An Interview with Grant Wahl
“Although Beckham would not do one-on-one interviews specifically for the book – his handlers wanted a lot of money to participate, and I don’t pay the people I cover – he was available to the media before and after games – twice a week…”
“I write differently about soccer for Sports Illustrated magazine than I do for SI.com. Soccer journalism in the U.S. is still very much Internet-driven, and I write for the hardcore soccer fan – American and otherwise – on SI.com.
When I write for SI magazine, it’s always a challenge because I have to write for the mainstream U.S. sports fan and include things that will satisfy the hardcore soccer fan too.”
“Writer’s block used to be a big problem for me when I started at SI. I actually used to tie myself to a chair through the belt loops of my pants to keep me from going anywhere. But thankfully I don’t seem to get The Block anymore – knock on wood.”
Grant Wahl: Interviewed on July 12, 2009
Position: Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
Born: 1973, Merriam, Kansas
Education: Princeton, 1996, BA in Politics
Career: Miami Herald sports intern 1996, Sports Illustrated 1996 –
Personal: Married, no kids.
Favorite restaurant (home): Jack’s Bistro, Baltimore. “Quirky slice of Baltimore with great food that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Waters or David Simon production.”
Favorite restaurant (away): Shiro’s Sushi, Seattle. “Not fancy or high-priced, but the best sushi you’ll ever have, anywhere – and I’ve eaten a lot.”
Favorite hotel: The Plaza, Buenos Aires. “A classic hotel in the heart of my adopted city.”
Author of: The Beckham Experiment: How The World’s Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America http://tinyurl.com/layry6
Grant Wahl, excerpted from ‘The Beckham Experiment’:
Meanwhile, Beckham made an effort to fit in, and on his first MLS road trip he endured an only-in-America experience. After his first training session with the Galaxy, in Washington two days before a nationally televised game against D.C. United, he helped organize a dinner with 10 other players at Morton’s steak house in Arlington, Va. Beckham had enjoyed the players-only meals at Real Madrid, and if he was going to be just one of the lads in the Galaxy locker room, things needed to get off on the right foot. Not long after they took their table, the waiter asked if anyone wanted wine. They all raised their hands.
“O.K.,” the waiter said. “I need to see some I.D.’s.”
“I don’t have my I.D. with me,” Beckham said.
“No I.D., no wine!” the waiter announced, theatrically snatching Beckham’s wineglass.
Beckham thought it was a put-on. “Is this guy taking the piss?” he asked. But the waiter was serious. When the Galaxy’s Portuguese defender Abel Xavier couldn’t produce an I.D., his wineglass disappeared too. “What is this?” the 34-year-old Xavier thundered. “I have a kid who can drink.” The other players laughed hysterically, partly because the waiter hadn’t recognized the world’s most famous athlete and partly because Beckham and Xavier were so used to being mobbed in Europe that they didn’t bother carrying identification. Welcome to soccer in the U.S., guys.
The Morton’s dinner was the first time Beckham had held center stage at a players-only meal, and he came out of his shell, answering questions and telling stories about his days with Manchester United, the English national team and Real Madrid. The vibe was comfortable. There was no awkwardness with Beckham. “You can break his balls,” said defender Chris Albright, “and he’ll break your balls right back.” Kyle Martino, a midfielder, was stunned that Beckham could be such a regular guy.
And then the check came.
Beckham was earning a $6.5 million salary, and his income, with endorsements, would balloon to $48.2 million. Martino was making a salary of $55,297 — before taxes — and living in one of the U.S.’s most expensive cities. Nearly everyone at the table was thinking, Is Beckham going to pick up the check? But nobody said anything. Beckham, meanwhile, had never been in this situation before. The players on his other teams had all been millionaires, and Real Madrid paid for all team meals anyway. The Galaxy provided only a $45 per diem on the road. What would Beckham do? What should he do?
Donovan eyed the bill from his seat. He had paid for teammates’ dinners in the past, and he’d made his position clear even before Beckham’s arrival. “He’d better be picking up meals too,” Donovan had told teammates, “or else I’ll call him out on it.” But defender Chris Klein, one of Donovan’s best friends on the team, had a different viewpoint.
“If you’re out to dinner with the guys and you pick up a check here or there, then fine,” Klein said. “But if you start to feel like you’re being used, these aren’t your friends anymore. These are leeches. You can look at it two ways: Here’s this guy that’s making a lot of money, and maybe he should pick up the tab. But the other side of it is, maybe he’s trying so hard to be one of the guys, if he’s paying for everything then he’s not one of the guys anymore.”
