Lalas, to his great credit never broke ranks publicly. He was after all an AEG company man, but this book reveals his inner struggles, and should go a great length to rehabilitating Lalas’ tarnished image in American soccer circles.

Another common theme to come out of this book is the professional jealousy the greatest field player in US history; Landon Donovan exhibited towards David Beckham and his superstardom. Grant Wahl doesn’t portray it as such. This is my interpretation based on reading the book. But as someone who has typically been in Landon Donovan’s corner, the book reveals that Donovan for all his talk of being more mature than a few years ago, still has a fundamental streak of immaturity. I’ll explore the revelations about Donovan further in a future opinion piece.

That leads us to the central figure of the book himself, David Beckham. The irony is as Wahl points out repeatedly, Beckham himself is a protected figure behind an army of handlers and marketing people led by Terry Byrne and Simon Fuller. The only person in the story we never learn to understand from Wahl’s portrayal is Beckham. That’s because Beckham so closely guards his public image to journalists, fans, team mates, etc, it is impossible at times to read him.

Beckham’s social status evokes many reactions out of his team mates and fans. Wahl does a very good job of portraying the social tensions within the Galaxy family, and the image of society beyond the club. Some MLS players are among the lowest paid professional athletes in the United States. But Beckham seemed oblivious or worse uncaring about this fact through much of the narrative.

Wahl’s book on the whole is a masterpiece of sports journalism. Any fans of the game in the United States must read this book, and general sports fans would probably find it interesting as well. European football fans will be able to get an accurate gauge as to the state of club soccer in this country from reading Wahl’s book as well.

The Beckham Experiment is featured as one of the top 18 recommended soccer books to read this summer. The book is available from Amazon and all fine booksellers.

About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
View all posts by Kartik Krishnaiyer →

18 Responses to Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment: A Review

  1. Ryan says:

    Kartik,

    I haven’t read it yet, but I find it very interesting that Beckham characterizes the book as “lazy journalism” in the following clip?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TLJ9zTscKHA

    What do you think about his comments?

  2. Tad says:

    I respect your assessment of Grant Wahl’s talents as writer, and based on past SI columns I’m sure that anything in the book beyond the Hollywood gossip included will be fascinating, but on what basis can his “reporting” for the it be considered groundbreaking?

    Regarding Lalas, he did break ranks publicly after all by speaking at length with a reporter — Mr Wahl.

    I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed Lalas as a sportscaster but one thing I’ll never be able to credit is any analysis leaving him innocent of any disaster related to the LA Galaxy — especially one that comes directly from him. Now there’s a handy conflict of interest.

    Finally, I found it disturbing when Beckham cast his lot with 19 Entertainment, but was always happy that he retained Terry Bryne as a personal manager since he was the only person Beckham trusted to put his football first. I was actually surprised, after seeing Galaxy lie about Beckham condition on arrival and then play him injured, that it took so long for his “people” to step in. Obviously they didn’t do any better than the Lieweke/Lalas/Garber lot, but they didn’t do any worse either.

    The one thing I am most heartily in agreement with is the underestimation of Frank Yallop’s value and criticism of his treatment by management.

  3. Mayer says:

    This article is like giving away a movie. I stopped reading a few paragraphs in. Also, why are there apostrophes in “sports’ writing”? They don’t belong there. Your articles would look more professional if you read them over before you publish them.

  4. Mayer, fair assessment of my grammar. But regarding the book, there are a lot more details worth reading, little tidbits on every page. For example, Greg Vanney like me believes the Galaxy teams from 1998 to 2000 were better than the teams in MLS in 2008. He gives his reasoning and Grant calls him an original thinker. You have to read the entire book to get the whole picture- I’m not really giving away a movie just rehashing events we’re all familiar with.

  5. Fan says:

    The fact that Grant Wahl portrayed Beckham as a selfish person, arrogant, cheapskate and nearly all the bad thing a person can have, is saying it all really. This book is actually Grant Wahl trying to portray Becks as one of the worst person you’ll ever meet, where, some of us fans who has follow his career AND his life for nearly 20 years are actually have been fooled and Wahl knows better. Please.

