By Julian Bennetts
In the build-up to last week’s Champions League quarter-final clash between Paris Saint Germain and Barcelona, ITV presenter Adrian Chiles asked if the Spanish side’s midfield would be ‘starstruck by David Beckham’.
That midfield consisted of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets. Just the 61 major trophies between them, with all three of them being World and European champions.
Being star-struck isn’t really in their nature.
Yet while Chiles was immediately mocked by Twitter’s vituperative judges, his comment simply underlined the fact that no other footballer divides opinion like Beckham.
In France, for example, he is a busted flush, enjoying one last spell in the limelight that his performances do not really merit.
In England, meanwhile, there is still an element of reverence for what he has achieved during what few can deny is a stellar career.
And over the Atlantic, Beckham is still recognised as a marketing man’s dream, a Brand that makes money simply by virtue of existing.
Within those three disparate viewpoints lies the crux with Beckham; how do you separate what he is from what he does?
In a way that perhaps no other player has been since George Best, Beckham is ‘a star’ in the truest sense of the word.
Not in his lifestyle of course – Beckham is the archetypal model professional – but in the element of glamour he brings to the game, that film-star presence follows him like a shadow.
His career has contained its’ fair share of Hollywood moments too – that performance against Greece in qualification for the 2002 World Cup, Camp Nou in 1999 and titles in his last seasons with United, Real Madrid and LA Galaxy – but they only serve to confuse the issue.
In many ways, Beckham’s career already resembles a highlights reel, a montage demonstrating how he made the best of his talent.
The difficulty is that Beckham is constantly determined to add to it in a noble refusal to accept the dying of the light.
Throughout it all he has maintained his child-like love for the game he plays, and it is not difficult to imagine the pleasure it will give him to run out at Camp Nou on Wednesday.
He will see it as a script already written, waiting for him to put his seal on the occasion. He has won at the Nou Camp twice before; with Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League Final, and with Real Madrid in 2003 when they ended their 20-year wait for victory at the stadium with a 2-1 success.
This gives the opportunity for a personal hat-trick, and it is far from inconceivable that he will curl home a last-gasp free-kick to steer PSG through to the semi-finals.
Yet while it would be impossible to begrudge him any amount of personal satisfaction from such a moment, the ensuing hype would make it more difficult to bear.
Talk of an England recall would intensify, as would questions of whether Beckham should return for one last crack at the Premier League. We are better off without these debates; the 37-year-old has already achieved all he can in this country and there is no need to tarnish his legacy.
It was hardly a surprise that Beckham reiterated he would never turn down an England call, telling CNN World Sport, ‘one of the reasons why I’ve never retired from the England team is because if there’s ever an opportunity to play for them again, then I’m available.
‘If there is any chance of me ever playing for my country again, I would never turn that down. Like I said, I’m almost 38 years old so the chances are very slight, but you never know.’
Not for him trips to Qatar to commentate on England rather than playing for them, nor the blithe acceptance that he will never represent his country again.
Yet it is more of a surprise that the issue arose at all after his performance in that first-leg against Barcelona.
A personal view is that Beckham played perfectly well during his 70 minutes on the pitch, without being outstanding. Not well enough to justify the views of those who were calling on Roy Hodgson to bring him back into the international fold, and certainly not poorly enough for L’Equipe to award him a mark of three-out-of-ten and ‘Flop of the Match’.
The paper commented: ‘Beckham, with the exception of two or three interesting deadballs in the first-half, never existed in this match. At 37 and after five years in the USA, the English midfielder no longer has the engine to play in a match of such intensity.’
That review is unfair, and it is hard to believe that the same comment would have been made about many other players. But headlines about Beckham generate headlines about Beckham.
His life as a footballer is a vicious circle, in that everything he does creates more headlines, articles and television discussions that actually obscure the details of his performances and abilities.
Beckham the brand is now about the bigger picture rather than the finer details.
‘One last swansong at PSG’ has followed seamlessly on from ‘helping to develop football in America’. Now it could be ‘one last heroic return for his country’.
The minutiae of daily life – training, maintaining a healthy lifestyle and simply playing matches – has been superseded by grand themes; we see the wood rather than the tress.
Above all, this is unfair on Beckham. Few footballers have shown more dedication and made the very best of themselves as he has. It is incredibly hard not to admire him.
Yet it shows above all that both he and us are trying desperately not to give something up.
For Beckham it is the game that he has devoted his life to.
For us – by which, above all, I mean the media – it is the star culture that he has come to represent. Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and others have all been part of it, but Beckham has been the leader, the man who blurred the lines between footballer and celebrity. He will be remembered in his pants as much as he will in his football kit.
The next generation, the one which will be spearheaded by Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley and Phil Jones, does not seem to contain the same type of characters.
That may change but Beckham’s retirement, when it comes, will signal a subtle shift in how we view footballers in this country.
It may be that we will welcome that change, but for the present we should appreciate Beckham for what he is; a player who has made the best of himself and is still trying to do so. No matter how others have seen or portrayed him, for Beckham it has always been that simple.
THE INSIDE TRACK
Horcine Harzoune | Goal.com France
Beckham at PSG is a more complicated matter than it seems. The Paris club wanted a poster boy for its new image, and no player says “Welcome to the big League” better than David Beckham. It is an image matter more than a sporting choice or an economic strategy and PSG were ready to do anything to hire him.
The financial experts of the club were very crafty in getting him to sign. After a bit of ducking and diving, Beckham will earn £2m without paying the French tax on the rich, if he sells the same amount of shirts that he did in the Galactico era with Real Madrid.
The club presented it as a charity choice from the player but once again, it is all about image. Most French people are not really aware of the corners that were cut, and Paris fans don’t care as long as he provides on the pitch.
He recently showed his limits against Barca with a mediocre display (just days after going to China for a business trip) and his image was a little dented by some sceptical members of the media. But not much.
Most people are happy to have him playing in France because that shows that Ligue 1 is “finally” a great league. Beckham is a brand, and in France, like everywhere else, we kind of trust brands. They are supposed to never disappoint us.
Seth Vertelney | Goal.com America
Beckham had some professionalism issues here in the US (i.e. skipping a game to attend Paul Scholes’ testimonial), but he mostly put those behind him in the last couple of years and showed he was committed to the Galaxy cause. Right or wrong, with Beckham there will always be some leeway granted because of who he is. Overall, though, he had a very positive impact on MLS and American soccer in general.
On the field, I don’t think many here are surprised he’s doing well with PSG. He’s obviously not as good as he used to be, but he’s got the experience, vision, range of passing, intelligence and crossing ability to still be an asset for most teams. He was quite good for the Galaxy here when he was healthy and so there’s no reason he wouldn’t continue to be good back in Europe, despite the higher level of competition.