Sport Soccer

Friday 23 March 2018

Dion Fanning: Owen never managed to match Beckham's brilliant blandness

Dion Fanning

There is a standard question asked of anyone who has achieved anything with their life. "Could you have imagined," it always begins, before going into specific detail, "that when you were boiling rats and selling their hides for food that you would one day become the global head of the XXTech Corporation employing more people than the Chinese Army?" No, the humbled head of the corporation responds, I could never have imagined it (they always say no).

The question is nearly always part of a heart-warming story, the starting point for remarkable achievement.

Last week would have been a good time to ask it the other way. When Michael Owen scored against Argentina in St Etienne, could he have imagined his life in 2013? Could he have imagined that his days would be taken up jousting with fat men on Twitter and waiting for Tony Pulis to call him in to the Stoke City squad as a replacement for Cameron Jerome?

There were plenty of poignant memories last week too. Owen announced the end of his career with a message for his father, "my old mate" that they had succeeded in their incredible journey.

Owen did succeed. He "shook the world" in his day as he reminded another pest on Twitter before asking him what he had ever done. Unfortunately, the pest turned out to be a British soldier who replied that he had been protecting Owen's country. It was another example of how Owen's touch has deserted him.

Owen was an unsympathetic figure primarily because he had sympathy for nobody on the field. He also possessed more shade than many allowed for. He has a new occupation in horse racing and he was a congenital punter, punting most spectacularly with his own career.

Like many congenital punters, Owen couldn't sit out a race. He had to call it and he made some bad calls, most spectacularly choosing to sign for Newcastle, a massive punt when he bet like a man and lost.

Owen may have seemed like a corporate man but if he was, he was a city trader, a respectable member of the community concealing within him the furious heart of a gambler.

When his life is informed by this knowledge, it makes sense. The ice he possesses was seen that night in St Etienne. That night, we thought David Beckham revealed a fatal flaw but we knew nothing. Owen's flaw was concealed but ultimately it would contribute to his downfall.

There was a time when people called David Beckham stupid. This lie spread around the world and became part of conventional wisdom.

Some people are out there still, bantering with the sports guy about Beckham being dumb when he is the smartest guy in the room. In any room.

Beckham, like Hemingway, sees the world clear and whole. He may be the greatest of all time. We only reserve judgement because we're not sure what it is he does.

Beckham could never have imagined on that evening in St Etienne when he lashed out at Diego Simeone that one day he would be the leader of the free world. And the unfree world.

His story has taken the more familiar arc. Last week, he was in China, trying to save football there and telling them everything will be alright.

He is now forming strategic alliances with Qatar and China, reaching out to parts of the world that need help while he penetrates new markets.

On that sorry day when England's World Cup bid was lost and Russia and Qatar had triumphed, one could imagine Beckham mouthing "Call me" across the room to the Qatar delegation as they filed out after the bids were done. He would have instinctively understood that they needed him and he is always willing to be of service.

Through PSG, he is now working closely with the fine people of Qatar. FIFA may call on him soon. They will need him once the World Cup is ruined and football goes to war over a tournament awarded to a country because they said they could play it in summer even though it turns out it can't be played in summer at all.

The simplest solution: let's find somewhere that can host it when we said it should be hosted appears, for reasons of money and law, not to be possible.

Last week, Beckham went to China and kicked a football around while wearing a suit. This is normally something politicians, not footballers, do. Again, it was a subtle shift, a dog whistle that will have been heard by those it was aimed at. He is moving on again. If he refuses to be what you say he must be, it is mainly because he refuses to be anything at all.

If you were told that Beckham had become the new head of the World Bank, it would probably disturb you for a while before you'd conclude: hell, they've tried everything else, that might just work. After all, as he told the people of China, he is untainted by corruption.

His genius is that he is untainted by anything, including his own past. It is as if by reducing his life to bland public utterances, he makes his own story belong to someone else, someone he is only vaguely interested in. Instead he looks always to the future.

Owen tweeted last week that he had broken down in tears while watching the messages of support flood in on Sky Sports News. He was seen as bland for much of his career which was incorrect but he did appear to be robbed of some normal human emotions. It used to be said he had only watched one film in his life – Cool Runnings – as he had no patience for the rest.

He wanted the thrill of the chase, very often the thrill of the lost chase, not stories of why man is how he is. Now the race was over. And when it was, Sky Sports News – purveyors of the ersatz – reached into his soul and made him cry.

Irish Independent

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