From foresight to hindsight, sound judgements to naked prejudices, Joyce Woolridge sifts through, as the man himself put it, “the **** in the papers” written about the Beckham transfer saga
David Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid has provided the press with a close-season story beyond its wildest imaginings. The amount of print dedicated to increasingly wild speculation about the sale of (variously) “The boy who got too big for his boots” or “An England hero” led Beckham himself, according to the Manchester Evening News, to text his Dad in disbelief: “Can you believe all this **** in the papers?” Most of what was written was best described as **** flowing copiously on to the pages of broadsheet and tabloid.
Early reports contained a succinct and reasonably accurate picture of what would transpire.United’s board had talked itself into the position that selling Beckham was “good business”. Ferguson deemed him inessential. Beckham’s agents had sounded out Real. United were contacted by two candidates from Barcelona’s forthcoming presidential election. But this relatively sane and comprehensible version was to be buried under a welter of insinuations, opinions, moralising and, in the end, complete invention.
Harry Harris, the man with the “inside track” in his Harry’s Game column in the Sunday Express, helpfully provided readers without a Media Studies GCSE with a quick guide to just how and why a story takes such a battering. One on-the-ball reporter (called Harry, no doubt) knows the truth, but is immediately rubbished by rivals because journalism is a world where envy rules. Managers and officials leak information, some of it inaccurate. Harry’s predictions were spot on. Although Joan Laporta’s use of Beckham’s allure to bump him into top spot in the Barcelona presidential campaign briefly offered an interesting sideline, the chief concern of those commenting on the Beckham “saga” was not how he came to join Real, but why.
Already by June 9 the Guardian had decided that footballing reasons were largely unimportant. Beckham was simply “too sexy for his team”, though, presumably because there is still some semblance of broadsheet responsibility left in their G2 tabloid, they could not really claim that David Beckham had allowed his “celebrity lifestyle” and “other activities” to distract him from the football field. As Sven-Göran Eriksson, quoted in the article, confirmed: “The ladies think he’s a nice-looking young man… From what I have seen though, he has always lived perfectly.”
It had also become time to take sides and deal in caricature, though who exactly was the villain, or villainess, was sometimes difficult to fathom. United’s manager is a man who should never take his shirt off within 30 miles of a camera. Hence shots of him burning his pallid Glaswegian flesh made the perfect accompaniment to the outpourings of the anti-Ferguson brigade. By June 9 the Sun’s back page screamed United Treat Me Like a Piece of Meat and the Mirror had the best advertisement for Factor 40 ever with its Red Bully cover, where a “Sunburned Sir Alex smirks hours before ‘selling’ David Beckham, without even telling him. What a way to treat an England hero”.
In G2, Tom Bower, the latest (not without justification) prophet of doom for English football, used language usually reserved for castigating First World War generals, to denounce the man from Govan’s petty-minded machinations against the “best of British youth”. “Ferguson is jealous if the spotlight or TV camera wavers from himself. Football is the vehicle for prima donnas and few are more self-preening than Ferguson.” The FA “steeped in debt and managed by fools” lies powerless as graspers and chancers push football on its merry way to perdition.
But Diamond Dave was not having it all his own way. That expert on the mores of “the real working class”, Julie Burchill, bored with touting David as modern man, pronounced the Beckhams the inferiors of her own mum and dad. Becks, she now understands, is “grotesquely, massively, pussy-whipped by his talentless, ambition-hound of a wife”, whereas Julie’s mum “did not seem intent on cutting my father’s nuts off – either in the privacy of our own home or in front of the world’s media”, though how often the Burchill family found themselves before the latter is unclear. (Later Tony Parsons was to mount an heroic challenge to his ex-wife’s attempt to monopolise the position of talking bollocks about the working class by seeing Beckham v Ferguson as “the old working class versus the new”. Alex Ferguson, he tried to argue tortuously, was old working class, because he “knew his place”...)
The lugubrious James Lawton of the Independent invoked the all-powerful shade of the “late Bobby Moore” to blast the authorities for honouring with an OBE a limited footballer who has yet achieved little. Andrew Morton, like Burchill the author of an opportunist volume about the not-so-royal couple, strained the bounds of taste in the Express by comparing Beckham and Princess Diana, whose popularity may not have survived the move to another country and a new life. Stan Hey in the Independent on Sunday could not shake from his mind David’s first act on the road to poseurdom, the sarong, nor the GQ cover which showed Beckham’s “shirtless torso doused in baby-oil, fingernails painted dark purple”. And neither, according to Stan, could Sir Alex, a man, one presumes, whose nails had known nothing more effeminate than Swarfega, to whom “it was a clear signal he had lost control of the man he had sheltered since he was a boy”.
A frequent marker of the Beckhams’ descent into an out-of-control celebrity lifestyle was that they were “close friends of Elton John”, a line oft-repeated, but never elaborated, obviously sufficiently damning in itself. In fact, Sir Elton appeared to be one of the few people not actively involved in the transfer. The list of those who were grew longer and more bewildering every day, including “the genial Israeli agent” Pini Zihavi (whose geniality may have sprung from squeezing £58 million out of United for Ferdinand and Verón).
The business sections wheeled in consultants to talk vaguely about branding, endorsements and image rights, usually accompanied by “think of a number, double it and add ten noughts” financial analysis. Like Monty Python’s Spiny Norman, the Beckhams’ personal wealth grew or shrank according to the hysteria of the correspondent. Patrick Collins in the Mail on Sunday rubbished claims of shrewd business dealings at Old Trafford, describing Peter Kenyon as “woefully maladroit” and the sale to Madrid “a textbook case of how not to conduct a major transfer”.
Overall Beckham was deemed more sinned against than sinning. Ferguson’s bullying of the press has left him few defenders in the media. Though Victoria’s skinny, fake-tanned body excites a torrent of misogyny, the dislike of Ferguson’s attitude still overrides it. Vicky, as Oliver Holt in the Mirror pointed out, serves the same role for the media as Yoko Ono, and the papers largely agree that her encouragement of her husband to be an active parent and a tendency to express her own opinions could never be tolerated by the irascible Scot.
By the time Beckham was sold, few had managed to resist the temptation to drift into posturing. Henry Winter in the Telegraph oddly insisted on discussing the transfer as a football matter and wrote an intelligent and quietly funny tactical analysis of “Ferguson’s adoption of a new doctrine”, 4-2-3-1, which has led him to overate his own tactical acumen and underrate Beckham’s capacity to become a midfield playmaker. Patrick Barclay probably had the best verdict, writing in his column for the Sunday Telegraph on June 15: “In an ideal world, big clubs should not sell home-grown heroes at their peak.” Meanwhile, others were breathing insincere sighs of relief, such as Jeff Powell in the Mail writing: “This grotesque saga is now at an end.”
As if any of us believe it – the media’s most rhyming reporter, the Sun’s “Dave Kidd in Madrid”, was already embroiled in the jealousies in the Bernabéu dressing room and the rest were rubbing their hands at the prospect of the Beckhams either doing a “Rushie” and fleeing back home in tears, or picturing the look on Sir Alex’s face as a gleeful Becks slots the winner past whoever ends up occupying United’s goal next season in the Champions League final. Whether he dethrones Raúl to “reign in Spain” or not, David’s beautiful face will go on regularly adorning the front and back pages, because there is no one else to replace him, in the English media, if not in English football.
From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month