If David Beckham became royalty in American sport, as soccer continues to conquer hearts and minds, his successor in Los Angeles now reigns supreme. Recently voted best foreign import ever, Robbie Keane’s winning goal earned La Galaxy a fifth MLS crown, and his third, as the Dubliner was named 2014’s Most Valuable Player. In the Hollywood Hills, far from fading, the Irish captain’s star continues to shine.
They called it the David Beckham factor. On the eastern side of the Atlantic, cynicism initially met the news of the England star’s departure for Los Angeles in 2007. Many felt he still had something to offer at football’s top level. America was where retiring footballers went to die. The league was deemed inferior. The Americans used phrases like ‘PK’ instead of ‘penalty’, and were obsessed with assists and other statistics as if they made up for a lack of the real currency in football, goals.
Yet, Beckham succeeded in his aim to raise the profile of the world’s most popular game in a sports-mad country that had threatened but largely failed to embrace it in the past. What’s more, the increased coverage of Beckham’s exploits, and by extension the league, lent American soccer a new credibility. We knew the US was a powerhouse in women’s soccer but we were also aware that many sports followers there saw the male-equivalent as a less manly game, not like the rough and tumble of grid-iron or basketball. America may have hosted the World Cup in 1994 but the media coverage then was interspersed with vox pops with locals who were unaware that the biggest sporting event on the planet was taking place on their doorstep.
But, despite the lingering ignorance of outside observers, all that has changed. Soccer is now the number one participation sport for young Americans while a recent ESPN poll named the game second in popularity among 12-24-year-olds ahead of baseball, basketball and college football. David Beckham’s massively successful stints at AC Milan during the MLS close-season surprised many who felt his standards would drop playing in a poorer league Stateside. His oft-repeated desire to remain in the England squad struck a chord and for a short period, the then national manager Fabio Capello obliged the icon’s wishes. What it also demonstrated was that distance and travel was not the obstacle many had once thought. Thierry Henry followed in Beckham’s footsteps lending further credibility while MLS games became increasingly available on television in Europe.
The US national team, many of whom are drawn from the domestic game, have also grabbed headlines, consistently qualifying from the group stages at the World Cup and reaching the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup, eliminating Spain in the semi-finals, before losing 3-2 to Brazil. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil saw an explosion in interest for the men’s national team (and its ubiquitous social media hashtag #USMNT) with tens of thousands attending public viewings across the nation. US supporters were among the largest fan contingents in South America and a heroic display by Jurgen Klinnsmann’s team against Belgium fired the imagination of previous oblivious Americans.
If Beckham became the prince of the US game, it was a Dubliner who emerged from his shadow to be crowned king on the pitch. Ireland has had its connections with soccer in America in the past. Players like ex-internationals Paddy Mulligan and John Giles spent time there. Former record goal-scorer Frank Stapleton managed New England Revolution. In more recent times Darren O’Dea and Andy O’Brien have plied their trade in the US, now Sean St Ledger and Kevin Doyle. But it was Robbie Keane’s transfer to LA which sparked headlines. Some were sceptical of the move. Others could hardly fault him for choosing the Californian sun and Hollywood lifestyle over another season in, say, Glasgow for example.
But it was Beckham’s trail-blazing that softened many Irish observers’ stance. Keane’s insatiable appetite to turn out for his country also drew admiration, helped in no small part by the striker’s red-hot form in an Irish shirt when he fired the crucial goals to help the Republic reach a major finals for the first time in a decade, Euro 2012. At a time when many footballers, even those unable to hold down first-team places at their clubs, increasingly see international duty as an irrelevance, Keane was scathing about players pulling out of the national squad.
“If people don’t want to play for Ireland, don’t declare yourself to play for Ireland. It’s simple. I have never once pulled out of a squad for any reason apart from being injured. I am a proud Irishman. As a kid growing up it was always a dream to play for my country. I still have that same hunger and enthusiasm that I had when I first had the opportunity. That will never change for me”.
