Aging English soccer great David Beckham has become the newest international soccer star signed by the free-spending owners of French side Paris Saint-Germain. The 37-year-old midfielder was introduced to the media during a predictably packed press conference Thursday when the former England team captain and Manchester United hero began a five-month deal with PSG. His next move had been much anticipated since leaving MLS side LA Galaxy in December after five and a half years.
True to Beckham’s rock star status, PSG began its loudly touted media show 38 minutes late. And Becks surprised reporters by revealing he won’t be receiving a salary from PSG; the club will instead donate an undisclosed amount representing his wages to a children’s charity. “I’m excited, it’s something we’ve been working on and talking about for quite a while,” he said. “It’s something the guys do [PSG management], but obviously it’s a very good figure. That’s one thing were very excited about. To be able to give a huge sum to a children’s charity in Paris is very special.”
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News of Beckham’s recruitment broke earlier in the day, but wasn’t much of a shock to soccer fans who’d been paying any attention. Since his Qatar Sports Investments group took a controlling stake of the club in 2011, PSG president Nasser al-Khelaïfi has tried to add Beckham to a stable of stars he’s spent a reported $340 million assembling. The most recent attempt to lure Beckham to Paris fell through a year ago, when the Englishman decided to continue playing for the Galaxy. But after winning his second MSL Cup with LA in December, Beckham began looking for new challenges—and al-Khelaïfi was determined not to be denied.
“This is a big day for the club, because as you know we’ve long tried to get David, and now we finally did it,” al-Khelaïfi said. As for the player, he noted that “Every club I’ve played for I’ve been successful with,” explaining his reasoning to sign with PSG, despite having gotten “more offers than ever in my life” from other clubs. “I don’t see this as a short-term commitment. It may be short-term with me as a player, but I’ll be assuming other roles on the longer term with PSG.”
Beckham revealed his latest negotiations with PSG only took off at 1.00am Thursday morning, and were quickly finalized as he headed to Paris ahead of the looming transfer deadline. Beckham responded to questions about his family saying his wife and children will live in London through the end of the French season in June. Beckham repeatedly made it clear his signing was far more motivated by his conviction that the long-term plans al-Khelaïfi has for turning PSG into a European powerhouse will come good (PSG is currently top of the Ligue 1 standings and are in the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League).
If Beckham believes, that’s in large part because he’s seen al-Khelaïfi is spending the money necessary to build (or buy) a winner. Though the English star himself many not be pocketing any income, PSG already has a host of players Banking It Like Beckham. Swedish super star Zlatan Ibrahimovic—recruited from AC Milan in August—is reportedly raking in an annual salary of $22 million. Those same reports peg the annual salary of Ibra’s teammate Thiago Silva at $12.6 million; Ezequiel Lavezzi’s at $6.7 million; and Diego Lugano’s at nearly $5.5 million. (Those players came during a single PSG spending spree last year—one of several in 2012—worth $122 million.) Even Paris coach Carlo Ancelotti (for whom Beckham played during his tenure in Milan) makes a nice living, with a reported annual salary of over $8 million. All that has doubled PSG’s 2012 budget to nearly $400 million this season–quite a war fund for a club al-Khelaïfi is thought to have paid $134 million for complete ownership.
But with PSG having previously spent so much on young, rising talent capable of turning the traditionally struggling side into a European powerhouse, why was al-Khelaïfi so keen to sign a fading star? And what made their offer appear attractive to a multi-millionaire soccer icon like Beckham?
Al-Khelaïfi knows that his collection of hired guns remains prone to long lulls of patchy play—often relying on sudden flashes of scoring brilliance by Ibrahimovic to sneak past their domestic rivals. During those muddled matches, meantime, PSG players can succumb to Ibrahimovic’s other influence—shouting bitter criticism at teammates and heaping abuse on referees. The experience, leadership, and natural grace Beckham commands could work wonders to inspire self-control and re-focus concentration—and forge PSG’s individual talent into a tighter, smoother single unit. Meantime, age and speed aside, when it comes to set pieces, few can still bend it quite like Beckham, even after a long hiatus from the more demanding play of European pro soccer.
Another factor in al-Khelaïfi’s motivation is surely the potential millions in merchandizing income that Beckham’s name on PSG jerseys will generate in soccer-loving markets around the world. Similarly, as president of the swiftly-growing al-Jazeera Sport network that’s been buying premium broadcast rights across Europe, al-Khelaïfi’s acutely aware of how much bolder a brand and message his TV holdings and Paris team will be in association with the world-famous Beckham name.
And what’s in it for Becks? Perhaps a champion’s title in a fourth national league for starters (joining crowns won in England, Spain, and the U.S.) Assuming the elder statesman’s role in an upwardly mobile team could also be another admirable feather in his distinguished cap. And as Beckham seemed to make abundantly clear, his relationship with PSG appears certain to bridge the end of his playing career into an important front office position once he hangs up his boots.
But perhaps the biggest challenge awaiting Beckham will be fulfilling al-Khelaïfi’s truly revolutionary dream: transforming Paris from a city of distracted, disgruntled, and notorious fair-weather sports fans into the kind of soccer-mad enthusiasts that fill stadia in Manchester, Madrid, and Milan. The core of traditional PSG fans aside, most Parisians require a high-profile event to entice them to head out to one of the capital’s arenas. Modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin clearly wasn’t a true Parisian, because Paris crowds don’t only insist on flash and flair when it comes to playing the game, but want formidable contenders better known for winning than losing. Who better to strike that profile than Beckham?