Simon Jenkins on Beckham

I wasn’t expecting to like Simon Jenkins on Beckham. It’s been years since I liked Simon Jenkins on anything. Except, of course, for architecture, where, thanks to him, we no longer have to put up with Karl Pevsner’s tin eye and Open University prose. Jenkins had become one of those columnists who went further than merely expressing opinions different from my own. There’s a category beyond, a kind of holding pen for a small number of genuine intellects who seem to have sustained real damage from the post-2001 turn in current affairs. Not this time.

Because it’s Jenkins, there’s the obligatory swipe at the America of his imagination. But he gets it out of the way early on, and what follows is genuinely thought-provoking. Take this, for instance:

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.

There’s something to this. What about sports where sportsmanship is still dominant, such as golf?

Other countries only caught us up in soccer (and note that non-pejorative use of the word by the former editor of the Times) when we stopped spending and developing and innovating. In the years immediately before the Great War, the ideas men, the footballing intelligentsia, drained off in frustration to the continent and South America (documented at El Bombin if you’re interested). The amateur England side (led, admittedly, by Vivian Woodward, the last great amateur player we had, who won 23 full caps between 1903 and 1911, in addition to his 30 amateur caps, scoring 9 goals in 3 days in his 1909 blue streak) won the 1908 and 1912 Olympic competitions at a canter. 17 years later, the full England team lost to Spain in Madrid.

Between the wars, only Arsenal really carried on behaving like a pre-1914 club, building and developing itself and trying out new ideas. There’s something inevitable about their dominance and its spillover into the post-War period.

And then there’s this:

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.

Our Football League was like that at first – and necessarily so: the League was founded as a means to protect and nurture the financial investment of football club owners that was under threat from the unreliability of fixtures in pre-League days.

In any case, relegation implies that there’s somewhere to be relegated to. The MLS clubs have been created for the MLS, and have no prior or outside existence.

It’s for that reason that my advice to FIFA and to US fans as regards building a professional league is – do nothing. Launch no leagues, form no cartels, invent no franchises. Soccer is played by millions of young people in the USA, and although for now most of these who continue with sport will switch to baseball, basketball or American Football at some point, that won’t go on for ever. Soccer is the simple, beautiful game, something you can fall in love with for its own sake. At some point, there’ll be enough men (the womens’ game is the best in the world already) wanting to carry the game into their twenties and thirties for real clubs, with real roots, to form on their own. In short, take your time, young men, and let the thing grow on its own.

And this:

…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.

Or rather, he’s gone to look for America in the conquistador spirit, not Simon and Garfunkel’s.

And isn’t that a more interesting, a more exciting, way to look at it, preferable to all those tired comments about Hollywood, shopping and cash? I think so. I wonder if Univision is available on the web?