Beckham and the celebrity phenomenon

IN southern Japan, his handsome face, with that charming boy-next-door smile, is featured on the front page of a small town newspaper.

IN southern Japan, his handsome face, with that charming boy-next-door smile, is featured on the front page of a small town newspaper. In the United States, where soccer's popularity is just above that of Saddam Hussein's, his visit triggers the sort of coverage that no footballer has ever commanded since Pele arrived to play for the New York Cosmos in the 1970s.

In the capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, top of the seasonal flavour vis a vis bar room conversations relates to whether he would stay with Manchester United or transfer to a club in Spain. The concerns over the delay in the arrival of monsoon take a distant second place.

Of course, in his native England, the man is on both the front and back pages and often in several of the pages in between.

Welcome, then, to the David Beckham phenomenon. Not since a gifted, handsome and somewhat lost Irishman called George Best stylishly scored the winning goals for Man United and then ended up at fashionable West End pubs with his left arm over a Miss World and his right over a Parisian supermodel have the English media been so obsessed with one player.

But, then, Best played in an era when the Internet was not even dreamed of and the world was not quite as small a place as it is now. At best, Best was a British sports celebrity. At his peak, his fame could be smelt, so to say, in the continent.

Beckham is another matter altogether. We live in a global village now and Posh (Beckham's Spice Girl wife Victoria) and Becks are as much an item in soccer loving Kerala as they are in Japan and Korea and Spain.

Of course, in terms of worldwide "popularity,'' Becks would still trail someone like Anna Kournikova who has more hits to her name than any other athlete of our times on the Web. But unlike the underachieving Ms. Kournikova, Becks has more to his credit than just movie star good looks. Indeed, few can bend it like Beckham on a football field.

It certainly helps if you have the sort of combination Becks is blessed with: good looks, great talent and a trophy wife to boot. But we live in a world where people are famous for being famous. That is what celebrity is all about in this era of media saturation in sport.

Take away his dashing good looks and few sponsors would have got anywhere near Yuvraj Singh for all his heroics with the bat and in the field. If Anna Kournikova did not have the face and the figure that she flaunts, few of us would manage to spell her surname right.

It is all down to the image game, then. It is the game within the game which makes agents and sponsors and even hangers on laugh all the way to the Barclays Bank or whatever it is that is the bank of their choice.

The levels of intensity that celebrity can reach has to be seen to be believed. At Grand Slam events in tennis, a first round ladies doubles match featuring Kournikova will attract more spectators and photographers than one featuring Pete Sampras and a very good top 100 player. The moment Beckham sports a new hairdo, thousands of barbers in hundreds of cities across the globe start perfecting that style because it soon becomes the new fashion statement for young males.

``There's been a disappearance of fame and an emergence of celebrities. Little McEnroe earns 10 times as much as the Chief Justice of the United States, and will be forgotten as soon as he stops playing. You hear an announcer saying at a tennis match, `On this serve rests $40,000.' Imagine saying that about a sonata performance by Serkin,'' wrote the historian Henry Steele Commager in 1982.

Twenty one years on, McEnroe has not been forgotten but that is only because he reinvented himself as a commentator. And today, a Hewitt or an Agassi will earn 25 times that of the Chief Justice of the United States while, quite often, at critical moments in Slam finals, $400,000 and not just 40,000 may hinge on a single serve!

Like cinema, sport is an ideal breeding ground for celebrities. And the television and internet revolutions have helped increase the demand for celebrities. If Posh and Becks weren't there, there might have been an urgent need to invent them. And surely some smart agent might have done just that.

But real fame, unlike celebrity, has a longer life. Don Bradman will continue to dominate cricket folklore as long the game lives. Rod Laver and Pete Sampras will continue to feature prominently in tennis history as long the game survives.

As for celebrity, as for Kournikova.... well, you know, even in an age of plastic surgery, age is bound to tell. And nothing can make up for lack of actual on-field achievements. Some day soon, Beckham's celebrity will fade but not what he has accomplished on the field.