CARSON, Calif. – If last year served as a learning curve for David Beckham, as he experienced the frustration of having his first season in Major League Soccer ravaged by injury, then 2008 promises to be even more about education.
Beckham knows that misconceptions about him still abound among the North American public, and with one false start out of the way, the Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder wants to let his feet do the talking and start spreading the right message the second time around.
With pop star wife Victoria, a string of advertising endorsements, a house in Beverly Hills and famous friends including Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, it is easy for casual observers to assume Beckham has come to Tinseltown to live the Hollywood lifestyle.
However, in an exclusive interview with Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday, Beckham spoke of his desire to show that the real reason for his switch from Spanish club power Real Madrid lies within the white lines of the Home Depot Center pitch rather than the glamour spots of Southern California.
"Gradually, people are understanding what I'm about," Beckham said. "Gradually, they will know what I am like as a person and as a player. But it is new to a lot of people. There are a lot of people in America who have maybe heard of me but don't really know too much about me.
"It is true that I have a lot of commitments to fulfill in my life, but nothing comes in the way of my football and nothing comes before my family. Of course, I go out on the town. Of course, I go to restaurants and bars. That's what most people do. I enjoy that, but I have come over here to play as hard as I can and fight hard for the Galaxy, not to have an easy life.
"As much as it is a great lifestyle over here for my wife and kids, the most important thing is for people to realize I am here for soccer, not to sit on the beach and get a suntan."
The Galaxy need a fully committed Beckham. Struggling to keep pace performance-wise with their burgeoning international profile, they have failed to make the MLS playoffs the past two seasons. The 32-year-old Beckham, who became only the fifth England player to reach 100 national team appearances last week, has guaranteed nothing less than his full attention.
New head coach Ruud Gullit and several of the Galaxy players tell how Beckham shows as much commitment in training as a rookie scrapping for a contract. That's because Beckham knows no other way to push himself, having spent the first part of his career under Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, whose ability to instill terror in the minds of his young players is as legendary as his teacup-throwing tantrums.
The wily Scot's unique brand of tough love has had a long-lasting impact on Beckham, who only recently surprised many by forcing his way back into the England lineup with his own willpower and a grueling, voluntary, offseason training regimen with Arsenal, ironically one of Manchester United's rivals in the English Premier League.
"All the young lads at Man United had that fear of Sir Alex Ferguson and I was no different," he said. "That is how he got the best out of players and it becomes part of you. You need that certain amount of fear to achieve things."
After his stint at Arsenal, the north London's club boss Arsene Wenger spoke of how Beckham trained "like a madman." Others have previously described his need to strive harder as an "obsession."
Which leads us to a little-known fact about Beckham: He is obsessive about many aspects of his life, such as neatness, punctuality and order. At home, his need to line up cans of drink in symmetrical and identical rows of four and vacuum his living room rug in straight lines, like Wembley Stadium's well-manicured turf, is a source of amusement to his wife.
An amateur psychologist could speculate that, in Beckham's career, that level of obsession has followed him onto the field, prodding him into the tireless honing of his skills. It may have even spurred him to set things right when times were at their toughest.
"Maybe it has helped me to always be professional in everything I have done surrounding training and games," Beckham said. "I am always on time. I make sure I do things in the proper way and I have always believed that if you prepare well, you play well and people respect you a lot more."
THE PRICE OF FAME
Some suggest that the hype and hoopla surrounding Beckham is a product of the media or a skilled team of publicists – or the man himself. If that is the case, it would surely take an extraordinary level of genius to have duped millions of fans around the globe and virtually the entire international press corps.
A more likely explanation is that people appreciate him not because they are told to but because there is something about him that strikes a chord in most. To suggest that Beckham is just an everyday guy is a stretch, though. Everyday guys don't get followed by frenzied camera-wielders or induce shrieks from teenage girls wherever they go.
The former happened to Beckham on his drive to the Home Depot Center on Wednesday, when a posse of hopeful photographers followed him down the concrete torture of the 405 freeway. While he can talk philosophically about the American paparazzi – "they have a job to do" – the situation in his homeland, where teenagers are offered large sums of money by photographers, elicits tones of frustration and concern.