  6. Fan, I’m not sure it was his intent. The book will come off as somewhat one sided but that is largely because Beckham and Byrne didn’t talk to Wahl. He cannot be blamed for that. He was tasked with recreating events. Bob Woodward has mastered this practice by re-creating meetings and what was said by talking to one or two sources but not everyone. It’s a good read- you can disagree with its premises which I do regarding Donovan (a piece for another day as I teased in the review) but it is worth reading.

  7. timmyg says:

    funny how Beckham’s responses to the books are basically ad hominem attacks, and nothing about whats actually written.

    first calling donovan unprofessional and then wahl a lazy journalist.

    and for anyone who ever took a speech/communications class in college (hooray gen-ed requirements), using such tactics means what’s said against you is correct.

  8. Angel says:

    Well this a reporter trying to get richer by plublishing a Non-Authorised biography of what went down on the arrival to Beckham, First the ball I’m not going to give my money to this guy. Who cares if Beckham is a selfish, arrogant and a cheapcake. Donovan is something really like him or maybe worst the only different that Beckham knows how disguised better than Donovan. Donovan have been a jealouse person and primodonna it show on the field when he is playing with the Galaxy & the USNMT or else find out what really happen with Torres in the Costa Rica Game or when he score the goal against Brazil. He ran screaming and point his fingers to himseld “ME, ME, ME” I remember back when he was on trial with Bayern Munich he talk good about Beckham and how his supported him here a some few staterment he made a while back

    “David has tried to lift me and told me that I am going to make it,” Donovan told the German newspaper Bild. “I know that he hopes that everything works out for me at Bayern. We are in contact and write each other text messages.” now is that not been a teammate or a supportive.

    Another crap was the Alexis LaLas fiasco that he did with this team and they we Ruud Gulliet quiet on this team. Donovan should be blaming the league for not opening to the Idea of raising the Salary Cap bring the team to at least to 30 or something. Giving the Opportunity for each team to hire and fired the players that they want. Give the Responsibility to the owner to deal with the contract as NFL and have the MLS just be the big brother and monitor all transaction that is all.

  9. Eurosnob You Call Me. Real Fan I Call Myself says:

    Thanks Grant Wahl for serving as Lalas and Donovan’s mouthpiece. Now go back to covering Basketball, please.

  10. quakesin2knever says:

    I just love this stuff. Instant karma for Galaxy and AEG for stealing Donovan from San Jose illegitimately, for stealing the Dynamo from San Jose illegitimately, and for repeating the sins of NASL by signing Beckham for an exorbitant sum. AEG =SCUM! I hope Chivas continues their dominance of LA and shows them how a well run club works. Hell, even my Quakes beat the Galaxy a couple weeks ago and our defense is a complete joke this year (still no shutouts yet).

    As for the Lalas vs. Byrne player decisions, I’m not sure if that stuff made any of a difference. All of those players you mentioned were all offensive players. LA still scored a ton of goals. Their problem as defense – they gave up the most goals. Beckham certainly did help the Galaxy score more.

  11. quakesin2knever says:

    Beckham says he and Donovan spoke and are over it:

    http://soccernet.espn.go.com/news/story?id=660649&sec=mls&cc=5901

  12. Jose says:

    I read most of the book tonight – it is an interesting read because Wahl paints a picture of what the Galaxy was like – he focuses on how Beckham and the way European professional players in general view professional soccer and the reality of MLS right now. It is an interesting clash of cultures.

    Someone above mentioned that this is an “un-authorized” book or something like that. Wahl had an interesting interview in the NY Times where he said that Beckham’s camp wanted major $ to get an official interview and wanted some control of the content (to make it “authorized”). I think your opinion is misguided. Beckham just lives a celebrity lifestyle that I can’t really related to, and it sounds like the Galaxy players didn’t really either. For me, that’s why the book is interesting.

