|Paul Gardner: "You know that|
the English over-rate their players."
MLS initially eschewed such profligate policies, just as it rejected everything else in the NASL's boom-bust methodology. Then in response to pressure from the LA Galaxy, who were being whispered to by the David Beckham Industry, it relaxed its rules in 2006 to allow clubs the option of signing a handful of big name players on fat wages. It seemed a timely move, but opened up the league to the morose old criticism that America would again attract ageing stars on the hunt for a lucrative final payoff. True, Beckham would ensure that MLS became internationally known overnight. But if he played well, that just proved how poor the league was. And if he failed, that just proved that he was over the hill.
It might unkindly be suggested that Steven Gerrard's move to MLS finally means he won't be the most over-rated player in his chosen league. Reading the eulogies in the UK press these past few days, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Galaxy has signed a meta-star with the combined skills of Messi, Maradona and Mohammed Ali, rather than an above average club player who is sporadically inspired to the spectacular, but has never lifted a League trophy or a World Cup.
It's no coincidence that the other player in the transatlantic soccer news this week has been Gerrard's former England team-mate Frank Lampard, for reneging on his commitment to debut for New York City FC at the start of its first MLS season. Again, another solid club player. Yet he and Gerrard, touted as the supposedly shining nuggets of England's golden generation, were a repeated disappointment on the international stage. After several mediocre tournaments, Gerrard was England's best player at Euro 2012, but his team-mates didn't offer much competition, and they went out on penalties after playing dire football in the 0-0 quarter-final against Italy. The England team has been tellingly revitalised since the pair retired from the international game.
Their two big-name predecessors in MLS, Beckham and Thierry Henry, did enough to justify selection for their respective teams, LA and New York, but were they were worth their extravagant wages? It's impossible to quantify, though the league's marketing arm will argue they lead to the exposure that has lured the New York Yankees and petro-dollar backed Manchester City to invest in Lampard's New York team.
On the other hand, it takes a leap of the imagination to see the millions reportedly being spent on the wages of Gerrard and Lampard as anything other then the enrichment of two already very wealthy Englishmen. It may be facile to say those millions could be better spent on inner-city turf fields and a fund to support talented but impoverished young American players. And indeed, if it wasn't being spent on England's decreasingly pacey ex-central midfielders, it would probably be staying in the owners' pockets. Nonetheless, I'm calling these signings out for what they are - a waste of money in the name of jacking up the league's profile.
"Those guys, the theory is, just show up and the crowds come flocking in," says sceptical journalist Paul Gardner in chapter three of Rock n Roll Soccer. Gardner, who has covered the US game for 50 years, was drawing a parallel between the NASL's marquee signings, and the arrival of Beckham in MLS 30 years later. "You know that the English over-rate their players anyway, and if they [Americans] don’t know that by now then there’s not much hope. The reason the Brits of course were imported [to the NASL] and became popular was simply the language. You want to sell the sport, you want to have players with personality who can go on TV and mix with the local populace, you’ve got to have them speak the language. There was a logic involved to the whole thing, but it was unfortunate because it meant bringing in a certain brand of soccer and that meant certain attitudes that came along with it. Just take a look at British soccer… the sad thing was [that even in 1975] they were playing dull, out-dated soccer."
Gardner wasn't referring to the players who came to the nascent NASL in the late 60s and early 70s looking to make a little extra summer cash. Many of those players ended up falling in love with North America and stayed around to coach and run soccer schools. Gerrard and Lampard, in contrast, are not in the US to 'grow the game', to use that Beckham-flogged cliché. They are here in a mutual pact with their clubs to exploit their reputations in upping the hype. Check out Gerrard's press-released, wooden words this week on his reasons for coming to LA:
"I'm very excited to begin the next chapter of my career in the United States. The Galaxy are the most successful club in MLS history and I'm looking forward to competing for more championships in the years to come. I want to add some medals and trophies to my collection."
Finally, a League winner's medal for Steven. That's the script which he, his club, the league, and the more invested sections of the media will be reading off until it eventually happens. There's no doubt that Gerrard and Lampard will perform well in MLS. In the long term, however, they will give the US game as much as they gave England's midfield - publicity-inspired expectations, but nothing of much substance.