"Being pictured is part of our lives," he said. "We don't complain about it because it is the position we are in and you accept that as people in the public eye.
"But there is a problem in England at the moment, especially in London, where 16- or 17-year-olds are being given cameras and being told, 'Go and get the shot, whatever you can do to get the shot, do it.' My windows have been scratched and my car's been dented countless times by kids ramming the cameras up against the windows, whereas in L.A. so far we have not had that.
"The paparazzi in L.A. have been very courteous to us and respectful, which has been good. When you are in London, it is pretty scary, especially when Victoria is on her own in the car. It is a nightmare."
Beckham is no stranger to hearing negative words about himself. Whether he blocks them out or absorbs them to juice up his own motivation levels, responding to apparent catastrophe is a recurring theme in his career. Sometimes, the results have been spectacular.
After his infamous sending off against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup in France, he lifted England into the 2002 finals with a sensational performance capped off by a stunning injury-time free kick against Greece. In the '02 World Cup, revenge on Argentina in the form of a coolly struck match-winning penalty kick could not have been sweeter.
"I have always believed I can come back from the adversity," Beckham said. "Instead of coming out and criticizing people for what they say about me, it is better to go on the field and prove it that way."
That approach may be called upon more than ever this season. A large degree of skepticism, partly caused by ignorance and partly by the U.S.'s inherent suspicion of the world game, is undeniably in place.
One particular Los Angeles scribe has taken regular potshots at Beckham, questioning his intelligence, making fun of his commercials and deriding his ability. And just this week in England, one newspaper columnist spouted his opinion that Beckham was a "prat" (literal meaning: backside; social meaning: idiot) who deserved the hatred of the English public.
Yet in nine months of his new life in the States, all the evidence suggests that Beckham, who lists a phone call from Kofi Annan inviting him to be a UNICEF ambassador as one of his proudest moments, bears up to scrutiny as a human being.
GROWING THE GAME
In the short term, Beckham has twin targets for this season – to turn the Galaxy into contenders for the MLS Cup title and to help raise the profile of the game and continue its fight for a bigger slice of the American sports market.
The two may well go hand-in-hand, and the next stage of the process begins with Thursday's home opener against the San Jose Earthquakes (led by Beckham's coach in L.A. last year, Frank Yallop).
Even though MLS chiefs are buoyant about the recent progress the league has made, there is still a mountain to climb before it can hope to get anywhere near the Big Three of the NFL, MLB and NBA.
"With me being here, people expect soccer to turn around in the next year, which it just isn't going to do in this country," Beckham said. "For the world's biggest sport not to be as big as it is in the rest of the world … is incredible, but traditionally there are other huge sports that matter here.
"But soccer can grow to a level where it has never been in this country and I want to be a part of it. If I didn't believe that there was potential, I would not have come here and wanted to play here and wanted to take it to that level."
Beckham even refused to rule out extending his contract with the Galaxy once his current five-year deal, widely reported as being worth $250 million, expires after the 2011 season. He clearly has the desire to carry on playing for club and country as long as possible.
Fabio Capello's appointment as England coach has not led to the permanent axing of Beckham that many predicted, and Beckham is now ambitiously targeting the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. This summer, however, will be a painful experience for him, as the European Championships take place in Austria and Switzerland without England, which failed to qualify.
"I am sure I will watch a bit of the Euros, but it has been heartbreaking ever since we missed out," Beckham said. "A big competition changes a nation. It takes people away from hard times and gives them something to unite behind.
"It is the first time in my career that I had not made a major competition. It is so disappointing and we should be there because of the players we have got."
There will be plenty of other things occupying Beckham's thoughts during the month of June, namely the challenge of leading the Galaxy to the playoffs. The immediate goal for him and his teammates is showing much better form than in their opening day disaster – a 4-0 rout to the Rapids in Colorado.
"A successful season for me would be to stay healthy, play as many games as possible (and) win a championship," Beckham said. "Also, as MLS ambassador, trying to raise the profile of the game here. We want big crowds every time we play.
"It's an exciting stage of the season because everything is possible."
- David Beckham