Bigger than Becks

Why MLS' fine on its star is a real own goal

Poor MLS. Just as European observers were calling it a credible league they go and ruin it all by fining their star man the equivalent of a night out in Beverly Hills.

I am not sure who thought $1,000 (£608) would be a suitable fine for David Beckham's confronting a drunken fan last week but it has made MLS somewhat of a laughing stock among its new-found followers, who had taken a lot of notice following GoldenBalls' wee altercation in the first place: Beckham and the Galaxy have occupied column inches in all the British media this week.

It is actually a fairly standard penalty for MLS. Clint Mathis was fined half that amount for an almost identical confrontation six years ago, while Brian Ching also lost $500 for a recent Twitter post criticising a referee. And why a fine in the first place instead of the 'first warning' the rest of us are familiar with in our workplaces? Could Beckham have not been called to MLS' HQ in 5th Avenue for a dressing-down and if a financial penalty really was necessary, why not add a few zeros to placate the naysayers? The league's rules state that "misconduct detrimental to the reputation and public image of MLS" will be punished, the equivalent of England's 'bringing the game into disrepute.'

Fair enough. But the screaming problem with the figure of $1,000 is that people have inevitably compared it to what the offender is earning and laughed, at MLS, who have in effect sullied the league's reputation more than the man they are punishing. Becks' annual base pay of $6.5m from the Galaxy is augmented by his endorsements and business interests - he rakes in circa 4 or 5 times that a year from 'Brand Beckham', which makes the fine appear to be mere chump change for him.

Fines for the rest of us have some connection to the transgression in order to teach us a lesson. When I once parked in the wrong place in London I was fined by Haringey Council what I earn in a week . I felt that was harsh but it made me think twice the next time I looked for a spot all right. The council showed me who was boss in the same way MLS should with their star product. But that is their dilemma. They have built Beckham up to be bigger than the league so they cannot infuriate him to the point he ups sticks and leaves, much as he might like to right now.

Recruiting Becks was the centerpiece of MLS' growth strategy in 2007 and all the publicity negative or positive is unquestionably raising their public recognition. The England star remains effectively untouchable, as long as he does not go and do a Cantona on one of the beery lard-asses now eager to confront him wherever he plays in America.

Premier League footballers who go astray are typically penalized two weeks' wages, not enough to bankrupt them but enough to make them think again about the tenth flashy motor or small flat they could have bought. So why aren't fines for footballers deterrents? Are soccer stars special because they are entertainers in the public eye? Yes they probably are, sadly. As with Steven Gerrard's breathtaking acquittal for violence this week, where the accused was signing autographs as he entered the court, there appears here to be one rule for the stars and one for the laymen. But there is not, MLS cry. That is not the point. The perception is more important than the reality when you are dealing with a public entertainment like football. The public feed MLS, who need them on-board to survive. Fame has its responsibilities and the public, Beckham's ultimate paymasters, on this issue have guffawed at the lawmakers.

Spain's FA provide an object lesson in failing to act decisively enough to infractions. Its meagre fines have singularly failed to punish or prevent repeats of the overt racism which have shamed its football in recent years. It issued a risible fine of £411 to Albacete, Deportivo and Malaga for racist chanting, only £2000 for national team coach Luis Aragones calling Thierry Henry "a black shit", £2,800 for Real Madrid fans' swastika flags and holocaust songs and £6000 on Real Zaragoza for its fans' racial abuse of Samuel Eto'o.

Had their FA fined the first club to transgress a fortune, made them to play behind closed doors, docked points, thrown them out of the Copa del Rey and forcibly relegated them from La Liga, it might not have stopped a repeat elsewhere, but it least it would have sent the right message that some things will not be tolerated. Of course No. 23 did nothing on that scale. In fact I am not even convinced he needed any punishment beyond a formal reprimand, but if an FA is going to play judge and jury then at least show them who’s boss instead of cow-towing to celebrity. It is about time MLS realised it is bigger than Becks.

This whole saga seems slightly surreal with a genuine world soccer star getting berated by have-a-go yobs in stadia which would not look out of place in League Two; here another 'fan' decides to bait Beckham in Kansas City:

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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