Offside, 12 October

Three years ago we wanted him strung up, now we want him knighted. What's behind British fans' love/hate affair with David Beckham?

Duleep Allirajah

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Three years ago we wanted him strung up, now we want him knighted. David Beckham certainly provokes extreme reactions.

His last-gasp equaliser against Greece on 6 October 2001 not only ensured England’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup Finals, but confirmed Beckham’s own remarkable zero-to-hero transformation. ‘If there was a general election, David Beckham would be prime minister’, gushed Sunderland manager Peter Reid (for once managing to construct a sentence without the word ‘fuck’ in it).

The Mirror reported that footballer Ryan Giggs and Sir Richard Branson were leading ‘the nationwide call for the free-kick king to become Sir Becks…or even Sir Golden Balls’ (1). The Sun has also implored the Queen to ‘lay her ceremonial sword upon the shoulder of the England football captain at the first available opportunity’ (2). Bookmakers are now offering odds on how soon Beckham will be knighted.

Beckham’s rehabilitation is nowhere better illustrated than in the Pleasant Pheasant pub in South Norwood. In 1998, after That Red Card, a sarong-clad effigy of Beckham was hung by a noose outside the south London pub. This week, the Mirror returned to the same ‘football-mad boozer’ to find, somewhat unsurprisingly, that Beckham’s would-be lynch mob were now ‘drinking to his health’. ‘If he paid a visit now he wouldn’t be allowed to buy a drink all night and everybody would treat him like a hero’, said bar manager Anne Marie Callear (3). You could accuse south London lynch mobs of many things, but unforgiving is not one of them.

The public vilification of Beckham after England’s World Cup exit is well-documented. But let us not forget that there was an extremely vocal ‘Hands Off Beckham’ campaign, too. The Observer’s Paul Wilson feared that the ‘hate mob’ might compel the player to ‘escape this poisonous atmosphere by playing abroad’ (4).

The Sun reported that Beckham and his family had ‘been targeted by the notorious Inter City Firm (ICF) – Britain’s most feared hooligans’ (5). ‘The ICF have been telling people in pubs they are going to hurt Beckham’, said a security firm boss Colin Evans. The football magazine When Saturday Comes even felt compelled to lecture its readers that ‘Neither football, nor England should matter that much’ (6).

Those alarmed by the hate campaign failed to understand that the bravado of British football fans is largely theatrical. Of course, throughout the 1998/9 season, opposition fans jeered Beckham whenever Manchester United visited away grounds. But the physical threat failed to materialise (in contrast to Italy, where physical assaults on players are more commonplace – such as the molotov cocktail attack on the Internazionale team coach in December 2000).

The fear that Beckham would be unable to cope with the terrace taunts underestimated his mental toughness. The experience, he says, ‘definitely made me stronger as a person’. He has reportedly even commissioned a painting depicting his infamous dismissal. Since 1998 Beckham has become a better footballer, helping United to win the treble, and leading England to the World Cup Finals. The boo-boys have not only been silenced, but are probably chanting his name (you also wonder what the Inter City Firm are telling people in pubs these days).

We have forgiven the red card, the sarong, the mohican, and the half-shaved eyebrow. All we want now is the World Cup, Sir Becks.

Fail, and we’ll crucify you.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Sport

(1) Mirror, 8 October 2001

(2) Sun, 9 October 2001

(3) Mirror, 9 October 2001

(4) Observer, 19 July 1998

(5) Sun, 13 July 1998

(6) When Saturday Comes, August 1998

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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