THERE are footballers and then there’s David Beckham. The other guys smell of sweat, Ralgex and farty dressing-rooms.He smells – always and forever – of roses.
Take Danny Graham. He moves to Sunderland and you’d think the fans would be happy to be landing one of the reasons behind Swansea’s success. This is what they shout at Graham the other night, prior to the switch: “You’re scum and you always will be.”
Take Ashley Cole. He’s about to win his 100th England cap, a fine achievement, but his manager is concerned about Wembley’s reaction and so has to ask for its magnanimity. “He’s a two-club man,” says Roy Hodgson, which only reminds us of Cole’s move from one to the other, the conversation while driving with his agent, the spluttering outrage at the offer of “only £55,000 a week”, almost causing him to crash the Porsche.
But Beckham? Only “Derek” – how he was greeted on an early trip to the US, although they never made that mistake again – can arrive at a club seeking to become a global powerhouse and be greeted with the most gigantic swoon. Even though he’s 37. Even though he’s been in semi-retirement in a poor league for five years. Even though he’s a decade past his best.
Graham is one of the most eye-catching players in the Premier League. Cole is still routinely referred to as “the world’s best left-back”. But Beckham is Beckham and current form is a mere trifle. In the immediate aftermath of him signing for Paris Saint-Germain – blowing every other deadline-day transfer out of the water – I couldn’t find anyone asking the question: “How are his free-kicks these days?” Instead, we’re all supposed to talk about the brand, the PR, the marketing, the smile, the smart suit, the ambassadorial opportunities, the 2022 World Cup figurehead potential, etc. And this is what we’re doing because you’re never a Beckham sceptic for long.
Remember the 2006 World Cup and how, after England exited in the usual manner, the knives were out? The captain was the ringmaster of the celebrity circus which had done for the team. But by crying on the bench and quitting as skipper before the inquest could properly begin, he dodged a lot of the flak. He was still lying low while Frank Lampard took the fans’ abuse during the next (failed) campaign. Then, enter Fabio Capello with his fearsome chin, who nobody questioned, at least not in the early days – and not when he restored Beckham to the team. So he got his 100th cap after all, and a reception that Cashley Cole will only be able to dream about. Hard-nosed critics, ignoring that Beckham was by then at LA Galaxy, chorused: “Aw, that’s nice.” Sentiment and the nation’s fondess for coronations had won everyone round. Oh, and don’t forget the PR, brilliant as ever.
Say what you like about Beckham, and I have done, but he knows – or his advisors know – how to work the story, exploit it for maximum impact, and with perfect timing. The timing was perfect when he adopted the alice-band look, enabling him to show off the cut to his forehead inflicted by Sir Alex Ferguson’s flying boot. The timing was perfect when he jumped on the backs of Real Madrid’s goalscorers, keeping the profile high when his own strikerate was declining.
And, when everyone started getting excited about stats revealing the distances players ran, and our hero rated favourably for that funny, flat-footed scamper and there was no breakdown of how little of this had been in the final third – well, that was perfect, wasn’t it?
Part of me thinks his timing might be out with this move. That he might now be wondering if it was out when he moved to the States while still only 32. It’s the same part that, when Beckham says he’s in Paris to “help the French league grow”, wants to tell him: “Excuse me, David, but I think France might have won the World Cup in 1998 and possibly the European Championships in 2000 as well.” But that part is probably wrong, indeed has probably always been wrong about Beckham, and it’s high time the other part of me squeezed into a No 32 shirt, climbed the Eiffel Tower and hailed him as football’s one true visionary, moderniser and saviour.