RIP: the footballing life of David Beckham
When Becks snapped that tendon, it ended an era marked by public tears, metrosexuality and great corners.
There is something in the image of a sports star breaking down injured which fires the cinematic imagination. Last year, many felt Mickey Rourke should have won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of ‘an old, broken down piece of meat’ in The Wrestler. Very few argued Sylvester Stallone should have won it for Rocky Balboa, but the principle was the same. Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, De Niro in Raging Bull, Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby… hell, even the Jamaican bobsleigh team in Cool Runnings.
Novelist Martin Amis observed that many writers endure a double death: ‘once when the body dies, and once when the talent dies’. This is doubly powerful when applied to sports stars where the talent dies, not over the course of an underwhelming novel, but in the instant of a snapped bone or sucker punch.
So it is perhaps not a surprise that when Britain’s most famous sportsman tore his Achilles tendon this week, ending his World Cup hopes, the result was a bit of high drama. David Beckham cried, Fabio Capello roared and England’s chances of football glory were dealt a significant blow. The tragedy of England’s most capped outfield player, having returned from exile in the badlands of American Major League Soccer (MLS), only to see his hopes of a last hurrah on the world stage dashed so close to the tournament seems impossibly cruel. The poetic symbolism of the injury – so neatly summarising the fine line between invincibility and failure which defines sport – hasn’t helped. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, even commemorated it in a mock-heroic ode. This may have gained Duffy some popular attention, but only in the context of making poetry’s attempts at relevance look silly, and only succeeded in invoking Pyrrhus rather than the son of Peleus.
Duffy was right about one thing, however, in her allusion to myth. This nearly happened to Beckham before, of course, when a broken metatarsal almost kept him out of the 2002 World Cup. Then, Becks really was at the height of his considerable powers, pretty much single-handedly dragging an average team into the finals with his majestic performance in the draw against Greece. Since then it’s been a tale of decline: two poor tournaments at Euro 2004 and the World Cup in 2006, matched by patchy performances at Real Madrid. His move into MLS marked a natural fizzling out of a reasonably successful sporting career, and the next stage in a phenomenally successful celebrity one.
There was always more to Becks than might be expected of such a pretty boy. For all the talk of ‘Brand Beckham’ – the Brylcreem boy who exploded onto the scene with THAT goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon, wearing sarongs and taking Posh Spice up the Arsenal – Goldenballs always had an unusual amount of tenacity for someone who was supposed to be a flair midfielder; an inner steel and sheer hunger for the game seemingly at odds with his showbiz lifestyle. His last-minute goal aside, what really stood out in his performance against Greece was his workrate, covering 10 miles as he threw himself into every tackle and header. In 2006, it wasn’t the image of him tearfully limping off the pitch in what seemed to be his last-ever England match which stuck in the memory, but of him throwing up on the pitch in sheer exhaustion.
His much-vaunted comeback, now thwarted, has been built on that tenacity. But it is also based on the stark fact that none of his younger rivals are good enough. Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Theo Walcott and David Bentley have all shown moments of promise, but have been consistently inconsistent or persistently injured. Everyone knows that for England, Beckham is now a squad player not a first choice: in fact, given his recent struggling performances for AC Milan, there was no guarantee he would even get picked for the World Cup at all. He was there out of experience, his ability to take the odd good free-kick and corner and the respect he commands in the squad: which sounds alright for your mate in Sunday league football, but Becks is hardly Zinedine Zidane. Achilles, you may remember, gained notoriety for dragging the carcass of his vanquished foe Hector around in the dust (by his heels, coincidentally) outside Troy, revelling in his victory. Now, apparently, Capello wants to drag the broken body of Becks round Johannesburg as a ‘team mascot’.
So why has Beckham’s injury been met with such interest? Matthew Syed, writing in The Times, seemed to put his finger on it in his sporting obituary of Becks. He wasn’t just a talented footballer, but New Labour personified. Exploding onto the scene as a young pretender in 1996, Beckham seemed to symbolise Cool Britannia: he was fashionable; he played in the Premier League (not the ugly, hooligan-led game apparently played and watched by racist, working-class hooligans, but the new shiny, sanitised, prawn-sandwich version); he was prepared to shed a tear or two in public and, as he became a proud husband and father, became a perfect role model for ‘broken Britain’. Above all else, he was cosmopolitan: in 2003 he was called Britain’s most famous black man by a Channel 4 documentary-maker and in 2004 posed for gay men’s magazine Attitude. He was Our David. When London made its final push for the Olympics in 2005, it was little surprise that the two ambassadors it turned to were Tony & Dave.
It seems fitting, then, that in 2010 we are witnessing the disintegration of Beckham’s body and what ever existed of New Labour’s soul. Both have always been obsessed with how they look; both have always wanted to appeal to all of the people all of the time, and both were only ever still in the running because their successors are too inept, incompetent and spineless to rise to the challenge. There the differences end: not even renowned pig-fancier Rebecca Loos (Beckham’s former mistress) would be able to caress some life into the Brown government by now. The tears for Beckham are understandable: he’s just been deprived of his last shot at the big-time. But the real tears should be shed at the thought that while Becks is finished, we might not have seen the last of New Labour yet.
David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.
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