FOXBOROUGH -- The man is a glittering phantom, visible but intangible, here and yet not here. David Beckham, the global metrosexual with the golden foot, plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy but most nights he is not playing. His fragile left ankle still is cranky enough that he goes day-to-day and more days than not that means he doesn't go.
Becks was in the house last night, scribbling his name for fans and sitting on the visitors' bench, stroking his chin pensively while his punchless teammates were shut out, 1-0, by the Revolution before more than 35,000 fans at Gillette Stadium. Maybe he'll play in the SuperLiga semifinal against D.C. United in California Wednesday, maybe he won't. One hostile cleat to that ankle, one awkward twist, and the planet's most famous player could be done for the year.
"We're missing a great player, obviously," Galaxy coach Frank Yallop said, after his undermanned club had been blanked for the third straight time in Major League Soccer play. "We're excited to have him with us. We just want to get him on the field."
So does everyone who bought tickets for four matches for the privilege of seeing one man on one night. Now, they'll have to wait until next year when the Galaxy are back in town and Becks presumably will be as fit and frisky as a 33-year-old can be.
This is not a once-in-a-lifetime King Tut tour. Beckham has signed on for five years, so there'll be multiple chances to see him bend it. "You're going to get your David Beckham fix," Galaxy president Alexi Lalas promised during the telecast. "Don't worry about that."
This Beckham thing, much like his sport on this side of the ocean, is all about playing the long game. The man figures to be around here longer than Pelé was; still, everyone wants him bending it now.
England, in fourth place in its qualifying group for next year's European championships, needs to have its former captain back for next month's crucial matches against Israel and Russia, especially since Wayne Rooney broke his foot yesterday. And the Galaxy, near the bottom of the Western Conference and starved for goals (17 in 15 matches), are desperate to get Beckham up and running.
"We have a guy who counts $400,000 against the cap and who's a great player," captain Landon Donovan said after another Becks-less evening. "We've played 15 matches and had him for half an hour."
Yet Beckham has done what he was brought in to do, which is to create buzz outside of the sport among the people who know him only as Mr. Posh Spice. Whatever else America may know about Beckham, it knows he's here.
Wherever the Galaxy go these days, they're being given the Man U and Real Madrid treatment. "It's been wild, but fun, and it's been good for us," said Donovan. "The downside is, they're rooting for David, not for us."
Not since Pelé joined the New York Cosmos in 1975 has there been a star of this magnitude in the States. But where Pelé was a missionary, preaching soccer's gospel in an unfamiliar land, Beckham is its crossover icon.
W Magazine, which features soccer about as often as it does Mongolian yak herding, ran a steamy 30-page photo spread on Posh and Becks, the New American Idols.
The most important thing right now, more than whether the man actually laces up his boots and plays, is that he's here. The planet's most glamorous player came over. He crossed the pond and bought a place in Beverly Hills and signed a massive contract to play against Yanks while he still has a few productive years left.
What matters is that Beckham decided he's going to end his career here and that it won't be a summer fling. But his iffy ankle has been a marketing nightmare for MLS clubs, who've been selling tickets and crossing their fingers. "David wants to be on the field and I think he feels very bad," said Yallop. "It's disappointing, but it's reality."
The Gillette fans didn't know it, but Beckham wasn't even on the roster sheet for last night's match. The ankle still was sore from his 20-minute outing against D.C. United Thursday and it didn't make sense for him to cut capers on FieldTurf. But he was willing to risk writer's cramp before and after the match, graciously signing autographs.
For the moment, Beckham is doing what he can to earn his keep while trying to downplay the hype that he's come here as a messiah to save American soccer. This year, he'll settle for helping lift the Galaxy off the floor and getting England into the Euros. What we got on Route 1 last night was a tantalizing glimpse, much like the shot of him gliding phantom-like through Heathrow Airport in "Bend It Like Beckham." Eventually, there will be much more. What there is right now is buzz.