Offside, 13 June

Britain is plagued by BSE: Beckham Speculation Ennui.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Come back football, all is forgiven. Last week I rashly proclaimed that I was glad to see the back of the football season. But now, I must humbly recant.

Why? Because the void vacated by the football season has been filled to overflowing by saturation coverage of Beckham.

You hardly need me to tell you that. You only have to pick up a newspaper and there he is. Front pages, back pages – or ‘Becks pages’ as they have been dubbed – gossip columns, the whole shebang. If it’s not the interminable transfer speculation, then it’s his impending OBE, his broken scaphoid bone, his corn-row hairstyle, his audience with Nelson Mandela (or is that the other way round?), or his bid to conquer America. On and on it goes ad bleeding nauseam.

The absent England skipper so completely overshadowed the build-up to England’s Euro 2004 qualifier against Slovakia that the FA was forced to bar journalists from asking questions about Beckham’s transfer. If any England players fancied going AWOL to sample the delights of Teesside’s nightlife – fanciful as that may sound – this was the ideal time to do it. Nobody would have noticed.

It was also a very good time to bury bad news. For all we know the government might have dissolved Parliament, introduced a tax on laughter, or outlawed sex while we weren’t paying attention.

Is our appetite for all things Beckham really so insatiable, or is the British public starting to suffer from BSE – Becks Speculation Ennui, that is? Both are probably true, because there isn’t just one David Beckham, there are two: Beckham the global icon and über-celebrity and Beckham the professional footballer. ‘Apart from Princess Diana herself, there has been no greater celebrity in England since Charlie Chaplin was a young man, nor before Chaplin since Nelson’, opined former Times editor Sir William Rees-Mogg.

But while Beckham is still revered by teenagers everywhere from Trafford to Tokyo (only the USA is staunchly holding out against Beckham’s cultural imperialism), what about his standing among football fans whose acne has long since cleared up? Beckham’s free kick against Greece silenced the terrace boo-boys. Even members of the Anyone-but-United tendency have come to respect his tireless performances in an England shirt.

We admire his whipped-in crosses, his 40-yard precision passes, and his spectacular free kicks. We’d probably even like to bend it like Beckham ourselves – in the footballing sense, that is. We laughed when he blew kisses at the Turks to wind them up. But that’s as far as it goes. On the terraces you don’t see grown men swishing around in sarongs, wearing alice bands, or braiding their hair Bo Derek-stylee. That’s just gay.

And what, I wonder, will England’s Burberry-capped, Stone Island-clad followers make of Beckham’s public plea for fans to ‘get behind the team and do it in a nice way’? Don’t be surprised if not all supporters take kindly to being lectured to like naughty children by a squeaky-voiced bloke who wears women’s underwear.

One might expect unquestioning devotion among United fans, but even here opinions are divided over his transfer. Sixty-four percent of voters in a ManchesterOnline poll did not believe that the city would not lose out if Becks were sold (though these figures could have been skewed by mischievous City fans).

Some Reds, like Graham May of the official supporters club, believe that Beckham is indispensable. ‘At the moment United can’t afford to lose him’, said Gray. ‘How would they replace him? I don’t think the fans would accept it.’ However, Julian Spencer of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association believes that ‘if the money goes on strengthening the squad there will be full backing for the boss and the board’.

David Beckham is the most famous footballer on the planet, but that doesn’t make him the world’s best player. Zinedine Zidane gets my vote. Arguably Becks isn’t even the best player at Old Trafford. He can’t dribble or terrorise defenders like Ryan Giggs, he can’t dominate the midfield like Roy Keane, and he doesn’t hit the onion bag as often as Paul Scholes. United would find it extremely difficult to replace Ruud van Nistelrooy, but they could probably live without David Beckham.

Barcelona presidential candidate Joan Laporta compares Beckham with former Nou Camp legend Johann Cruyff. ‘We believe that David Beckham could be the Cruyff of 1973’, said Laporta. ‘He has the leadership that could put Barcelona in the first position of the sporting world.’

This is plainly nonsense. Beckham is not in Cruyff’s league as a footballer, nor is he a leader in the Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira mould. He is yet to prove that he can excel in his favoured role as a central midfield playmaker. He is simply a very talented footballer whose game, as I’ve argued before, could well benefit from a move abroad.

So do hurry up and make your mind up Becks, and please take the media circus with you when you go.

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Topics Politics


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