(photo credit: AP)
David Beckham has often been considered more Hollywood than soccer player.
Now he'll get to be both.
The most recognized player on the planet agreed to a five-year deal Thursday to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, turning down a two-year contract extension from Real Madrid for a chance to lift soccer's profile in the United States.
"There are so many great sports in America," the 31-year-old former England captain and Manchester United star said. "There are so many kids that play baseball, American football, basketball. But soccer is huge all around the world apart from America, so that's where I want to make a difference with the kids."
Beckham, who has failed to win any major titles in 3 1/2 seasons in Madrid, said the time was right for a change.
"I've played now for two of the biggest clubs in the world and played at the highest level for 15 years and now I think that I need another challenge," he said.
Beckham will become the biggest star to play soccer in the United States since Pele and Franz Beckenbauer played in the now-defunct North American Soccer League in the 1970s.
The Galaxy, citing industry experts, said the LA deal is worth more than US$250 million in salary and commercial endorsements - about US$1 million a week - and is "thought to be the biggest in sporting history."
"David Beckham is a global sports icon who will transcend the sport of soccer in America," MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
Beckham and his pop star wife, former Spice Girl Victoria, should fit in just fine in LA. Beckham opened a soccer academy in Carson, California, last year, and Victoria was photographed house-hunting in the area.
A celebrity who draws paparazzi like a movie star, Beckham and his wife regularly find their way onto tabloid and magazine covers. With trendy clothes, rotating hair colors and styles and a glamorous wife, he's the epitome of the modern mix of celebrity and athlete. He's even had a movie named after him: "Bend it like Beckham."
His soccer skills are only part of the equation. He's David Beckham Inc., a multinational corporation with links to Pepsi, Gillette, Motorola and Adidas.
MLS even changed its rules on salary caps, clearing the way for Beckham to sign the lucrative deal and become the first player to be signed under the new rule.
"I'm going out there to hopefully build a club and team that's got a lot of potential," Beckham said. "I think that's what excites me."
Los Angeles opens its season on April 8 in Houston, but Beckham is not expected to join the team until August. His four-year contract with Madrid expires at the end of this season.
"For the rest of this season I will continue to give 100 percent to my coach, teammates and fans as I believe (coach) Fabio Capello will bring this club and its supporters the success they truly deserve," said Beckham, who trained with Madrid in the Spanish capital Thursday.
But Beckham has not found much success since he moved to Madrid in 2003 from Manchester United, where he had had won six league titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League title. He has no major trophies with the nine-time European Cup champions.
"I've enjoyed my time in Spain. It's been an incredible experience for me and my family," Beckham said.
Under Capello this season, things have gotten worse. Beckham has started only seven of 25 matches and was left off the squad for Thursday's Copa del Rey match against Real Betis.
Before the season started, Beckham led England to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, scoring from a free kick in the second round to beat Ecuador 1-0.
But he was taken off the field early in the second half against Portugal with ankle and Achilles tendon injuries, and then watched as his team was eliminated in a penalty shootout.
A day after the game, Beckham stepped down as captain of the team - a post he had held for 58 of his 94 international appearances. Then, on Aug. 11, England coach Steve McClaren dropped Beckham from the team altogether, signaling the end of his international career.
Then came more heartache in Madrid.
He was injured in November when he was allowed to travel to Rome to visit Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but Beckham was forced to skip the wedding and return to Madrid to sit on the bench - another sign that his days in Madrid under Capello were numbered.