Cynics looking for ammunition to parody both Keaneand Americans’ ignorance about the sport were afforded a dream scenario when a media outlet captioned him in a photograph as ‘an unidentified fan’ alongside David Beckham at an NBA game in 2012. Keane had only arrived in California the year before but Beckham was about to take his leave from the States, at least in a playing sense. With MLS soon coping with a Becks-sized gap in its pulling power, Ireland’s record goal scorer capitalised on increased exposure to forge a new identity. The Tallaght native assumed the Galaxy captaincy from the darling of the US game Landon Donovan, following the American’s self-imposed exile. Keane now held the armband for both club and country. His image was emblazoned on billboards, buses, and the mlssoccer.com homepage.
And yet in his homeland Irish fans could be scathing in their criticism. Despite consistently being the country’s most in-form striker at club and international level, there were constant suggestions his days in an Irish shirt were over. Yet, as recently as 2013, he was named senior player of the year for his eight goals in a campaign that saw him become Ireland’s most capped player. Keane notched an incredible 125 Premier League goals during his time in England and was voted club player of the year three times at Tottenham Hotspur, an award he also won at Celtic. He is the highest-scoring striker in European Championship qualification history, and top scoring active international.
On 4th June 2011, Keane scored his 50th and 51st international goals in Skopje, Macedonia, in a Euro 2012 qualifier eclipsing Bobby Charlton to become the highest goalscorer from the UK and Ireland. The striker is among a select list of footballers to have scored in three successive matches in the World Cup finals sharing the distinction with luminaries such as Pele, Jairzinho, Ronaldo, Eusebio, and Mario Kempes among others. Prior to Ireland’s qualifier for the 2014 World Cup with Germany, striker Miroslav Klose, who would go on to become the tournament’s record scorer, hailed the exploits of his Irish counterpart.
The then Kaiserslautern forward, of course, headed the opener when Ireland faced Germany in that memorable encounter in Ibaraki in 2002, when Keane’s last-gasp equaliser truly announced his arrival on the world stage. Brazil’s Ronaldo was the only other player who managed to beat goalkeeper Oliver Kahn during the tournament when they faced the Germans in the final. Nowadays, Keane has begun taking his coaching badges, having declared a desire to one day manage his country. In a recent interview he told former international colleague Kevin Kilbane: “If I was English would I be respected a bit more? Yes, I think so, that’s the truth”.
In 2014, the thirty-four-year-old Keane enjoyed his best season since his arrival in MLS, being named Major League Soccer’s Most Valuable Player. He has now helped the Galaxy to three MLS Cups while coach Bruce Arena hailed the striker’s contribution. “He’s not only our most valuable player, he’s our captain as well, and he’s a great leader”. The Dubliner has no intention of hanging up his boots any time soon, expressing a desire to continue for several more years, but perhaps beyond MLS. “For me, it’s not about the money, I’d play for free. When I’m done playing and I go back to Ireland as a manager or whatever, I’ll keep playing in a Sunday league with my mates. That’s just the way I am.”
Long before Robbie Keane was named MVP, coach Arena consistently praised him as the best player in the American game, a point emphasised when Sports Illustrated recently hailed him as MLS’ greatest ever import, not Beckham or Henry. The winning goal in extra time to seal a fifth MLS Cup cemented Keane’s place in the Galaxy record books and the Irishman has since been bestowed with the nickname ‘King of LA’. David Beckham may have abdicated the MLS throne but his crown has been taken up by a new monarch.
Long live the Keane.
Main image: Robert Mora is a photographer based in Los Angeles, California. He has worked as for the LA Lakers and Kings and is now team photographer for the LA Galaxy. www.moracreativestudio.com
This article appears in Issue 2 of Póg Mo Goal magazine, the new Irish football publication focused on considered design and great writing from around the world. It’s available to order here.