Article Review: Andrew Ross’ Neoliberal Critique of David Beckham and Major League Soccer
Ross, Andrew. “The Ballad of Becks and Posh.” American Quarterly 59, no. 4 (2007): 1215-223. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40068486.
Marking the arrival English superstar David Beckham to Major League Soccer’s shores in 2007, NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and social activist Andrew Ross wrote an “event review” for the American Quarterly. Published more as a social critique than anything else, this write-up captures an intellectual response to one of the paramount moments in MLS history.
Ross wraps the narrative of David Beckham and his wife Victoria “Posh” Beckham’s arrival in the United States in a concise history of American soccer. Comparisons to the NASL superstardom of Pele and George Best are contrasted with the newer MLS landscape and a neo-liberalism order that has engulfed modern soccer.
Presenting the American soccer landscape as a second tier sport embraced by suburbanites and coastal liberal elites, Ross deftly translates the newest wave of soccer fandom in the United States, arguing:
“the professional classes in coastal cities have taken up the cause of soccer in recent years to prove their cosmopolitanism. Knowledge about the latest doings of Barcelona, Juventus, or, for maximum points, West Ham United, is worn like a badge of liberal honor in wine bars from Tribeca to Silverlake.”
Continuing, Ross places this new soccerati in a cultural battle with America’s four prominent sports that possesses “all of the predictable character of a red state/ blue state stand-off.” This biting commentary on the Euro-snobbery of many American soccer fans sets up the importance of Beckham’s arrival in the U.S.
Ross’ critique of Brand Beckham thoroughly engages both the soccer star and his pop-star wife. Navigating their relationship as a power couple whom on their own would have been lost to obscurity, but collectively operate as an inseparable fashion brand that is appropriately powerful enough for their new Hollywood address.
The most poignant comment on Beckham provided by Ross matches the rise of Becks with the rise of neoliberalism within the sport of soccer itself. “He has been a full-bore creation of Neoliberal Soccer and living proof that a creative economy could add value to any enterprise that cared to link itself with him, and the game.” According to Ross, Beckham is the full embodiment of the modern game. To punctuate this point, George Best’s brief American booze and drug filled adventure in NASL is placed as a contrast to the ever cautious of the brand Beckham consciously knows he represents. The modern celebrity of Beckham is curated in a way that makes Best’s alcohol fueled lifestyle of fast cars and women seem all the more reckless.
Ross has framed this conversation of modern football and its brand ambassador around an intellectual debate between revolutionary Che Guevara and historian C.L.R. James. Guevara had suggested that Latin America would only be free of imperialism once it had replaced the American sport of baseball with soccer. James, Ross argues, would have disagreed with this, as he had advocated for the indigenization of a colonizer’s sport to the point it was a domestic expression. It is through the lens of this debate that Ross understands the transfer of another of the first generation MLS Designated Players, the Chicago Fire’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco, is a far more significant development in American soccer than the arrival of a brand ambassador. What he calls the “latinization” of Major League Soccer.
Of course hindsight might indulge brand Beckham a last laugh, as he did help the L.A. Galaxy secure two MLS Cups, a feat that eluded the Fire during Blanco’s tenure with the club. (Blanco’s Chicago Fire lost in the Conference Finals during the three years the Mexican played for the club). Still, much of Ross’ critique of modern football and its neoliberalism brand ambassador still resonates. “The Ballad of Becks and Posh” was written within a historical moment and such endeavors are easily scrutinized by readers of the future, that is not my intention here with Ross. More, this piece provides historical perspective of Major League Soccer’s entry into the modern football landscape, something most of us understand David Beckham did indeed help to usher in, underwear modeling and all.