Changing traditional British attitudes

HE loves to shop, looks good in a sarong and spends almost as much time at the hairdresser's as he does on the sports field.

HE loves to shop, looks good in a sarong and spends almost as much time at the hairdresser's as he does on the sports field.

"It's always nice to be liked. I think it's great," says David Beckham. — Pic. AP-

But for millions of English men and women, soccer star David Beckham is the king of cool, a golden-haired national treasure whose famously curling kicks have inspired boys and girls across the world to "Bend it Like Beckham" — as in the film of that title about a Sikh girl in Britain with soccer dreams.

Beckham is reputed to be the world's highest-paid soccer player, and recent hints that he may be moving to Spain to join Real Madrid's fabulously expensive team have had Britain in a forth of anxiety.

Oh, and he's married to a former Spice Girl.

In the United States, many only know Beckham as Mr. Posh Spice, the husband of girl group singer Victoria Adams. But in Britain — and much of the rest of the world — it's the English soccer captain who gets star billing, while Mrs. Beckham picks up the crumbs of media attention.

"It's always nice to be liked," Beckham once said. "I think it's great."

And he's not fussy about who does the liking. As well as being a mainstream male role model and a pinup for women, the dashingly handsome "Backs" is comfortable with his sex symbol status.

Indeed, there's little about the Manchester United midfielder that one normally associates with the super-macho world of English soccer and its hooligan undercurrent — other than the ability to score goals with deadly accuracy and his tattoos, including the names of toddler sons Brooklyn and Romeo on his back.

A devoted husband who prefers time with his wife and children to partying with friends, the 28-year-old Beckham lavishes attention on his appearance, wearing designer outfits and eye-catching jewellery.

Beckham sends scissors snipping across Britain every time he adopts a new hairstyle — including the Mohican-shaped cut he wore at last year's World Cup — and once caused a sensation by appearing in a glossy magazine with reddish-brown soy sauce dripping from his shaved head, as if he were bleeding.

"A lot of kids will follow it," he said of the fashion shoot.

"But then a lot follow by wearing a Manchester United shirt with Beckham on the back."

There was a time, however, when the name was far from popular.

Born in London's Leytonstone district near the East End, Beckham joined Manchester United at the age of 16 and rose to fame as an outstanding scorer of free kicks and penalties, earning a spot in the national team for the 1998 World Cup in France.

But what should have been the 23-year-old's moment of glory turned into his Waterloo. During a white-knuckle second-round match against England's archenemy, Argentina, Beckham was sent off for a petulant kick against the opposing team captain, and missed the penalty shoot-out that sealed England's elimination.

Back in Britain, outraged soccer fans burned and hanged effigies of Beckham, who underwent a media lynching for his outburst. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair got involved.

"I should think no one feels worse about it than David Beckham does," Blair said, as some called for the player to be banned from representing his country. "He is obviously going to have to learn from that."

For months, Beckham met with loud jeers when he entered a stadium. He slowly regained his popularity by leading Manchester United to a fantastic winning spree from 1999 to 2001, then sending England into the 2002 World Cup with a stunning free kick against Greece in qualifying.

A year ago in Japan, Beckham buried the memory of his 1998 humiliation by scoring the winning penalty against Argentina, sparking huge celebrations across England.

A multimillionaire whose fortune was recently estimated at $78 million by The Sunday Times, Beckham is now trying to export some of his fame to the United States. Manchester United is due to make a four-game preseason tour this summer, with games in Seattle, Los Angeles, East Rutherford, New Jersey, just outside New York, and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the soccer player has even become the subject of an academic study that credits Beckham with changing traditional British attitudes to masculinity, thanks to his clothes-and-family oriented lifestyle.