Phil Ball analyses David Beckham's time in the Spanish capital

Back in the mists of time, during David Beckham’s first season in Madrid, Guillem Balagué of Sky was given the privilege of interviewing the great man in situ. They sat together in the Asador Donostiarra restaurant, a regular haunt of Real Madrid’s bons vivants, Beckham looking splendid in his Lucius Malfoy haircut phase and Balagué asking all the right (pre-selected) questions. Becks seemed relaxed and happy, trusting Balagué. As he supped on a glass of red wine, he agreed to show his startling prowess in Cervantes’ tongue, “Tienes un poco de chorizo por favor?” (Have you got some salami sausage please?) He seemed Euroman incarnate, the symbol of a new era. Not only was this a man who could generate greenbacks by the million and play football half-decently, he could also meld into the sophistication of Madrid, a city whose hauteur and social mannerism know few limits. Balagué did to Beckham what Martin Bashir did to Princess Diana – teased him out and appeared to humanise him. It was a weird occasion, during a weird time when Beckham, if you recall, was everywhere – even in M & S.

But three months after that interview, the tabloid-fuelled Rebecca Loos affair sent Beckham back into the shell from which he appeared to be emerging, the English entourage that had descended on Madrid was given short shrift and the template was set for the remainder of his stay. You can hardly blame Beckham and his advisors. He knew Balagué wasn’t to blame, but things were never quite the same again for Euroman. And in the end, when you cut through all the hullabaloo, it’s in this context that Beckham’s stay in Madrid should be viewed.

Beckham has managed 143 games for Real Madrid in three-and-a-half seasons, scoring 18 goals. Not great, but most British writers never expected him to last even two years. They don’t rate him? Well, they wouldn’t. It’s difficult to understand football when you spend your time watching Premiership highlights. The Bernabéu rated him, which is all that matters really. He passed their test, where many before him had failed. The tabloid Marca, ever keen to follow the line set out by the Real president, has recently published several hilariously unsubstantiated vox-pops that claim the fans no longer rate him, but they got a shock when even Raúl, the guy who never seemed to tolerate the Beckham circus, came out in his defence after Fabio Capello had announced that the Englishman would never play for the club again. Marca have since tried to backtrack, but the damage is done. Raúl disagreed with them. You can see the Madrileño lap-dog press quaking in its Timberlands.

But the Spanish understand that things are temporary. Before Ramón Calderón, the club president, and Capello put the boot in (“Thanks for the 50 per cent image rights and the money David – now piss off”) no one in Spain was out to get Beckham. They saw his gradual decline as something normal, but admired his ability just to get on with things, admired his stoicism and his refusal to moan – a disease endemic among Spanish players. They knew he would go at the end of his contract, but were happy to see him stick around in the meantime. He was still the best passer in the squad, the player with most calidad (quality). As Jorge Valdano, Real’s sporting director when they signed him, said: “Not since Maradona has a player had the same touch as Beckham.” It’s weird that the English have forgotten about this. All that matters now, indeed all that has ever mattered in the Beckham context, has been the soundbites and the puns.

Beckham failed miserably to learn Spanish, but it’s questionable whether his lifestyle would have ever allowed him to banter with the neighbours as did Steve McManaman. When he said that he was happy in Madrid, he meant it – in so far as anyone who leads his type of existence can ever be happy. Beckham has been dignified as the shit has flown at him, intelligent in his choice of advisers, shrewd in his few announcements and pretty sharp in terms of his bank balance. No wonder the English poke fun.

Sorry to sound like some sort of apologist, but I reckon Becks is all right. Despite the ludicrous circus that has surrounded him, he has coped well enough. The Spanish press gave him space, in the end. His kids got into school, against all the odds, and, despite the minders in the playground, they seemed happy, too. From behind the walls of his finca, Becks is probably pointing a vertical finger in a northerly direction, but despite the recent treatment from Real Madrid, he has never publicly raised so much as an eyebrow in theirs.

It all may well be a Scientologist plot, working on Tom Cruise to recruit the next big name (and wife) to their cause. Good luck to them. Becks was once a galáctico, from some other space-time continuum. If he doesn’t make that Hollywood B picture, he should be good for Doctor Who. He was once a footballer. Now it doesn’t seem to matter any more.

From WSC 241 March 2007. What was happening this month

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