Beckham can reverse fan backlash with results

Sunday night at the Home Depot Center, home to Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy, vocal portions of the 27,000 sell-out crowd gave David Beckham the kind of reception reserved for pantomime villains instead of global superstars. He didn’t like it one bit.

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One section of the crowd, the L.A. Riot squad, was particularly vociferous with its chants, comments and handmade signs that called into question Beckham’s loyalty and commitment to the club he signed with in 2007. This was the section that Beckham confronted at the end of the first half.

For a second or two, it looked like the England international was going to reprise Eric Cantona’s legendary 1995 leap into the crowd, but cooler heads prevailed on this occasion as security quickly snuffed out an ugly situation.

One has to wonder what provoked Beckham to such a degree. After all, this is a man who suffered legendary abuse at the hands of opposing fans in England’s Premier League during his playing days with Manchester United. His effigy has been burned, his wife and children insulted, and yet Beckham always retained his cool on the pitch.

Perhaps as he’s entering the twilight of his playing career, the skin that was once inches thick is now thinning and the barbs that used to bounce off him now hit the mark and sting.

The riot squad members I spoke to said that, 1.) They’ve paid their money and they’re entitled to their opinions; 2.) Beckham has let them down; and 3.) It’s obvious he doesn’t want to be in MLS.

It’s hard to argue against the first argument. However, there is a fine line. Good-natured banter and booing is part and parcel of being a professional sportsman. As Beckham noted, “A lot of people predicted the vicious kind of reaction that would be here (at the HDC) and they were right. But at the end of the day it didn’t affect me as a player.” What did affect him, though, were the personal insults: “One of the guys was saying things that really weren’t very nice. It was stepping over the line.”

In my opinion, no one should have to go to his place of work and get abused regardless of whether you’re making the MLS-league minimum (around $24,000) or getting the top-shelf $5.6 million that Beckham reportedly collects.

Point number two is that Beckham has let them down. I would say “grow up.”

An athletic career is so short that anybody in their right mind is going to do whatever it takes to stay in the limelight. Beckham wants to play for England in the 2010 World Cup and he is going to do whatever it takes to fulfill that wish.

And finally the charge that he doesn’t want to play in MLS. Well, I’m inclined to agree with that statement. But what does it mean in the big picture? In all honesty, very little. The “Beckham Experiment”, to borrow the title of Grant Wahl’s explosive new book, has taken the shine and glitz off England’s most famous export and no amount of posturing is going to change that perception.

At the end of the day, American soccer fans want results — they don’t care if you come from Mars, Timbuktu or Real Madrid. They have become savvy and they know a fraud and they also know what the real deal looks like.

If David Beckham produces the kind of football he showed for 70 minutes Sunday night from now until the end of the season, I will guarantee you that the boos will soon become cheers. If on the other hand he replicates the form of last season, he’ll make life very hard for the next aging superstar who tries his hand at doing what is seemingly impossible — turning the average American into a soccer fan.

Fox Soccer Channel’s Nick Webster writes about English soccer for FOXSoccer.com, and contributes his blog to interact with his fans.