Beckham Makes Big Apple Debut

The sight of footballs crashing into lit barbecues and toppling stacked beer bottles is not uncommon in the Giants Stadium parking lot. The Meadowlands complex in New Jersey is host to at least 20 slobbering NFL pregame fiascoes every season.

But there was something different about the scene this past Saturday night. Truth be told, the footballs weren't footballs at all. They were soccer balls — round as Charlie Brown's head.

The carnival outside the gates carried over into the stadium, where, by 7:30 p.m., the New York debut of the man they call "Goldenballs" kicked off beneath the blinding flashes of a thousand amateur photographers.

David Beckham had arrived, in a sporting sense, and he brought with him a Major League Soccer record crowd of 66,237. That's about 55,237 more paid customers than Red Bull New York normally welcome.

Anticipation -- as Beckham's compatriots the indie rock act Arctic Monkeys taught us -- has a habit to set you up for disappointment in evening entertainment, but such would not be the case Saturday.

Red Bull took a lead in the fourth minute on a free kick from Colombian Juan Pablo Angel. The next two goals, in the sixth and eighth minutes, were set up by the right foot of the Los Angeles Galaxy's Beckham, who responded to the more contemptuous home supporters with a cheeky finger-to-mouth "shush" signal (and a smile, naturally.)

In what should be a most encouraging note for America's growing legion of soccer missionaries, those jeers grew louder each time Beckham set up for a free kick.

Passion and derision are the driving forces of the domestic sports market, and if the home fans care enough to boo Beckham, then MLS commissioner Don Garber should have reason to cheer. The drama only ebbed with the shrill of the referee's whistle for halftime.

Of the 22 players trotting off the field for the break, only three would be allowed into a European soccer stadium without a ticket. But, with the score by then 3-2 for New York, no one seemed to mind.

Beckham came off near last. His departure was less a trot than a lope, and it seemed to redeem him to even the saltiest corners of the crowd. There they were, cheering him like they did during the pregame, the past 45 minutes' transgressions forgotten.

Beckham's talents are undeniable, almost as evident to the untrained eye as the mess that is man-marking defense in American soccer.

As Red Bull's Angel said of the England midfielder during the postgame chat, "He could win a game with one of his balls." Not a single reporter, not even the British sportswriters sitting behind the ABC News contingent at the press conference, could do anything but nod in agreement. They had seen it many times in England. They'd just witnessed it threefold at Giants Stadium.

New Yorkers have a taste for class, but they also like dirty water hot dogs and fat knishes. In the second half, they would receive stomach-fulls of both. Four more goals were scored as the home side finished with a thrilling flurry in the 88th minute.

The winner was scored by Angel. Red Bull's other two were netted by the 17-year-old American Jozy Altidore. A broad and dangerous striker, he is featured with global superstar Ronaldinho and Guillermo Ochoa on the cover of this year's FIFA 2008 soccer video game, and has quickly established himself as the future best boy of American soccer. The irony, of course, is that he will likely go to Europe to play ball in the coming years.

Still, the night belonged to Beckham. His team's 5-4 defeat could hardly shake the shine off his postgame smile. "Goldenballs" came to America to put on a show, and for at least 90 minutes, proved every bit the hero that the Anschutz Group had him pegged as when they agreed to his quarter-billion dollar contract.

"I haven't been involved in a game like that since I was 9 or 10 years old," Beckham said after the nine-goal extravaganza.

Granted, he probably hasn't faced such inept defense and goalkeeping since that earlier time, but those dark conclusions seemed miles from his perfectly shorn blond head. Like a true entertainer, he was more focused on the adoring crowd.

"Tonight, I have to say thank you to the people who paid money," Beckham said. "They got to see a sport I consider the best in the world."

If any of the matches in the remaining schedule can come close to equaling the excitement and competition on display Saturday night, at least a few more Americans are sure to come around to the Briton's way of thinking.

As for at least one jolly English ex-pat in the crowd, the evening of Aug. 18, 2007, brought to mind a game played in the Scottish Second Division on April 22, 1964. The final in that affair was, like Saturday, 5-to-4.

The teams were Forfar and East Fife. Forfar had the 5, East Fife had the 4. Again, that's "Forfar 5, East Fife 4." You may not have known that story until now. The same could be said for soccer in America.

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