Why the boy David's transfer to Real Madrid got Britain grieving.
‘I’ve lost my son’, said a distraught Ted Beckham in late June 2003, comparing David Beckham’s move from his beloved Manchester United to a family bereavement (1). Ted isn’t the only one who feels this way.
Since Beckham announced that he was leaving Man Utd for Real Madrid, there has been something akin to an outpouring of grief. ‘Becks helped me realise I am gay’, said 25-year-old Colin from north London, one of ‘hundreds of tearful fans’ who rang the Sun’s ‘grief helpline’ (2). ‘I think I will have problems with my partner now’, said Colin, ‘as we both liked him’. According to 21-year-old student Rob: ‘He was a gay icon. I feel abandoned now he has gone. I thought he would always be there.’
Northern heterosexual men have also had trouble coming to terms with Beckham’s exit. Steve, a ‘worried’ 26-year-old from Sheffield, admitted: ‘My wife fancied Becks so much. The heat is now on me to perform in bed and I’m worried about getting aroused.’ Preston chef Lee Brown said: ‘My wife is Beckham nuts and is moving to Spain to be near him. If I don’t go, our relationship’s over.’
So it came to pass – the beautiful princess ruthlessly cut down by the evil Sir Alex of the North. Beckham’s transfer to Spain has provoked a bout of national mourning not seen since the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Times columnist William Rees-Mogg has noted some similarities between Diana and David. Neither, he argued, possessed great intelligence, but they shared the ‘exceptional gift of being able to personify the Zeitgeist’ (3). Close friend of Elton John and gay icon to boot, the lovely David is apparently the new Princess of Hearts.
The sense of grief was echoed across the obligatory TV and radio phone-ins that followed the news of Beckham’s untimely death – sorry, transfer. Yet however facile, infantile and solipsistic the grief-talk was, it captured contemporary society’s dependency upon death and loss as the bedrock of communal identity. Writing in the Guardian, Tom Bower interpreted Manchester United’s sale of the saint-like Beckham as the last nail in the coffin of English football:
‘Like so many deceased British institutions and industries, football is withering, helped by the self-interest of Ferguson and other ambitious divas.… The agents, like their principles, are contemptuous about the health of English football. The emotions of David Beckham are an unpleasant obstacle to their fortunes.’ (4)
Bower is the author of Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football, a polemic against the modern game that has won high praise for exposing the seedy side of the football business, football’s tasteless showbiz-orientated aspirations, and its willingness to sell off its own heritage, history and traditions. Yet the sporting bookshelves are packed with similar, if not identical, jeremiads.
Football publishing seems to be suffering from mourning sickness, with recent titles including Going Down: Football in Crisis, Great Balls of Fire: How Big Money is Hijacking Football, Is It All Over: Can Football Survive the Premier League?, to name but a few. These tomes have recurring themes: crisis, too much money, the new middle classes, global brands, football dying off, etc, etc.
American writer Mike Marqusee encapsulates this doom-laden approach in his snappily titled essay ‘Sport as apocalypse’: ‘The mood swings that have long characterised the inner life of the sports fan have been transformed into a public mania, manipulated for commercial and political advantage…. The fan’s amour fou has always been tragicomic, but the huge investments and excessive importance now attached to sport are coarsening the drama.’ He goes on to argue that the subordination of the game to market forces threatens ‘to ruin this delightfully trivial, yet somehow infinitely creative, exercise of human faculties’ (5).
This kind of miserablism pervades discussions of football today. In the academic study of sport, where I work, you would be hard pressed to find anybody who enjoys sport, let alone who has anything positive to say about it. Academic journals read like obituaries, dripping with morose sentimentalism for the glory days of yore, washed down with a large glass of ahistorical paranoia. One left-leaning academic recently claimed that football’s current economic ‘crisis’ could be traced back to the abolition of the players’ maximum wage (£30) in 1961.
In the early 1990s, leading football academic Rogan Taylor presented a BBC Radio 5 series entitled The Death of Football. Taylor put forward the now popular prejudice that authentic fan culture was being killed off by commercialisation and commodification. The sentimental bemoaning of football’s cultural death has become the game’s officially sanctioned ideology, from which the sport now derives much of its communal and institutional identity.
There were some real deaths in football in the late 1980s – in the Bradford fire and Heysel riot in 1985, and at Hillsborough in 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death as a result of mistakes by the police. The very real sense of bereavement that followed these tragedies quickly became a sentimentalised ritual. Such is the playing out of institutionalised ‘loss’ that clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool have built entire branded histories on the backs of the dead – Manchester United with the 1958 Munich air crash and Liverpool with the Hillsborough disaster.
It is through tragedy and disaster that contemporary society increasingly seeks to understand itself. The reaction to Beckham’s move captures the extent to which society covets the public performance of loss – so much so that it is willing to construct the transfer of a football player as a ‘trauma’ worthy of national mourning. I, for one, will sleep soundly knowing that there will be no flags flying at half-mast over Old Trafford for Beckham – not if Sir Alex the Bad has anything to do with it.
Carlton Brick is a research fellow in culture and sport at the University of Surrey Roehampton, England.
Ferguson is right to give Becks the boot, by Mick Hume in The Times (London), 12 June 2003
(1) News of the World, 22 June 2003
(2) Sun, 19 June 2003
(3) The Times (London), 28 April 2003
(4) Guardian, 12 June 2003
(5) Sport as apocalypse, Frontline, Volume 17 – Issue 16, August 5 – 18, 2000
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