British soccer star David Beckham is set to show up for his first game with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday. There's tremendous media hype over his move from England with his famous wife, Victoria, and their family. The hope is that Beckham will fill stadiums and finally make soccer fans out of the Americans.
But just days before Beckham's first official game, his Galaxy teammates were soundly trounced 3-0 by Los Tigres from Mexico.
"The team's just not playing with heart. We're just lacking passion," winces die-hard Galaxy fan Matt Samansky, an off-duty LAPD cop.
The L.A. Galaxy is currently the second-worst team in Major League Soccer. Hoping to sell game tickets and merchandise, Beckham was signed to a $250 million deal over the next five years, including expected endorsements. But even Samansky, who has supported the team since it began 11 years ago, says Beckham might not rescue the Galaxy.
"Beckham's not our savior," Samansky says. "They have to save themselves."
Another Galaxy fan, 29-year-old social worker Sandro Soler, went even further.
"We were humiliated three nil. Why? Because our team is depleted," he says. "We've gotten rid of very good players to make room for this has-been who is injured and is not going to make a difference. For the exact same amount of money, we could have gotten four good players from Argentina, maybe. It's not a good deal, period."
But Beckham's reputation for free kicks and his jaw-dropping good looks have already attracted a new breed of soccer fan.
"With Beckham coming, it's kind of a new awakening to soccer in the United States," says 21-year-old Casey Rogers, who bought a $30 Beckham jersey to wear to attend her first professional soccer match this week.
College students Onica Perez and Briana Manly are now first-time season ticket holders.
"Definitely, he's going to do a good thing for soccer and for Galaxy," Perez says.
"Plus, he's hot. Oh my God!" Mandly adds.
Last week, a cascade of confetti rained down on Beckham as he was introduced to Galaxy season ticket holders.
"I've always looked for challenges in my career and something exciting in my life," he said, holding up his new number 23 team jersey. "Now my family has moved to Los Angeles, and in our life, everything's perfect."
The 32-year-old midfielder seems well aware that he's expected to boost the popularity of American soccer to levels around the world, where everyone, including Beckham, calls it football. But he's not the first international soccer envoy to this country. In the mid-1970s, Brazilian powerhouse Pele was signed to play with the New York Cosmos.
"He had retired and the Brazilian government had actually more or less banned him from playing in a different country," notes Soccer America magazine Executive Editor Mike Woitalla. "And the story goes, the New York Cosmos even got the help of Henry Kissinger to convince the Brazilian government that it would be good for their image if they let Pele come to the United States. And he really did ignite the American soccer boom."
Now Beckham's challenge is to create a new boom, not just for American soccer, but for the pro teams playing it.
"I think there's a difference than back when Pele and George Best, Rodney Marsh and Beckenbauer moved here," Beckham told reporters. "Back then, there was a lot of money pumped into one team. Obviously there's a lot of money in the Galaxy, but as a league it's a lot more stable. That's why I think it's a great time for me to come here and be an ambassador and try to push the sport to another level."
Woitalla notes that Beckham's arrival has already helped sell out games, and set off a merchandising craze.
"David Beckham is the most publicized, most photographed, most idolized athlete in the history of the world," Woitalla says. "Here's a guy who hangs out with Hollywood stars, he's got this Spice Girl wife, he buys his kids $20,000 toys. But when he gets in front of a camera, he comes across as very down to earth, as this sort of working-class type of kid he was."
In fact, during his first official Los Angeles press conference, Beckham was asked how his Galaxy mates reacted when they first saw him in the locker room.
"One of them came up to me and said, 'Nice to meet you. What's your name?" he joked.
Having starred for teams Manchester United and Real Madrid, Beckham is already an international icon with a movie named after him, Bend It Like Beckham. Now he's poised to conquer the States with a marketing machine that extends to his entire clan.
Beckham and his "Posh" wife, Victoria, are featured in a sexy photo spread in the latest edition of W magazine. And this week, the former Spice Girl introduced herself to America with her own reality TV show on NBC.
In the show, she is seen meeting her Beverly Hills neighbors and making fun of her pouty reputation. "I don't want to be seen smiling, having fun or eating, perish the thought!" she says.
Ever since the Beckhams arrived in Los Angeles, the paparazzi have been all over them and their three sons.
"We'll be basically following him and her when they leave the house until they get home," says Gary Morgan, CEO of the Hollywood picture agency Splash, which supplies celebrity images to tabloids, TV shows and Web sites in the U.S. and overseas. "We'll be covering everything Beckham for all the fans out there globally who want to know what their new Hollywood life is going to be about .... the A-list friends, her fashionista ideas, and the Spice Girls reunited .... It's the Hollywood PR machine at its very best."
Splash has a six-man crew, dubbed Team Beckham, dedicated to following the Beckhams' every move. Wearing specially made Galaxy jerseys, they've already caught the couple shopping at Toys "R" Us and driving to get In-N-Out burgers.
"They're very difficult to photograph," says Splash photographer Darren Banks.
"They run a lot of decoy cars. They make it really, really difficult to get a photograph unless they want a photograph taken. So they're good fun to work with. It's a good challenge."
These days, Banks and a dozen other paparazzi are staked out in front of the Beckhams' $20 million mansion, ready to chase them around town.
"At the moment, we're supplying a demand," says Richard Beetham, also on Team Beckham. "It's like anything else: Once people get sick of it, it'll drop off. But they're a fad. They're like the Slinky."
The fad may fade out eventually, but for now, Beckham mania is in full force. Still, the fans may have to wait for his big debut. With a swollen ankle that hasn't yet healed, Beckham may not play in Saturday night's sold-out game after all.