Sport Soccer

Friday 17 January 2020

Wandering star Beckham put fame before greatness

David Beckham's career has turned into a photo opportunity, says Dion Fanning, who expects a flurry of flashbulbs on Tuesday

A t least Manchester United fans have been consoled. In the middle of their problems with the Glazers, their struggle to retain their Premier League title and successfully pursue a challenge for the Carling Cup, they can at least take comfort in one thing: if David Beckham scores against Manchester United at the San Siro on Tuesday, he will not celebrate.

Beckham is a cautionary tale or a role model, depending on which version of football you choose to follow. For the Manchester United supporters who backed him after he was sent off against Argentina in 1998, who took a defiant stand against the opprobrium of middle England by chanting "Argentina, Argentina", Beckham would eventually reveal that he was more desirous of love from others. The demographic of the hardline Manchester United fan couldn't sustain his dreams.

He became a captain of England in the modern sense, a captain of England above anything else. When Alex Ferguson spoke of Rio Ferdinand's appointment as England captain, he left somebody out as he went through the roll call.

"We're pleased for him and it's great for Manchester United to have one of our players captaining his country," Ferguson said. "Over the years we've had Gary, Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson for 60-odd games or something so we're very proud of that."

These were all Manchester United men captaining England. Even Robson, the man on whom England's fortunes depended in the 1980s, was a United force first.

Beckham has always been different. From the moment he arrived at Manchester United, he was apart. As part of the generation that would sustain Manchester United to the present day, Beckham appeared to be central. His best friend was Gary Neville, ensuring that the boy from the east end of London who grew up as a Manchester United fan stayed close to the values of the club.

Those values were present in the early years. When Manchester United won the double, Beckham was asked what it was like to win two medals. "Three," he replied, "Preston won the third division." The year before Beckham had been on loan at Deepdale.

There would be some who even see that as a sign of what was to come, but it was the sending-off in '98 that shaped his values as a footballer and drove him away from Manchester United.

By that stage, he was married to a Spice Girl so the idea that the club would protect him, that he would find a fortress at Old Trafford, was undermined by other voices. Beckham began to think about the brand. And the brand began to feed stories, tales of redemption and rebirth that are always lapped up. Beckham would not occupy the walls of the fortress, he would not endorse the chants of "Argentina, Argentina." He would become England's captain, not Manchester United's.

Roy Keane led Manchester United and had, in his own way, forsaken all others in a manner Beckham never could. He was working in a global market.

Ferguson tried to remind Beckham of his responsibilities, Sven-Goran Eriksson was awe-struck by his possibilities. Sven gave power to the people and Beckham became the leader on a sunny afternoon at Old Trafford.

There were no chants of Argentina when England played Greece and stumbled to a draw and World Cup qualification thanks to a fine if undisciplined performance from Beckham whose last-minute free-kick gave England what it wanted. Now it wanted Beckham. It was love and all misunderstandings were forgotten.

There may have been flying boots and disputes about missed training sessions, but Beckham began to leave Old Trafford the day he was hailed as a hero by 60,000 England fans inside Old Trafford.

Sven believed in celebrity culture and was prepared to allow it to run his football team. Beckham was indulged and Ferguson watched developments with concern. Beckham no longer belonged to Manchester United. In 2003, he left, heading for Real Madrid after providing a trailer when the cameras caught him whispering to Gary Neville that he might be leaving on the pitch at Goodison Park. United might have just clinched the title, but it seemed a strange place to be talking about it.

In one respect, United probably miss him now. Beckham could have helped service United's debt. Certainly, Real Madrid were stunned by the price United wanted for Beckham. Ferguson's reasons for selling him made sense but it may not have been best for Manchester United to let him go for £25m when there was a marketing war to be won.

Beckham had the heart for that battle and he entered into the period of his life that saw him play for two of the world's great clubs, with LA Galaxy in between, and provide mainly soundbites. He personified Madrid's era of needless excess. They finally won a title in his final season when, despite Madrid's coach Fabio Capello saying he would never play for Real Madrid, he performed well in the final months, after his deal with Galaxy had been agreed.

He has developed a cloying kind of persistence. Capello witnessed it at Madrid and Steve McClaren had to do the same at England when he discarded him and then called him back into the squad. Capello has continued to pick him and he remains England's most popular ambassador in their bid to host the 2018 World Cup. He excels in the ambassadorial role. He is unlikely to start against United on Tuesday which means he probably won't need to worry about the celebrating yet, but he will make his presence felt. As a pr man, he has to be good at that.

His experience probably allowed John Terry to see the England captaincy as the way to a better future. Beckham cried during his press conference to hand over the captaincy in 2006 and he had created a world in which this wasn't regarded as preposterous. Now he wants to play in another World Cup and there is a sense of the vacuity that awaits when he retires from football in his desire to stick around, no matter how much he finds himself on the periphery.

It is understandable if a man who said once that he knows the paparazzi are looking at him from the moment he opens the curtains in the morning begins to view everything as a photo-opportunity.

His legacy remains at United. When Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford, every young player was compared to George Best and every anxiety began with the fear that they would end up like him too. But football changed and Ferguson began to sense there was another way for a player to destroy his talents, if not his life, as Best had done.

Wayne Rooney revealed in court last week that his manager limits the number of sponsorship deals he is allowed. More boots would have flown if he had tried the same thing with Beckham.

Both got what they wanted when Beckham left. Recently he has told it differently.

"I'd have loved to have stayed for my whole career and never gone anywhere else but it just wasn't meant to be," he told a BBC interviewer. "It takes a special person and a player to stay at a club for so many years."

Perhaps in those words there was a hint of regret. Not for leaving Manchester United but for wandering from the path laid out for him which may have delivered greatness as well as great wealth. Instead he has kept travelling, opening soccer academies and speaking in solipsistic platitudes.

It is not a tragedy like Best's that he is unfulfilled. It is just a story of a modern footballer who lived his version of the dream that was also so many people's version of the dream. He revealed nothing but a gaping hole and found that wherever you go, you always end up where you started.

Sunday Independent

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