Monday 22 January 2018

Tommy Conlon: Mask slips to reveal surly Becks as no knight in shining armour

David Beckham. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
David Beckham. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Tommy Conlon

It is impossible to precisely quantify these things, but if David Beckham had fans by the million, he had sceptics by the thousand too.

The chief resentment harboured by the latter is that he used the power of his celebrity to enhance his stature as a footballer: he was a star alright, but not a great player. And the blinding light of his fame disguised this central reality.

He had an inconvenient habit, however, of defying the doubters by winning multiple titles with Manchester United, captaining England and going off to play for Real Madrid. If he was never a great talent, he engineered for himself a great career. He had a voracious ambition. And in pursuit of it, he never stopped trying. Side by side with his gargantuan vanity was another more wholesome trait, also at times obscured by his fame: the fella was a good pro. By all accounts he trained hard, maintained a high standard of fitness and diligently practised the skills.

On the other hand, his lack of pace and ingenuity often made him look ordinary, especially in major European and international games. He didn't have top-level speed and he couldn't beat a player with a trick, a feint, a sleight of foot.

But, to complicate the profile further, he had, of course, one world-class talent: he could strike the ball fantastically well from crosses and free-kicks. He could conjure up lethal pace and bend on a delivery.

It always seemed fitting that this was his prime calling card. For it was an individual's showcase within a team sport. When he was preparing a free-kick, the world was watching, and he loved the attention. He could stand apart. He could hog the limelight for those precious moments of personal drama. Beckham was a team player who enjoyed inordinately his own 'me time'.

The tension between his collective commitment and his individual ego, this pull between the blue-collar demands of his trade and the parallel universe of showbusiness, ran like a seam throughout his career. It was a constant theme. He was arguably the most famous player on the planet and for many people this equated with being the best player on the planet. For those who saw the game as a strict meritocracy, this was a ludicrous notion. It meant that for all the multitudes who admired him, there were loads of football followers who never trusted him.

This dissonance can be traced in other ways too. FIFA, of course, loved him for the celebrity sunlight he radiated. In 1999 and 2001, he came second in their World Footballer of the Year listings, behind Rivaldo and Luis Figo respectively. He came second for the Ballon d'Or in 1999, too. But he never won the PFA Players' Player of the Year award in England. The peers who played against him week in, week out, and therefore who saw beyond the aura, never conferred on him the ultimate validation of their profession.

Last week the ultimate validation from the British establishment was on his mind. The emails between Beckham and his PR company, which were stolen by hackers and published last weekend, give a delicious glimpse of the man behind the image. In a classic case of punished hubris, the mask slipped and a meaner mortal emerged.

Beckham has spent a decade and more parlaying himself into a statesman, a global ambassador for harmless but honourable platitudes. The emails reveal, however, that he hasn't totally erased the rough-and-ready environment that shaped him. In public he is a bland and corporate diplomat, in private he is still a product of football's coarse dressing rooms.

We learn therefore that the honours committee which overlooked him for a knighthood in 2013 were "a bunch of c**ts". Nor was he best pleased that the Welsh diva Katherine Jenkins had been honoured. "Katherine Jenkins OBE for what? Singing at the rugby and going to see the troops, plus admitting to taking coke. F**king joke, and if you get asked we should think of a cutting remark."

No wonder he'd gained a High Court injunction in England and Wales last December that banned the media from publishing this correspondence. Needless to say, the lawless internet ensured it was all leaked in the end.

Now he is facing the damaging implication that his widely-praised work for deprived children was, at least in part, driven by the desire for more acclaim and more honours, including the knighthood. "Unicef is crucial to the brand," says a close friend and business partner in one of the emails. They also show his staff haggling with UNICEF over expenses for first-class flights and five-star hotels. A guesstimate of his personal wealth hovers around £250 million.

Beckham has devoted a lot of time to his charity projects. He is entitled to the benefit of the doubt; his heart is surely in the right place. Then again, there are philanthropists throughout the world who do myriad good works for no publicity in return. He put a vast amount of time into practising those crosses and free-kicks too. They were invaluable for the team. But they didn't do any harm to his own brand either.

The leaked material raised a lot of issues last week. Not least among them is the question of which would've meant more to him: the nod from his fellow players in the PFA, or the nod from the Queen?

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