Beckham didn’t pick up the check. He put in enough to cover his share and passed it along. That would be standard operating procedure at meals throughout the season. “None of us care,” said Kelly Gray, one of Beckham’s frequent dining companions. “It’s just nice to go out to dinner.”
Donovan didn’t call Beckham out at Morton’s after all, but he could never get over Beckham’s alligator arms when the bill arrived. Nobody would have believed it, he thought: David Beckham is a cheapskate.
Q. Beckham chose not to pick up the tab at his first dinner with his Galaxy teammates? What would you have done if you were him, assuming you could not expense it to SI?
A. It’s a fascinating debate, not least because reasonable people can disagree over whether Beckham – annual income: $50 million – should pick up the check at a fancy steakhouse with teammates earning under $20,000 a year.
If I’m Beckham in that situation, I would have picked up the check at the first meal in a heartbeat – and if I didn’t want to do it all the time, I would have just put in my share for future meals. If it was me personally – making my SI salary – then I would have been making similar money to several other players at the meal, and I probably wouldn’t have tried to pick up the whole thing. Then again, if I was one of the other players, I wouldn’t have wanted Beckham paying for everything all the time. I would have felt that my money was as good as his money, and I wouldn’t want to feel like Turtle from Entourage.
Q. Your access to Beckham was described as “unparalleled”. How so?
A. I saw that someone else wrote that – not me or my publisher – and I don’t think I would use that term necessarily. Beckham has done his own – ghost-written – books before, and those writers have had more access to him – even if every word is carefully approved by Beckham’s management team.
I have always had a solid working relationship with Beckham, have interviewed him more than any other American journalist – for major stories in SI – and material from those one-on-one interviews appears throughout my book.
Our arrangement for The Beckham Experiment was straightforward: Although Beckham would not do one-on-one interviews specifically for the book – his handlers wanted a lot of money to participate, and I don’t pay the people I cover – he was available to the media before and after games – twice a week, in other words, or far more accessible than at any point in his European career. I asked him a lot of questions in those sessions, and his voice and thoughts are in the book. I also spoke often – on background – to Beckham’s handlers in the interest of fairness and good journalism.
I do think I got unparalleled access inside a Beckham team. Nearly everyone on the Galaxy – including Landon Donovan, Alexi Lalas and ownership group CEO Tim Leiweke – gave me exclusive interviews during the 16-month process of reporting the book. They were very candid, and to their credit they continued to speak to me even when the team’s fortunes started declining on the field.
Q. It’s not your job to promote MLS, but if it were, what would you do to grow the audience?
A. I think star power does matter, and I hope that this Beckham experience doesn’t turn off MLS owners to the notion of bringing in other big-name players. They just need to make sure they bring in the right players and handle how they work with the team on and off the field. But you need more than one really good player per team. Soccer is the ultimate team sport, and the level of the players – and salaries – needs to increase across the board.
Q. What does your SI soccer beat entail?
A. It seems like a bit more every year. College basketball is still my main beat at SI, but I cover all the major international soccer tournaments and provide coverage of MLS and the U.S. national team for SI and SI.com. I’m really lucky to be covering the two sports that I love—and, not coincidentally, the two most popular sports – soccer and hoops – on the planet. How could anyone ever complain about covering the two coolest sporting events in the world: the NCAA basketball tournament and the World Cup?
Q. Do you write soccer different for an American audience than you would for an audience in England or Brazil – to name a couple of soccer hotbeds?
A. I write differently about soccer for Sports Illustrated magazine than I do for SI.com. Soccer journalism in the U.S. is still very much Internet-driven, and I write for the hardcore soccer fan – American and otherwise – on SI.com.
When I write for SI magazine, it’s always a challenge because I have to write for the mainstream U.S. sports fan and include things that will satisfy the hardcore soccer fan too. But I do think there are ways to pull that off, and it’s getting easier to keep everyone happy as tournaments like the World Cup become big-time mainstream events in the United States. The U.S. television audience for the 2006 World Cup final – 16.9 million – beat out the average audiences for that year’s NBA Finals – 12.9 million) – and World Series – 15.8 million).
Q. Who were your career influences?
A. Far too many people to name here, but I’ll mention a few. The former New York Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson taught me in a writing course during my freshman year of college. She scared the hell out of me at first, but this 65-year-old woman became one of my closest college friends—I wrote my senior thesis – on politics and soccer in Argentina – at an office in her house. David Remnick of The New Yorker taught me in another intensive writing seminar in 1995; learning how to approach literary non-fiction from him was an amazing experience.
