That afternoon in 1995 I first saw him while watching Manchester United play an English Premier League soccer match. The camera focused in on the team's substitute bench, and there sat this blond. "Who," I asked my brother, "is that?"
Nobody needs to ask who David Beckham is anymore. A year later, in 1996, he shot to fame in England for scoring a goal from the halfway line, sending a legendary ball past Wimbledon's goalkeeper into the net.
"Bending" the ball became Beckham's trademark, his picture went up on my wall, and he later became England's national team captain and the world's best-known, most expensive professional soccer player. Now he is a brand, along with wife Victoria, aka Posh Spice. And he has arrived in America after signing a $250 million contract to play for Major League Soccer side L.A. Galaxy.
I was, perhaps, part of an early wave of Beckham fans. Now there's full-blown Beckhamania-and it is seizing America. Sales of Galaxy merchandise (mostly Beckham jerseys) have risen 700 percent; league-wide it is 300 percent since Beckham joined Galaxy. After weeks of anguished waiting for Beckham's injured ankle to improve, U.S. fans finally saw his 20-minute MLS debut (and Galaxy loss) against DC United Aug. 9.
With all the hype, the tension at RFK stadium hung as thick as August's glutinous heat. United's sold-out game was the fourth-largest for an MLS match at RFK, packed with almost 47,000 fans. D.C.'s metro ran the extra buses and trains it usually reserves for Wizards and Nationals games. Scalpers plied coveted tickets on Craigslist and at stadium gates.
Yianna Sideris, 20, wore a homemade jersey. With glitter ink she had written "Yianna (Heart) Beckham." He saw it and smiled, too, she said-when he began warming up in the second half 5 feet away from her section.
After the game, she waited with other fans for Beckham to walk out of Galaxy's locker room. "Has he left?" she asked, shooting nervous glances down the hall. "I'm a DC United fan, but today I switched to Galaxy," she confessed.
Beckham is the latest in a distinguished line of international soccer stars out to finally, utterly, make soccer a bonafide American spectator sport. In the 1970s, Brazilian Pelé and West German Franz Beckenbauer graced the New York Cosmos for the North American Soccer League, also drawing sellout crowds. Then the NASL folded in 1984. Soccer receded and now attracts viewers only to big events like the World Cup.
So can Beckham save American soccer? "I don't know, does American soccer need saving?" asked Scott Ludwig, a Beckham-shirted fan who drove down from York, Pa., to see the United-Galaxy game.
Ludwig is right in some ways: Soccer has become more popular over the years, with many American kids playing it. And the 11-year-old MLS is now the 12th-most-attended top division in the world. Ludwig thought Beckham would boost U.S. soccer and attract more big names, but added: "I watch more (English) Premier League than I do MLS."
Therein lies the rub: Fans know and players know that the MLS still cannot match the entertainment Europe's top-flight leagues give. So does Beckham: "Everybody knows that the standard is different, it's slightly lower than other places in the world," he said after the Galaxy-United game. "We're hoping to make this sport bigger and better here. There's still a way to go, of course, but we're on the right track."
To win converts, Beckham will have to make a habit of calling the game "soccer" instead of "football." Avoiding cultural gaffes might also help: He apologized after criticizing MLS teams that use artificial turf in their stadiums instead of grass. "I didn't realize FieldTurf was actually a company," he said sheepishly.
Unlike Pelé, who came to the United States after retiring, Beckham is not washed up. Though past his peak at 32, he remains a top athlete bent on beautifying soccer's last frontier. If he succeeds at that, he truly will be a legend.