Grant Wahl: The Interview

Grant Wahl's extraordinary book The Beckham Experiment was finally released today

[ame=""] The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America: Grant Wahl: Books[/ame]

For the last week the world football press has spoken of little else besides the firestorm created by Landon Donovan's comments about David Beckham as a teammate and Beckham's response.

Grant graciously agreed to give us a little of what was surely very limited time today for an exclusive BigSoccer interview.

(Note: since my stenographer took the decade off, I'm breaking this into two parts. The second will post tomorrow. Enjoy)

Seemingly, the Galaxy granted you an extraordinary amount of access with the clear understanding that you were working on a book about the Beckham Experiment, as you call it, without regard to where the whole thing might be going or where the chips were going to fall. Correct?

Yeah, I think that was the understanding. The people who participated in the book, which was a lot of folks from the Los Angeles Galaxy, knew coming in that nobody really knew how it was going to work out For all we knew this was going to be a championship winning team like the New York Cosmos, but that didn't happen, obviously.

I give a lot of credit to the people at the Galaxy because they continued to do so even when the thing really started going south, and they didn't have to do that, but I think they also realized that I was coming into this just to follow the story and see where it took us.

It seems to me that the guy who comes out best in all of this, surprisingly, is Alexi Lalas. You clearly like the guy but at the same time you don't soft-peddle his mistakes in terms of personnel and so forth but if there's one person who really got screwed here it was him, wasn't it?

Well, when you talk about Alexi you have to acknowledge that he deserves a lot of the blame for the Galaxy's problems in 2006 and 2007, and even he will accept the blame for that.

What happened in 2008, which was a fiasco of an even higher order, he had a lot less to do with than the public believed because the public believed that Lalas hired Ruud Gullit, that was the way it was supposed to work, hiring and firing coaches was supposed to be one of Alexi's main tasks as General Manager.

So you had this truly bizarre situation where Alexi did not hire Ruud Gulllit and the guy in charge of the coaching search was David Beckham's best friend and personal manager which, besides being a raging conflict of interest, was not very smart for Tim Leiweke giving that much power to a guy like Terry Byrne and Team Beckham when they'd only been in America for four months.

They didn't know how MLS works or how different it is from the European soccer leagues where they came from.

You said that the people from the Galaxy were extraordinarily cooperative. Conversely, it seems like you got, I think it's safe to say, no cooperation from 19 Entertainment or Terry Byrne, and he's someone in particular that I'm sure you'd have loved to talk to but, apparently, was totally unavailable the entire time?

Terry Byrne, as far as I know, did not give a single on the record interview to anybody in recent years.

He was at one point early in the decade a director at Watford and I got a couple quotes from that period, but even when I was getting a lot of access to Beckham's people in 2007 for that SI cover story they even made Simon Fuller available to me and Simon Fuller is fairly hard to pin down and get an interview with. Obviously he's a very wealthy guy being the creator of American Idol, but even at that time I asked to speak to Terry Byrne because I knew that he was Beckham's best friend and personal manager and they had a lot of history together and I hadn't seen him quoted anywhere in any other stories, but they wouldn't provide him for me.

Did that surprise you?

It did a little bit at the time, but that gives you a sense of how the guy prefers to remain in the shadows from a public perspective. Everything I had heard about Terry Byrne was that he was actually a pretty good guy to work with, a friendly guy who talked straight. This was from guys like Frank Yallop, who dealt with him fairly constantly.

At the same time Terry Byrne was the guy who in the Spring of 2007, asked Yallop and Lalas what they were doing about the captaincy and explained that he thought Beckham should be made the captain immediately upon arrival instead of earning it.

"Team Beckham" as far as access for the book, I had a good relationship with Beckham and with his handlers based on the two stories I did in SI in 2003 and 2007, so I approached them as the book started to get going and told them that I would love to sit down with Beckham like I was with everyone else inside the Galaxy even if it was for only three or four organized interviews over a period of time.

Their response was that David had worked on books before, that he had been paid over a million dollars for those books and the indication was that they wanted a lot of money if he was going to participate in the book one-on-one.

And there was never the slightest chance that you were going to do that.

Never. In my country it is unethical to pay the people you interview. End of story.

They gave me the contact number for a woman with 19 Entertainment to start negotiations with but that call was never made because there was nothing to talk about.