I got hired at Sports Illustrated by Bambi Wulf, whose record of writing hires at SI included Steve Rushin, Austin Murphy, Jon Wertheim and Jeff Pearlman. The entire staff of writers, editors and photographers at SI has had a huge influence. It’s a great place to work.
Q. How difficult or easy is writing for you? Ever suffer from writer’s block?
A. Writer’s block used to be a big problem for me when I started at SI. I actually used to tie myself to a chair through the belt loops of my pants to keep me from going anywhere. But thankfully I don’t seem to get The Block anymore – knock on wood. Good thing, too, since I had to write The Beckham Experiment in less than three months. My wife was working in South Africa for a year as an infectious-disease doctor – she’s the star of the family – and I landed in Johannesburg on Thanksgiving 2008 to start my leave of absence from SI – now over. I outlined for two weeks, then wrote 112,000 words in 72 days—10 hours a day, seven days a week—to make the March 1 deadline for my manuscript. It was good to learn that I could do it, and even though I wrote fast I still feel good about the quality of the book.
Q. Who and what do you read to keep up with sports – mainstream and non-mainstream?
A. I only really follow the two sports that I cover: soccer and college basketball. My wife kind of hates sports, so when I’m off the clock I’m off the clock, and I’m plenty busy staying on top of the two sports that I cover since there are so many teams.
I follow several writers in college hoops, including Alex Wolff, Seth Davis and Luke Winn from SI; Mike DeCourcy (The Sporting News); Andy Katz,
Pat Forde and Jay Bilas (ESPN); Jeff Goodman (FoxSports.com); Gary Parrish (CBS Sportsline); and John Feinstein (Washington Post). There are also a ton of good columnists who do college hoops, including Rick Bozich (Louisville) and Dan Wetzel and Adrian Wojnarowski (Yahoo). I could go on forever.
Soccer-wise, there’s some good journalism being done out there in the U.S.:
Steven Goff (Washington Post), Ives Galarcep (ESPN.com), Jeré Longman and George Vecsey (New York Times), Mark Zeigler (San Diego Union-Tribune), Beau Dure (USA Today), Michael Lewis (New York Daily News), Greg Lalas and Jonah Freedman (SI.com) and Andrea Canales and Kyle McCarthy (Goal.com) are some who I read a lot, but there are several others too. One of the best ways to keep up with all the soccer news is a blog called Du Nord (dunord.blogspot.com) by Bruce McGuire.
Q. Assuming that reporters root for the best story, your feelings when the U.S. lost the Confederations Cup final to Brazil?
A. Well, that would have been a great story, wouldn’t it, if the U.S. men had won their first international soccer tournament by beating No. 1-ranked Spain and World Cup favorite Brazil four days apart? If the U.S. had held on to the lead, it almost certainly would have been the cover story in that week’s Sports Illustrated. Instead the U.S. lost, and a five-page cover story turned into a 1.5-page Inside Soccer column. I’d be lying if part of me didn’t envision a cover photo of captain Carlos Bocanegra holding up the trophy under the coverline BYE-BYE BRAZIL! But that’s okay. The U.S. run got people in America excited about next year’s World Cup. It would be an even bigger story if the Yanks got to the final of that one.
Q. What would have to happen for the U.S. to win the World Cup in 2010?
A. A lot of unexpected things. Realistically, the U.S. is one of the top 15 teams in the world, but it’s not anywhere near the top five. Then again, strange things can happen in the World Cup. The U.S. outplayed Germany in the 2002 WC quarterfinal (losing 1-0), and a win would have given the Americans the chance to play South Korea for the right to be in the World Cup final. You never know what the future may hold, but this is an exciting time to be covering soccer in America.
Grant Wahl, excerpted from ‘The Beckham Experiment’:
In August 2008 Leiweke napalmed the Galaxy’s dysfunctional management structure, pushing out Lalas, Gullit and Byrne, thereby damaging his relationship with Team Beckham. Not once did Beckham address the players as L.A.’s free fall continued, and in October he used a yellow-card suspension as a reason not to attend L.A.’s most important game of the season, a loss in Houston that eliminated the team from playoff contention. Four days later news broke of Beckham’s clandestine push to be loaned to AC Milan. Donovan was furious.
Over a lunch of lamb pizza and a peach salad at Petros, a stylish Greek restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Donovan took a sip of Pinot Grigio and exhaled deeply. It was 24 hours after he’d learned of Beckham’s desire to move to Milan, and instead of enjoying a Thursday off from practice, he was miserable. The Galaxy’s awful season hadn’t ended yet, but all the talk was about Beckham’s possible departure.