    Concerning Donovan, this guy is still in the process of growing up. It is unfortunate that he didn’t have the revelation that he was coasting until the ’06 WC – if he had figured this out five years earlier, he would be a better player today. Really, he only needs to regret some of the comments he made (not that I’ve read the whole book, but I read the excerpts on si.com and assume the most venomous ones we’ve already heard about). He still has some time in his career, but even with everything he has already accomplished with the USMNT and in MLS, Donovan could end being grouped with Clint Mathis and other players that never reached their potential. Lalas was right about one thing: sometimes when evaluating soccer players in the US we look at technical abilities too much and not the intangibles that will make a mediocre player seize the moment. Donovan just isn’t the complete package, but hopefully he will be soon. If he had figured these life lessons out several years ago, I think he would have been the first world class American player. Growing up in a broken home is hard though, so maybe Landon is doing the best he can with the lot that he’s been given.

    Lalas was portrayed in too positive a light in my opinion. I realize that he lost a lot of control, but he still made some really bad decisions during his time there. He strikes me as one of those leaders that is really good at motivating people based on nothing important and don’t really do anything.

    My two cents…

  13. Jose says:

    I read most of the book tonight – it is an interesting read because Wahl paints a picture of what the Galaxy was like – he focuses on how Beckham and the way European professional players in general view professional soccer and the reality of MLS right now. It is an interesting clash of cultures.

    Someone above mentioned that this is an “un-authorized” book or something like that. Wahl had an interesting interview in the NY Times where he said that Beckham’s camp wanted major $ to get an official interview and wanted some control of the content (to make it “authorized”). I think your opinion is misguided. Beckham just lives a celebrity lifestyle that I can’t really related to, and it sounds like the Galaxy players didn’t really either. For me, that’s why the book is interesting.

    Concerning Donovan, this guy is still in the process of growing up. It is unfortunate that he didn’t have the revelation that he was coasting until the ’06 WC – if he had figured this out five years earlier, he would be a better player today. Really, he only needs to regret some of the comments he made (not that I’ve read the whole book, but I read the excerpts on si.com and assume the most venomous ones we’ve already heard about). He still has some time in his career, but even with everything he has already accomplished with the USMNT and in MLS, Donovan could end being grouped with Clint Mathis and other players that never reached their potential. Lalas was right about one thing: sometimes when evaluating soccer players in the US we look at technical abilities too much and not the intangibles that will make a mediocre player seize the moment. Donovan just isn’t the complete package, but hopefully he will be soon. If he had figured these life lessons out several years ago, I think he would have been the first world class American player. Growing up in a broken home is hard though, so maybe Landon is doing the best he can with the lot that he’s been given.

    Lalas was portrayed in too positive a light in my opinion. I realize that he lost a lot of control, but he still made some really bad decisions during his time there. He strikes me as one of those leaders that is really good at motivating people based on nothing important and don’t really do anything.

    My two cents…
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can’t wait to read your next one!

  14. Eric says:

    Bought my copy today and am dying to read it tonight!

  15. Quakes…..we 100% agree on the AEG stuff RE: SJ at the end. Let’s not forget Lalas was an AEG company man (as I refer to him in this review) and that included being the good soldier and gutting the Quakes team to prepare for the move to wherever (it ended up being Houston).

  16. soccer goals says:

    I need to buy the Book.

  17. Grant’s next book should be entitled:

    Defending the Undefendable: The Closed Franchise Model and the Failure of American Club Soccer.

    Of course, this would require an epiphany. It doesn’t seem as though you can be a soccer writer in this country without a blind allegiance to the closed franchise model that has failed club soccer consistently over the past century.

  18. alex mamlet says:

    Hello,
    I am writing you from DBG / Foglight Entertainment, a production company in NYC. We would love to conduct an on-camera interview with Grant Wahl, but we’re having trouble tracking him down.

    We are producing a syndicated on-line sports show focusing on Soccers greatest goalies. The series will be distributed across The DBG Video
    Network, which is compromised of 106 million unique users and is ranked in
    Comscore’s Top 25. The syndicated show is targeted at an audience of over 18 million sports fans. It will be delivered on premium sports destinations
    such as CBS Sportsline, Comcast sports,Famecast.com, Yahoo Sports, Sports Illustrated, Fans Online and Active.com, as well as in the sports sections of hundreds of newspaper websites throughout the country.

    Please let me know if you’d be able to assist us in this regard.

    Thanks so much,

    Alex Mamlet
    Producer DBG / WebMD
    212-242-1400
    Alexm@dbgroup.tv

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