From over here in London, the American culture around our beloved football seems weird. The insistence on calling it ‘soccer’, even though more than half of MLS teams have ‘football’ in their name, is weird. The fact that the men’s team of such a giant, rich, sport-obsessed nation is an after-thought to most fans is weird. The way that, while the rest of the world callously and criminally ignored the women’s game, the US produced a highly polished, wonderfully talented and all-conquering juggernaut of a side is weird. Everything about the beautiful game in America seems, from over here, weird.
As a result, no one pays too much attention to MLS. The NFL and NBA are popular: these leagues are unquestioned as the absolute pinnacle of their respective sports, and people like to watch the best. MLS, on the other hand, is seen as a third-tier regional competition at best, a place where once-great champions occasionally go to line their pockets before retirement.
In reality, the competition is deserving of much more credit than it is given. The standard is not the same as that of the top 5 leagues in Europe, and none of the teams currently playing in MLS would have a hope of inflicting serious damage in the UEFA Champions League. But the same could be said of many other national top flights, which are not as looked down upon as that of the USA. One man could be key to bringing the eye and respect of the wider footballing world to the USA: David Beckham.
David Beckham is the one thing which brings US and European football fans together. When he first moved to LA in 2007, he brought with him a massive spotlight for the league as a whole, but remained relevant in Europe through his performances for England and during his loan stints in the US off-season. By continuing to perform at a high level for AC Milan while plying his trade with LA Galaxy, he showed that players who went to America were not just cashing in, but continued to take their work seriously. He brought a professional credibility to the US game that had not previously been associated with it.
Since retiring as a player, many other legends of the game have followed his lead. The trio of Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo and David Villa at New York City FC brought Champions League and World Cup winning experience; Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 53 goals in 58 LA Galaxy appearances before returning to AC Milan, where he still plays at the age of 40. Beckham has gone one step further, activating an option in his contract when leaving MLS to own his own franchise. Inter Miami played their first MLS match in March 2020, have fielded their own World Cup winner in the recently-departed Blaise Matuidi, and are led on the pitch by Gonzalo Higuaín—an Argentine forward whose goal scoring record for elite European clubs and his national team places him as one of the best strikers in the world. His signing for Inter Miami in 2020, when still only 32, demonstrated both the ambition of Beckham to make the club globally recognized and the faith in Beckham’s leadership held by elite players in the top leagues.
Inter Miami have not enjoyed instant success on the pitch, but they have shown year-on-year improvement. The club is clearly being built for the long term, and steady progress is key. As well as having Higuaín as captain, Beckham’s old Manchester United teammate and fellow owner of English club Salford City FC, Phil Neville was appointed manager after leading England’s women to 4th place in the Women’s World Cup. Significant investment has been made in a youth academy and top-class training facilities, as opposed to a host of marquee signings for short term success. The sprawling Miami Freedom Park complex will benefit the city of Miami and generate income for the club long into the future. In September 2021 the club announced global cryptofinance firm XBTO as its first shirt sponsor—a sure indication that Inter Miami is preparing itself for the future. After being the first footballer to build his own image into a global brand, paving the way for countless others to do likewise after him, David Beckham now appears set to create the first truly global brand in MLS, raising the profile and estimation of the US league even further than he did the first time he joined.
‘Brand Beckham’ is key to Inter Miami’s potential global appeal. The city of Miami, and it’s South Florida climate, have their own drawing power for fans and players alike, but Beckham is the factor which takes the club to the next level. His style and charisma, his courage, when it comes to his personal fashion selections contribute to a persona which fans across the world, of all ages and genders, are drawn to. His success as a player, the trophies won across different nations and competitions, and the longevity of his career bring him the respect of his fellow professionals. When Beckham speaks, the football world listens.
For now, it’s up to us to speculate what the immediate future holds for Inter Miami. Will they build on previous seasons to make the playoffs in 2022? Will they make any headline Designated Player signings? Or continue to invest in youth? Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both on contracts which expire in summer 2023—is the pulling power of Beckham strong enough to get the two best players of all time to link up for one season before they both retire? Probably not, but we can dream. Whatever happens, whoever Beckham brings with him, the prestige of MLS is enhanced by his presence, and the rest of the world will eventually take proper notice.