Beckham experiment ending with whimper

TORONTO - After five years of false starts David Beckham will finally make his Toronto Major League soccer debut when the Los Angeles Galaxy make an early season visit to play the Toronto FC on Wednesday.

But Beckham's Canadian MLS unveiling might also be his swan song as the former England captain's five-year North American soccer adventure is set to conclude at the end of the season.

"I'm happy to be back in Toronto, I've been here a few times and really enjoyed it," a smiling Beckham told reporters on Tuesday. "The few times I've been here I enjoyed myself."

When Beckham announced his signing with the Galaxy in 2007, it sent shivers of excitement throughout hockey-mad Canada and triggered a spike in season ticket sales for a Toronto soccer franchise that had yet to play a game.

Within hours of the announcement that Beckham joined the Galaxy in a $250 million deal, Toronto FC said they received thousands of calls and sold hundreds of season tickets.

Now, in the last year of his contract, Beckham will finally play his first MLS game in Toronto but likely not before the same adoring crowd that greeted him during the 2008 MLS All-Star game in Toronto when Beckham-mania was at its peak.

In the half-decade since leaving Spanish giants Real Madrid to conquer the MLS, much of the Beckham buzz has vanished.

The hundreds of media, many from around the globe, that had flocked to Toronto in 2007 to watch the celebrity midfielder sit at the end of the Galaxy bench in a designer suit in an injury-aborted MLS debut, have not returned.

The special accreditation and presidential-type security in place for Beckham's massive media briefing five years ago had slimmed down on Tuesday to one handler, a half-dozen television cameras and a handful of local media in a small conference room in the basement of a downtown hotel.

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Like Pele before him, Beckham arrived in North America as a soccer missionary with the ultimate goal of popularising the professional game.

Now, as the Beckham experiment draws to a close, people have already begun to debate its merits and success. Certainly, the move to Hollywood did wonders for the Beckham brand.

Even among Tinseltown's rich and famous, Beckham and wife Victoria are A-list celebrities and tabloid staples. They will attend Prince William's April 29 marriage to Kate Middleton and can be spotted courtside at Los Angeles Lakers games with good friend Tom Cruise.

What impact Beckham has had on growing the sport is less certain as MLS attendance and television ratings have remained flat over his first four years.

Still, Beckham did not hesitate to label his MLS stint a success, pointing to franchises in Vancouver, Seattle, Montreal and Portland that sprouted up during his stay and the trickle of big names to North America like France's Thierry Henry.

"The (level of play) has definitely gone up," said Beckham. "If you look at how improved team performance is and the way the league has gone, the way franchises that have come into the league.

"Things have improved the last few years, especially when you've got players like Thierry Henry coming into the league it can only do good for the sport in this country."

While Beckham made it clear he is pleased with what he has accomplished he did not rule out remaining with the Galaxy beyond this season, saying there is still much work to be done and trophies to be won.

The midfielder has also not abandoned hope of again playing for England in a World Cup and said representing his country at the 2012 London Olympics held immense lure.

"I haven't made any decision about what I'm going to do after this year," said Beckham. "I feel fit, I feel good in games, I feel as if I am performing well.

"At the end of the day I'm 35 and I'm getting older so we'll have to wait and see... I still love the game and I still feel fit so at the moment there is no reason for me to stop."


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