Public Image Ltd

Sun Herald

Sunday November 18, 2007

Doug Conway

If Manchester United are a merchandising company that run a football team, as some mischievously suggest, then David Beckham must be a celebrity who plays football.

The thing that made him so famous in the first place now so often gets lost.

As Australians are doubtless about to see, the image of Beckham the sportsman is often blurred by the wattage of his commercial appeal and gossip page glamour.

As Man Utd, his first and greatest football love, grew into the world's richest club, becoming a commodity bought and sold on the stock exchange, so Beckham grew.

He grew into the world's richest player.

Not quite the world's best, but the richest, thanks to a deluge of sponsorship money which has followed him from Manchester to Madrid to Hollywood.

The Beckham name makes goods fly off shop shelves and sponsors armed with a pen and plenty of zeros queue up to buy it.

Goggle-eyed consumers seem to regard the headline "Spend It Like Beckham" as an instruction.

Brand Beckham sells sporting goods, clothes, hair products, razor blades, cologne, soft drinks and mobile phones.

When he moved to Real Madrid he sparked one million shirt sales - half the club's total - and a London newspaper sent a full-time Beckham correspondent to cover him.

Beckham himself still loves playing football. As Bobby Charlton, the former Manchester United and England great, says: "The game is a great romance for David."

But his big financial backers want him for his name and his fame, as much as his game.

The talk - other people's talk, not his - exceeds the walk.

Beckham descends on Sydney next week as the brightest star in the galaxy, the only star in the LA Galaxy, the American club side reputedly helping him earn $US1 million ($1.17 million) every week for five years.

Count it - that's more than $US250 million.

Beckham will play one match against A-League team Sydney FC on November 27, but for many the football will be secondary.

It certainly seems that way back home in LA LA land, where the wrapping often assumes a greater importance than the goods.

A recurrent ankle injury has restricted him to 348 minutes of competitive action since his move there in July.

That's less than four full games.

Beckham scored just one goal in his first half-season and failed to help Galaxy into the US play-offs.

But as long as the flashbulbs are popping and the merchandise is shifting, everyone seems to be happy.

For Galaxy's Australian visit it was always a case of no Beckham, no deal.

Without him, no one would be interested. With him, the whole world watches.

The idea of a friendly match between Los Angeles and Sydney club sides playing to a sell-out audience Down Under is preposterous. Only Beckham's presence explains it.

Beckham is part of a double act, the world-famous footballer as well as the husband of Victoria Adams, better known as Posh Spice. In British publicity terms, it's the package deal of the century.

The Beckhams aren't yet American showbiz royalty but having friends such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes helps.

Football has always been at the centre of Beckham's universe.

He was smitten by it as a kid, he became very good at it, he fell in love with a pop princess, and everything else seems to have just happened.

But though he remains keen to play for England, the 32-year-old's move to Hollywood suggested to many he had started thinking mainly about life after football. He has kept a remarkably cool head, considering the breakneck pace at which he had to contend with fame and attention.

Cameras started following him to school and to home in his early teens.

The last bit of peace he seems to have had was when he laced on his boots as a primary schooler with Ridgeway Rovers in London's East End.

He was spotted by a scout as an 11-year-old and invited to be a spectator, sitting on the Man Utd bench, by manager Alex Ferguson.

He signed on schoolboy terms aged 14 - "It was just brilliant, signing the paper an' that," he told the TV cameras at the time - and made his senior debut as a substitute aged 17.

He was an England international at 21 and captain at 25.

He has also demonstrated a strength of character and a resilience in the face of setbacks, at both club and country level, that isn't generally associated with vacuous celebrities. Beckham was vilified by the English press at the 1998 World Cup, blamed for a loss to Argentina in the course of which he was sent off for retaliation.

Beckham was greeted back at home by a headline: "Ten heroic lions and one stupid boy."

The 2006 World Cup ended in tears, too.

Beckham resigned as captain and was subsequently told he didn't figure in the plans of new manager Steve McClaren. Yet he fought his way back into McClaren's plans and is playing a role in England's fight to qualify for Euro 2008, although their hopes hang by a thread.

Similarly, he fell from favour with Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello.

But he forced his way back to play his part in winning Spain's La Liga title just before heading to LA. You have to be much more than a pretty boy to do all of that.

© 2007 Sun Herald

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