The sigh of relief at the resolution of the David Beckham loan drama may only be temporary. That's because the deal to have Beckham return to Major League Soccer to play with the Los Angeles Galaxy at the conclusion of the Serie A season seems like nothing other than a perfunctory stint to tie up a few loose sponsorship ends.
Yet Galaxy coach Bruce Arena was optimistic about the situation of Beckham joining the Galaxy in July, with 13 regular-season games left and six home matches.
"He knows the team; he knows the league," said Arena. "When David does arrive, it's obviously getting him familiar with the team and the things he offers and making the kind of adjustments that we have to make on the field for David. This time around, that part is going to be a lot cleaner and hopefully, that will enable us to move forward and be successful."
However, the Galaxy are not really moving on from Beckham at all, as the team, and perhaps MLS as a whole, still is hoping to convince Beckham to remain for the final two years of his contract. Beckham has an opt-out clause which allows him to leave the Galaxy at the end of the 2009 season. It has widely been assumed that he would exercise this clause to join AC Milan permanently. The current deal, though, according to Arena, is not structured that way.
"David has an option in his contract," Arena clarified. "He has the choice whether he wants to trigger a release in his contract or remain with the Galaxy." Though moving on to AC Milan would be the logical step, Arena insisted that, "Nothing has been concluded on that and we're going to play out the year."
The fact of the matter is that Beckham wouldn't really have to let the Galaxy know of his future plans and could in fact have a handshake deal set up with AC Milan to return. If he opts out, he's not a member of the Galaxy anymore and doesn't need to ask permission to join Milan again.
Given the fact that Beckham has been very public with his desire to stay at AC Milan, it seems that MLS and the Galaxy are naive to think that his mind would be changed in a short farewell stint in MLS.
It's not just that Beckham had declared numerous times that AC Milan is wonderful and he wants to play there, and it's not just that he has added nothing complimentary about the Galaxy or MLS. It's that he has put his money conclusively where his mouth is. Beckham has thrown his own funds into the deal to extend his loan in Italy, reportedly paying more out of his own pockets than the entire amount Milan offered MLS.
At the San Siro on Sunday, Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti made it clear that the impetus to stay at the Italian super-club was generated by Beckham. "It's an important deal mainly for Beckham, who'd like to stay in Milan and did everything for that to happen," he told Goal.com. "Obviously, we are happy for his stay, but the happiest is David and we are happy for him."
The problem is that the Galaxy don't seem to realize that in all likelihood, they've already lost Beckham. They're hoping to still woo someone who has behaved in every way like someone ready to move on.
"We e-mailed each other," Arena said. "He is pretty pleased about coming back. He is happy to be coming back. He wants to be in L.A. He wants to take on this challenge. Despite public statements that have been made over the past couple of months, I think we're getting back a player who will want to be here and is motivated to do well."
The fact that Arena didn't speak directly to Beckham is a bad sign. There's no telling if Beckham even wrote the e-mail or had someone else send something polite. As a recent movie might suggest, if the contact is impersonal, maybe he's just not that into you.
The bigger question for MLS and the Galaxy is whether Beckham is worth all this trouble. Attendance numbers and jersey sales aside, has he really brought value to the Galaxy brand or to the league as a whole? Does it help MLS to be known as the league that Beckham kissed off by paying to avoid playing for?
"David's a pretty good player," said Tom Payne, the Galaxy's president of business operations. "I'm not sure we have 10 guys who are better than David Beckham on our team. So I think bringing him back, competitively, makes us a better team when he gets back into the fold."
The evidence for this is slight. The Galaxy don't have a winning record in the two seasons Beckham has played with the team. It could be that a league desperate for attention has little choice but to do what it can to make a splash.
"It's still a young league and we tend to forget that," Payne said. "Having a player of this magnitude and his celebrity and quality certainly helps."
On the other hand, the Seattle Sounders, the newest team added to the league this year, have sold more than 20,000 season tickets this season, even though it was announced early on that their big-name player, Freddie Ljungberg, had suffered an injury that would cause him to miss the start of the season. Toronto FC continuously sells out its stadium without a star international. It seems the most recent success stories of the league have depended not on the celebrity of individuals, but the idea of rallying around a team.
After all, soccer long has been hailed as one of the most egalitarian of team sports, where the importance of the whole is the key to victory. In pursuing Beckham in the first place, and even after all that has passed, in trying to now persuade him to remain, perhaps the Galaxy have forgotten that.