Criticizing David Beckham is a matter fraught with peril. Even when Beckham and his camp aren't seeing reality.
The risk isn't just that he, like any celebrity, has a devoted fan base that will scream until they're blue in the face at any suggestion that he's making a misstep. The danger in being a Beckham critic is that he has made more comebacks than Cher.
Count him out, and he'll say a few gracious words before proving the critics wrong. He does so, much to his credit, without being brash and defiant. He restored his reputation after a mild but costly retaliation at the 1998 World Cup made him a villain in England. He was benched and scorned at Real Madrid after announcing plans to join the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, yet he kept up his diligent training and returned to help the team win the Spanish title.
In 2009, Beckham topped himself. He went on loan to Italy's AC Milan and proved he could still play at an elite level, stunning European snobs who think Major League Soccer, the Galaxy's league, sullies all that it touches. Vilified by Galaxy fans after his loan was extended and his commitment to LA seemed in doubt, he went back to work and won them over upon his return, helping the team reach the 2009 MLS final. Beckham played his heart out in the final and made his kick in the penalty shootout, only to lose when fellow stars Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle missed theirs.
With his reputation again intact, few people protested when Beckham again went to Milan on loan, hoping to keep up the momentum to propel him to yet another World Cup appearance with England. It wasn't to be. Beckham tore his Achilles tendon, one of the most feared injuries in any sport.
Beckham returned to Los Angeles and, as he has in the past, pushed himself to get back on the field as soon as possible and was a solid player despite the Galaxy's faltering in the league semifinals.
But just when you think Beckham was finally content to settle into a routine in Los Angeles, where his family seems happy, news comes that Beckham might prefer a loan spell to England's Tottenham Hotspur to a leisurely preseason warmup with the Galaxy.
American pundits are not amused.
SI's Steve Davis says Beckham is mistaken if he's trying to prolong his career with England's national team. "He's well past the age where most players -- those more self-aware, and those without a bevy of handlers whose livelihoods depend on keeping their employer's name in the headlines -- retire from the international game."
Soccer America's Paul Gardner praises Beckham's ability to walk through the political quagmire of World Cup bidding with his reputation enhanced, but says of Beckham's recent history: "That catalogue of poor decisions, miscues and injuries would have convinced any mere mortal to stop trying to defy old age with around-the-calendar soccer."
The comments on Gardner's column show the pitfalls of doubting Beckham, as several readers seem to think they're responding to a snide young Bleacher Report blogger rather than a venerable English-born columnist who can give first-hand accounts of everything from Pele's North American Soccer League spells to glamorous FA Cup matches of the 50s. Few of the comments address the issue that Beckham has simply put his body through too much for the Galaxy to send him through a Premier League gauntlet with their blessing and thanks. Some comments even dredge up the old myth that Americans somehow invented the word "soccer" while the rest of the world properly calls it "football."
The lone voice supporting a Beckham move belongs to Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney. But Mahoney also scoffs at Beckham's on-field impact, doubting that he'll have much impact in the Premier League and calling him a "peripheral player" for the Galaxy.
Let's sum up: A 35-year-old "peripheral player" with a Major League Soccer team wants to go to a high-performing team in England's excellent Premier League, in large part because he wants to continue playing for England? In basketball terms, this is the equivalent of a 24-year-old senior at a mid-major school (not Butler or Gonzaga) trying to transfer to Duke for his final semester to impress NBA scouts.
Alexi Lalas, Beckham's one-time boss at the Galaxy, still sees this sort of situation from the club's point of view and notes that Beckham's teammate, World Cup standout Landon Donovan, decided against a similar loan because he needed to give his body a break.
Donovan is 28 and has never been seriously injured. Does he know something Beckham doesn't? Or is Beckham the superhuman he and his advisors seem to believe he is?