BUEHERLTAL, Germany – David Beckham and Major League Soccer seem to be a match made in marketing heaven.
Sometime soon, perhaps in a year or two, maybe three or four, soccer's most famous current star likely will be coming to America, injecting glamour and glitz into MLS and following the path created by Pele and Franz Beckenbauer three decades ago.
"I want to play at the highest level for a few more years yet. I've got that planned out," Beckham said Thursday at England's World Cup training camp. "Going to America is one of the ideas that I've thought of in the future."
He's an entertainment personality who draws paparazzi like a movie star, regularly finding his way onto tabloid and magazine covers. With snazzy clothes, rotating hair colors and styles and a pop star wife, he is the epitome of the modern mix of celebrity and athlete. He's even had a movie named after him: "Bend it like Beckham," released three years ago.
That he's a 31-year-old midfielder who plays for Real Madrid's "Galacticos" and the captain of England's national team is only part of the equation. He's David Beckham Inc., a multinational corporation with links to Pepsi, Gillette, Motorola and Adidas.
"He's a cultural icon," said former U.S. soccer star Alexi Lalas, the president and general manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy. "I think that the people that don't know a tremendous amount about soccer know who Beckham is, whether it's the way he looks or who he's married to or what he's done in international soccer. The fact is, he's transcended the sport."
Beckham probably would play for Los Angeles or the New York Red Bulls, where his profile would be the highest. His wife, Victoria, the former Posh Spice, also appears to enjoy the spotlight and late-night lifestyle, and could factor into deciding whether La-La Land or the Big Apple is a better place to live and bring up their three sons: Brooklyn (7), Romeo (3) and Cruz (1).
"Mrs. Posh Spice will decide where that goes," predicted Marcelo Balboa, the U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer and now a television analyst.
MLS has imported European soccer stars before: Lothar Matthaeus and Roberto Donadoni with the MetroStars, and Hristo Stoitchkov with the Chicago Fire. But they were well past their primes when they arrived, shells of the players who starred for Germany, Italy and Bulgaria in the World Cup.
Pele was 34 when he signed with the North American Soccer League's Cosmos in 1975 and finished his career with them, retiring in 1977. Beckenbauer had captained West Germany to the 1974 World Cup title and was 31 when he joined the Cosmos in 1977. He stayed until 1980, then returned briefly in 1983.
MLS wants Beckham when he's still close to his top.
"Clearly in the United States, he's the best-known international soccer player, and that's not because of his play on the field, that's because of all of the other elements of him: He's good looking, he's married to a music star, he's at the cutting edge of fashion," said Ivan Gazidis, the league's deputy commissioner. "I think for MLS, all of that doesn't really mean very much unless he also brings something on the field."
Beckham left Manchester United in 2003 and has a four-year contract with Real Madrid that runs through the 2006-7 season. His play with England was criticized as lackluster before he scoring on a swerving free kick in last weekend's 1-0 second-round win over Ecuador.
While he might be able to hold a position on England's national team through the 2008 European Championship, a fourth World Cup is remote — he will be 35 by the 2010 tournament.
"I think time will tell how physically I feel playing at the highest level," he said. "At the moment, I'm a Real Madrid player, I'm playing for England in the World Cup and it doesn't get much higher than that."
MLS, now in its 11th season, has concentrated on building soccer-specific stadiums. Attendance this season has averaged 14,857, about the same as last year's final figure of 15,108.
Beckham's arrival would give the league a boost both in tickets and television ratings, and it would attract international attention.
"They need some superstars," Beckenbauer said. "Of course that would help them. Definitely."
By going to America, Beckham would gain new marketing opportunities and boost U.S. recognition with appearances on ABC and ESPN, the league's television partners. Through June 8, MLS broadcasts on ESPN were averaging a 0.2 rating for 12 telecasts, about 197,000 households.
But he would create a splash beyond sports. His hairstyle would be examined in American celebrity magazines — shaven, shaggy or Mohawk? Blond or brown? Cornrows, mullet or ponytail?
"He's sex appeal and charisma," said John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content. "I think we'd promote it and market it and we could probably build some ratings around, `Tune to see David Beckham.' Clearly part of what we believe is a connection between the World Cup, our national team and our club league, and Beckham would allow us to help make that linkage. That may be the single most important thing."
Beckham started raising his U.S. profile last year, when he opened a soccer academy in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson with Anschutz Entertainment Group, the owner of the Galaxy. They also teamed to start an academy in London.
"He definitely has an interest here in the U.S., not only to live but also to help the game grow here, both on the male and female side of the sport," said Chris McGuire, Adidas Soccer's sports marketing manager. "He's put some roots down here now."
Lalas left the Red Bulls in April for the Galaxy and already is angling to land Beckham for his new team.
"He can visit New York as much as he wants," Lalas said, "but he's got to play in Los Angeles with the Galaxy."