Keep in mind though, just so people are aware, that I did have a lot of access to Beckham, his voice is all over the book, from one on one interviews from the SI stories, and was also available before and after every game, which was way more than he had done in Europe.

Also, I spoke with Beckham's handlers on background a lot, just to be fair, if there is such a thing, and their point of view is in the book.

By all accounts, Tim Leiweke is an extraordinarily bright, talented executive who successfully runs a billion dollar business when you add it all up. How does somebody that capable and who understands business so well let this go so bad so quickly, basically turning the team over to the star player and his people. How does he let that happen?

I was surprised too because I do think Tim Leiweke is a smart businessman, and you look at what happened and I think he's someone who has always been seduced by soccer star power and the idea that this sort of magic dust would have an impact and change his Galaxy team.

That's what I think was behind his hiring of Terry Byrne as a paid consultant and his signing off on hiring of Ruud Gullit as the coach. This guy was a very big name and Leiweke thought he was going to have a big presence in the locker room even if Gullit's history didn't suggest someone who was going to have much patience for dealing with the rules of MLS.

But I give Tim credit. He admitted that it was his mistake that this dysfunctional management structure was created where there was built-in tension between Lalas and Gullit and Beckham.

Team Beckham wanted Lalas fired as soon as Gullit was brought in, and that didn't happen but Lala's power was irretrievably diminished and it became a power struggle over who was really in charge, including the players.

You say that you were surprised at how this finally went down, but were you surprised at how quickly it happened?

Not really. The complete dysfunction in the management structure was there from the start as soon as Ruud Gullit came in and if the Galaxy was going to get off on the right foot Ruud needed to learn very quickly how MLS worked, and actually want to learn, and put in the time.

He didn't understand how much he needed to learn and he wasn't in a great hurry to find out, and in MLS you can't get off on the wrong foot like that because it's so hard to make changes down the line.

It's not just a case of going to the board and asking for more money to go out and get more players

Right, and Gullit couldn't do that.

Yesterday Bruce Arena met individually with both Landon Donovan and David Beckham and then the three of them sat down together. Afterward all three of them spoke with reporters and said "well, we've cleared the air, we're moving forward, it's all been forgotten"

Is it even possible that this isn't going to be an issue between these guys for as long as they're on the same team?

They're all trying to do what they need to do to be a functional team on the field and that's why this is all happening at warp speed. But these guys are also human. There's no way that Beckham could look as upset as he did at Donovan and that Donovan could say last week that he didn't take back what he said about Beckham.

If the Galaxy start winning games then a lot of the stuff between those two guys will get pushed aside. If it doesn't, and the Beckham circus has a negative impact on the team again then this could be a real lingering issue whether it's public or not.

I said someplace else this morning that even when David Beckham lofts a lovely 35 yard ball right onto Landon Donovan's right foot at the top of the box and he slots it home, to every reporter Earth the story isn't going to be the beautiful goal but rather how two guys who don't like each other scored a goal anyway. It just seems like an impossible situation.

We'll see.

That's Bruce Arena's challenge, to make it possible and I think it's one of the biggest challenges of his career. If he can pull this off with his past reputation for being this genius manager of personalities, he'll have proven it again. So far I think Arena seems to be handling it pretty well.

What's interesting to me is Donovan getting criticism for being critical of Beckham publicly but no one really seems to challenge the content of his comments. Donovan himself has said that he really did feel this way.

I understand that people are going to say that Donovan isn't being a good teammate for going public with this but I think the honesty is remarkable and if I'm a reader wanting to know what's going on inside this high profile team I'm going to be excited about finding out these guys really think.

That may sound like a sales pitch but it's very rare that you really get a chance to find out what's going on inside a team, and it's star players' thoughts, much less when it's David Beckham.

I have to say, and I honestly mean this, it's a terrific book and I enjoyed it immensely, and it occurred to me that every sport, every league, has a body of literature that has become part of the appeal, the lore of the sport itself and that this is really the first major book on Major League Soccer and in that sense it's sort of historic.

Part Two tomorrow, or as soon as I get feeling back in my fingers.

[ame=""] The Beckham Experiment: How the World's Most Famous Athlete Tried to Conquer America: Grant Wahl: Books[/ame]