Chris Taylor argues that all David Beckham had to do to become universally popular in England was to stop playing for Manchester United
The reason Real Madrid bought David Beckham was obvious to everyone. World domination. Those crafty swine from the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu weren’t content with their European monopoly, they wanted the rest of the world. And so to help promote their tour of south-east Asia, they bought David Beckham.
Imagine, our national leader (forget any ludicrous delusions of grandeur and importance Tony Blair, the rest of us are right behind Beckham), a mere marketing gimmick. Frankly, I was furious.
But not for long. Becksy, as I like to call him, assured us all in his first press conference as a Real Madrid galáctico that he wasn’t in Spain just to help flog 50-quid T-shirts. He was there because he was a fine and talented footballer. A fact that sometimes gets fog-ged by the enormous cloud of publicity that follows him like, well, an enormous cloud. The relief was tangible. The millions and millions of euros’ worth of shirts that our David would help shift was merely a by-product of his transfer and not the real reason for it. Our sovereignty was assured once more. The ravens hadn’t fled the tower after all.
“We flogged 8,000 Beckham 23 jerseys in just over two hours!” beamed a Madrid marketing guru shortly afterwards. “That’s even more than when we signed Ronaldo and Zidane.” And their Asian tour was accompanied by thousands of screaming teenagers, all wearing the brilliant white kit of Real Madrid.
But that would never happen in Britain, would it? I mean, what a cynical nation we are. We’re a people who detest success. Especially when it comes to a person as good looking and as talented as David Beckham. After all, just five years previously he was the nation’s most hated man. Public enemy número uno. The press said he had disgraced his country. They churned out David Beckham dart boards. For the love of God, there were burning effigies of him hanging on every east London street corner. Surely not even the considerable powers of Real Madrid could break the parochial nature of the British mindset and make David Beckham popular?
But they could. Within two days of Beckham signing for Real, I spotted my first Beckham 23 jersey. A teenaged lad walking his dog in, shock horror, a David Beckham Real Madrid shirt. And it wasn’t a one-off. The next day an old man walking past the Som Siam Thai restaurant in Lancaster where I live. A girl in HMV. Another young lad at the bus station. Worryingly, there was no strict demo-graphic. Everyone was at it. What started out as a trickle of sightings soon became a veritable cascade. A day out in Manchester revealed that the second most popular choice of replica shirt, behind the still impressively omnipotent Manchester United, was Real Madrid. And more times than not the back of the shirt was adorned with the name and number of our David Beckham.
What I had failed to notice was a change in the nation’s perception of Beckham. As the bad lad of St Etienne, he was seen as Manchester United’s David Beckham. But having exorcised those ghosts with his free-kick against Greece and his penalty against Argentina, he was suddenly David Beckham, England captain, who unfortunately just happened to play for Manchester United. The minute he severed his Old Trafford umbilical cord, it became all right to like him, to treat him like the greatest living Englishman.
But as time has gone by, the media furore around Beckham has died down. Sure, his early season performances for England and his new club kept him on the back pages, but the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation was no longer as powerful. I’d gone a whole week without seeing anyone in a Beckham 23 jersey and hopes were high that this brief fashion craze had died a quick and painless death. Walking past a Help the Aged shop, I noticed a Real Madrid shirt in the window. It sat tatty and forlorn, surrounded by jigsaws, poor-quality earthenware and children’s toys. This was an obvious nail in the coffin; the obituary to a craze that was to disappear as quickly and as suddenly as it appeared. I popped into the shop to take a closer look and was more than disappointed (yet perversely amused) to find the name McManaman on the back of the shirt.
On my way home I saw three more people wearing David Beckham Real Madrid jerseys. I fear that this particular vogue still has a long way to run.
From WSC 201 November 2003. What was happening this month