His work for England complete after 68 imperious minutes, David Beckham retired to the visitors bench last Wednesday night in Estonia with a familiar verse in his ear.
"There's only one David Beckham," the traveling supporters sang. England's fans are right with their math -- there is no one else in the world with the power to awe and incite like Beckham, soon to be Major League Soccer's $250 million man. The only question now is whether one David Beckham will be enough to go around.
Alexi Lalas, general manager of the MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy, Beckham's team-in-waiting, is confident there is. He has no choice. To lose Beckham to Europe after spending six months promoting his stateside arrival would be a shocking blow to American soccer.
"It was great for David, great for England, and great for the MLS," Lalas said the morning after Beckham's return to international competition after an eight-month exile. Lalas, a de facto spokesman for American soccer, knows that an in-form Beckham jet-setting between Los Angeles and London would be a shot of pure adrenaline to his team and the league.
But at the same time, Lalas must be cautious. What the giants of European soccer crave, they are rarely denied. And what they want, in this case, is for Beckham to sign a new deal to stay.
He has a contract with the MLS but could have his services rented off to a Premiership club -- the English equivalent of MLS -- when the season ends in November. (The European soccer calendar runs August to May. The MLS, in deference to the "big four" American sports, begins play in June and ends in late November.) A loan move would not prevent Beckham from playing in the MLS but might expose him to injury, fatigue and the temptation of a more permanent return.
There are also rumors of an "escape clause" in Beckham's contract. The Galaxy denies anything of the sort and for his part, Beckham has said he will honor his contract with the Galaxy, and has no desire to play for another club in the off-season. Still, there is speculation that if his place on the national team were to be challenged again, his resolve could weaken.
Lalas maintains that such a move would never happen, and that the scheduling conflicts that could keep his prize midfielder away from Los Angeles for up to six matches this season are part and parcel to the international game.
"This club versus country debate is not something new," Lalas said from his office in the Galaxy's Home Depot Center. "It's an age-old problem and, unfortunately, too often players are put in the middle.… Both teams can realize the benefits of having David Beckham as part of their team."
Lalas was part of the group that signed Beckham for Los Angeles on Jan. 11, at a time when England's former captain was out of favor with his current club, Real Madrid, and out of the English side altogether. Steve McClaren, manager of the England national team dropped Beckham from the his roster last August.
"In January, the transfer window opened up and the stars aligned," Lalas said. "Everything was perfect in that he was looking for a new opportunity. We came into this small window of opportunity, and we had to do something big and bold to attract him and we did."
For Beckham, "big and bold" came in the form of a contract that could pay him a quarter billion dollars over five years. He'll be paid about $5 million a year to play soccer and about nine times that much annually to sell himself, the game and as many T-shirts as the Galaxy can print.
Beckham's move to America was seen in Europe as pseudo-retirement for the player once considered among the most dynamic on the planet. Upon news of the deal, Fabio Capello, Beckham's manager at Real Madrid, said that Beckham was done playing for the club. Club President Ramon Calderon joined the chorus, telling reporters Beckham was nothing more than "a half-baked actor.
"He was resigned to the fact that his career was over," said Mark Irwin, a sportswriter with the The (U.K.) Sun. "He stayed positive publicly, but if England had done well in [European Championship qualifying] they would not have brought him back."
Before Wednesday night's victory in Estonia, England had taken just 11 points from six qualifier matches, good for a disappointing fourth place in its preliminary group. Only the top two countries in each group will travel to the United States and Switzerland for the finals. Unaccustomed to such middling results, the conventional wisdom had manager Steve McClaren out of a job unless England won its Estonia clash.
Meanwhile, in central Spain, Real Madrid was having troubles of its own. And with manager Fabio Capello himself under threat from a club president that makes Yankees' brass George Steinbrenner look tame, the decision was made to bring the deposed superstar back into the fold.
On Feb. 10, Beckham marked his first appearance since mid-December by saving Cappello's job. With Madrid down a goal to Real Sociedad in the 37th minute, Beckham equalized with his standard flair: A well-placed set-piece strike that, with help of a skip on the wet Basque turf, proved the flashpoint that keyed Madrid to a 2-1 comeback victory.
Despite missing a month with a knee injury, Beckham has played ever since and is widely acknowledged as the catalyst for Real Madrid's resurgence in the Spanish top-flight. A win at home next Saturday against Mallorca will clinch an improbable league championship.
Beckham's performance for Madrid had not gone unnoticed by the British tabloids. And by the middle of last month, the team was forced to confront the topic of his return.
"I've never said the door is closed on David Beckham," said Steve McClaren, who had himself, in no uncertain terms, banished Beckham eight months earlier. "I keep my eye on everybody, and I said from day one that David's form would be monitored."
McClaren gave in May 28. Beckham was back in a national team shirt for an exhibition match with Brazil three days later. Lalas has come out in full-throated support of Beckham's recall, even promising to "drive him to the airport" when he's scheduled to play in Europe.
"You work through it as best you can and I believe that with regards to David, that both [the Galaxy and English national team] can realize the benefits having David Beckham as part of their team," Lalas said. "But nobody's going to get everything they want."
The English aren't quite so prepared to compromise. Former English national team captain Terry Butcher told the BBC that once Beckham "is gone [to America], his England career must be over. There is no way a player plying his trade in America can be considered for England."
Butcher's comments are representative of a theory, albeit one more popular in the papers than the pubs, which holds that the best way to bring Beckham back is to threaten his place in the England team.
But he might be missing the point. In two appearances since his recall, Beckham has set up three goals, the same amount the team as a whole had taken from their three previous matches. And with England on the fringes of the race for Euro 2008 qualification, the manager is no place to favor politics over form.
So as Beckham's California arrival looms, his and the national team's best interests are firmly aligned. If anything, his legend has grown in the past months. Dropped from two of the greatest teams in the world, he twice returned to save the job of the manager who'd first left him out. As for Beckham and his future with the Galaxy and the MLS, there's an old saying in soccer: "The ball is round." You never know.