Donovan himself was convinced that Captain Galaxy had vanished in spirit weeks earlier. “My sense is that David’s clearly frustrated, that he’s unhappy and, honestly, that he thinks it’s a joke,” said Donovan, who was about to clinch the MLS goal-scoring title. “I also kind of feel [he has taken the team] for granted. I don’t see dedication or commitment to this team, and that’s troubling.”
The longer Donovan had been around Beckham, the more he’d asked himself, Who is this guy? Why is he so secretive? Donovan had tried to have a conversation with Beckham the day before, but he’d gotten nowhere. “So you’re going to Milan?” Donovan had asked.
“We’ll see,” Beckham replied. “I’ve got to stay fit somehow during the off-season.”
“It’s a nice city, right?”
“Some people say it is, but I don’t know.”
And that was it. Their lockers were side-by-side, but they might as well have been a million miles apart.
No, Donovan decided, Beckham communicated far more clearly with his actions than with his words. Donovan still couldn’t fathom why Beckham had stayed in England for nearly three days after a national-team game the previous week, had refrained from traveling to Houston to support his teammates in the most important game of the year. It didn’t matter that he was suspended, Donovan thought, didn’t matter that he’d been given permission by the Galaxy to stay away. He was the captain of the team.
“All that we care about at a minimum is that he committed himself to us,” Donovan said. “As time has gone on, that has not proven to be the case in many ways — on the field, off the field. Does the fact that he earns that much money come into it? Yeah. If someone’s paying you more than anybody in the league, more than double anybody in the league, the least we expect is that you show up to every game, whether you’re suspended or not. Show up and train hard. Show up and play hard. Maybe he’s not a leader, maybe he’s not a captain. Fair enough. But at a minimum you should bust your ass every day. That hasn’t happened. And I don’t think that’s too much for us to expect. Especially when he’s brought all this on us.”
Donovan had wanted the Beckham Experiment to work, and there was no reason in his mind that it still couldn’t be successful in 2009. But not if Beckham continued acting the way he had during the last half of 2008. “When David first came, I believed he was committed to what he was doing,” Donovan said. “He cared. He wanted to do well. He wanted the team and the league to do well. Somewhere along the way — and in my mind it coincides with Ruud being let go — he just flipped a switch and said, ‘Uh-uh, I’m not doing it anymore.’ “
By now, in fact, Donovan no longer agreed with the “good teammate, bad captain” verdict that so many other Galaxy players had reached on Beckham. Donovan was convinced that Beckham wasn’t even a good teammate anymore: “He’s not. He’s not shown that. I can’t think of another guy where I’d say he wasn’t a good teammate, he didn’t give everything through all this, he didn’t still care. But with [Beckham] I’d say no, he wasn’t committed.”
The most fascinating aspect of Donovan’s barrage was the even manner in which he delivered it. He sounded like a scientist revealing the findings of an experiment. The way Donovan saw it, he was just sharing his conclusions about a coworker, one who happened to be David Beckham.
Donovan didn’t know what would come next, but he did know that things would have to change if he and Beckham were teammates in 2009. “Let’s say he does stay here three more years,” Donovan said. “I’m not going to spend the next three years of my life doing it this way. This is f—— miserable. I don’t want to have soccer be this way.”
What could he do? “That’s my issue too,” he said. “I’ve got to confront it somehow. If that’s the way he’s going to be, fine, then hold him accountable. Bench him. Just say, ‘We’re not going to play you, we don’t think you’re committed.’ “
As disgusted as he sounded, though, Donovan still thought his relationship with Beckham could be saved — if Beckham returned to being the kind of teammate who at least wanted to come support the Galaxy the day after an England game. Then again, it all might have been moot, given the Milan news. Donovan knew how the soccer world worked, knew how Beckham and 19 Entertainment operated too. “It could be that it’s just a loan now,” Donovan said, “but he could play a few games and go, ‘S—, I want to stay here.'”
Donovan was right. Beckham produced two goals and two assists in his first five games for Milan and announced that he wanted to stay in Italy instead of returning to the Galaxy. Thus began a monthlong global saga of negotiations involving Milan, L.A. and MLS. The result: Beckham would finish the Serie A season and rejoin the Galaxy in July, midway through the MLS season.
By the time Beckham returned, Donovan planned on finally confronting the Englishman over his commitment to the Galaxy. Now, however, the tables had turned. Donovan was wearing the captain’s armband again.
(SMG thanks Grant Wahl for his cooperation)