Offside, 18 September

Beckham should show more of his skills and less of his scars.

Duleep Allirajah

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The Beckham circus may have decamped to Madrid but Bolas de Oro (Golden Balls) continues to cast a shadow over our lives.

Last week a nation turned its lonely eyes to, er, Beckham’s groin. Mercifully, God smiled on Golden Groin and he was fit to lead England to victory over the footballing titans of Macedonia. This week, every time I switched on the TV there seemed to be yet another documentary – or Beckumentary – about our pony-tailed saviour. On Tuesday night ITV News reported that Becks had starred in Real Madrid’s win over Marseille in the Champions League. ‘Beckham didn’t score but he did join in the celebrations’, the newsreader announced.

There really is no place on Earth to hide from the Beckham phenomenon. A couple of weeks ago I was enjoying a relaxing, football-free holiday in a quiet corner of south-west France, a region where rugby arouses greater passions than soccer, when I picked up a copy of the Sun. There was no news as such. Not even the traditional page three stunna. Just page after page of Becks baring his soul about his vexed relationship with Fergie (1).

I devoured it all – for research purposes only, you understand – but felt rather queasy afterwards. It was probably the unrelenting self-pity that was most difficult to stomach. The Times sports writer Simon Barnes describes the relationship between Fergie and his ‘pseudo-son’ Beckham as an ‘oedipal drama’ (2). Certainly, the fallout between two of the most prominent figures in British public life, which culminated in the infamous flying boot incident, makes for compelling drama. But oedipal it ain’t.

Oedipus, you will recall, killed his father – though admittedly he didn’t have Giggsy and Gary Neville to restrain him – but what did Becks do? He sulked and wore an alice band to show off his injured eyebrow. Not very Oedipal that (plus he didn’t shag his mother). It was left to his mum Sandra to harangue Fergie. More like a tacky soap opera than a Greek tragedy.

Probably the most striking feature of the serialised extracts from his (third) autobiography David Beckham: My Side is how readily Britain’s richest and most successful sports star is prepared to cast himself as a tormented victim. There is a strong echo of Princess Diana’s confessional interview with Martin Bashir here. In his book Beckham talks candidly about how he was bullied by Fergie, how he contemplated quitting football, how he sank into depression after England’s World Cup exit, and how he felt unable to communicate with his wife.

Confessional autobiographies like Beckham’s My Side and Tony Adams’ Addicted illustrate how the language of suffering and abuse has become the dominant medium through which our high priests of sporting celebrity commune with their flock. Beckham’s willingness to expose his vulnerability chimes well with our anti-heroic culture. ‘It’s extremely courageous of him to talk like this about personal problems and about his feelings. In this country we expect our heroes to be godlike, which isn’t realistic’, said clinical psychologist Carol Seheult (3).

In fact, the opposite is true. Today we are as much preoccupied with the weakness and vulnerability of our heroes as we are with their achievements.

Personally, I find it difficult to sympathise with the rather trivial ‘problems’ of a millionaire football megastar (particularly one who admits to hanging out with Elton John). I’ve always admired David Beckham’s single-minded professionalism in coping with the demands of superstardom and as well as the vitriolic terrace abuse directed at him after his red-card against Argentina in 1998. Beckham showed he was sufficiently robust to shrug off the abuse and not allow it to affect his performances on the pitch.

If he could ignore the boo-boys surely he could withstand the occasional blast from the Ferguson hairdryer without having to run bleating to the press? Somehow David Beckham seems to have been transformed from a strong-minded winner into a self-absorbed whinger.

Not everyone has been seduced by Beckham’s rather theatrical sob-story. Daily Mirror columnist Briane Reade was not impressed at all: ‘[H]ow can anybody read extracts from David Beckham’s completely unnecessary scream for cash and sympathy (sorry, autobiography) without seeing him as a weak, disloyal, image-obsessed wimp who cannot take criticism from his boss without sulking away to choke back the tears and plot vengeance, while his mum storms in with her handbag?’ (4) Ouch! Cruel but fair, I reckon.

Unlike Princess Diana, who was talentless in every respect except as a self-publicist, David Beckham has no need to parade his wounds in public to gain our admiration. He is a world-class footballer who is perfectly capable of performing acts of sporting heroism on the field of play without having to pass himself off as a therapy case. Beckham should let his feet rather than his emotions do the talking.

Read on:

spiked-issue: sport

(1) Sun, 1 September 2003

(2) ‘Growing pain impelled Beckham’s departure’, The Times, 1 September 2003

(3) I wanted to quit but Victoria stopped me, Observer, 31 August 2003

(4) Becks’ book tells his snide, Daily Mirror, 4 September 2003

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