Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  

Beckham mulling his options

As many people embark on their resolutions for the forthcoming year, David Beckham is likely to be puzzling over one of the biggest decisions of his sporting career.

After all, January 1 marked the date on which the Real Madrid midfielder became free to negotiate with any club over his future as a player.

Over the next few weeks and months it will become clear if the 31-year-old has decided to see out his career with Real or opted instead to end his playing days elsewhere.

It will not be a straightforward decision for the former Manchester United idol.

Almost as soon as he joined Real in June 2003, Beckham said he wanted to end his career at the Bernabeu. Going anywhere else would be a step down, he said.

But four years of disappointment on the pitch and upheaval off it have taken the shine off Real's previously gleaming reputation.

Signed as the jewel in the crown of former president Florentino Perez's Galactico super team, rightly or wrongly Beckham has since become associated with an era of unprecedented failure at a club that lives only for success.

Worse still, he has been demoted from the role of star performer in a glittering cast to that of bit-part actor.

Having been a fixture in the starting XI under the previous five coaches who have been in charge at Real, Beckham has become a peripheral figure under new boss Fabio Capello.

A younger player would have more incentive to sit it out and await his chance, but now in the twilight of his career, time is no longer on Beckham's side.

Barring an improbable change in Capello's plans, a decision to remain at Real would be an admission that Beckham is prepared to accept a role as a secondary figure reduced to making the occasional cameo appearance.

Real are keen to keep Beckham on the payroll for marketing and publicity reasons, but as a footballer he is no longer deemed indispensable.

So if he does decide to quit the Bernabeu what other doors remain open to the midfielder?

A return to the Premiership is one option.

Several teams have already voiced their interest, but the problem for Beckham is that his old club Manchester United is not one of them.

Riding high at the top of the table and with the seemingly indestructible Alex Ferguson still in charge, United have no need for Beckham and a return of the prodigal son is out of the question.

Chelsea, the Premiership's other powerhouse, are apparently uninterested while it is hard to imagine Beckham being tempted by an offer to join say Bolton Wanderers or Newcastle United.

That leaves Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur as the most likely candidates.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is a Beckham fan, but the board would probably baulk at Beckham's salary requirements while Spurs already have winger Aaron Lennon on their books.

If the realistic options in England are narrow, there is always the possibility of another continental adventure.

Moving to any other Spanish club is almost certainly out of the question, but Italy could offer a realistic alternative.

Inter Milan have signed up a succession of Real Madrid cast-offs in recent years and with the likely departure of Luis Figo there will be a vacant spot on the right side of midfield.

Wife Victoria may also find the catwalks of Italy's fashion capital an irresistible prospect, although if their Spanish experience is anything to go by the couple may not relish the prospect of grappling with another new language and culture.

The Far and Middle East will have no problem matching Beckham's salary expectations, while his presence in Asia could be enough to see him recapture marketing supremacy from Ronaldinho.

But neither region is likely to provide the sort of sporting challenge that Beckham will be after in the final years of his career.

The remaining, and perhaps most attractive, option, then, is the United States.

The MLS's decision to end their salary cap has opened the door to big earners like Beckham, while LA Galaxy have already thrown their hat into the ring by stating their interest in the midfielder.

Greats such as Pele, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Bobby Moore all ended their careers in America, but their presence did little to change the country's status as a footballing backwater.

Beckham may feel it is still too early for a move across the Atlantic, but becoming the first player to really crack the American market could provide just the sort of challenge to inspire him in the final years of his career.

Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham (L) prepares to leave the field after a training session as coach Fabio Capello (background) and defender Sergio Ramos looks on at Madrid on Thursday. PHOTO: AFP