Is the bubble ready to burst?

There is no doubt that the David Beckham dream is crumbling and there is every danger of it turning into a full-scale nightmare, writes TED CORBETT.

IT is difficult not to envy David Beckham, his 60 million-pound fortune, his glitzy lifestyle, his grand houses, his pop star wife, the adulation of fans across the world and his ever-changing hair style.

But for ordinary mortals it is sometimes difficult not to feel sorry for a young man being tossed around on the wheel of misfortune that is modern football in its close alliance with show biz.

Either way there is no doubt that the Beckham dream is crumbling and there is every danger of it turning into a full-scale nightmare. It seems typical of his extraordinary see-saw life that he should be sent off for swearing in Spanish at a linesman during a meaningless end of season Real Madrid match.

Spanish contains some of the most insulting swear words used anywhere on the planet, often involving one's mother and her past. Don't ask me to explain. Get hold of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls where many of the worst expressions in that beautiful language are explained in detail.

No doubt Beckham, 29, who has been learning Spanish since he went to Real Madrid but who is certainly not a student of Hemingway, used one of them to protest against a penalty. It was his second red card in his season with Real and the fourth of his career, including a notorious dismissal against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup.

What a miserable way to finish your season and possibly your stay in a country that made Beckham welcome even if Victoria, his thinner-by-the-day former pop idol wife preferred London. She declined to join him on a regular basis and so brought about the affair which threatened their marriage.

I went to one of the shrewdest brains in football to ask whither Beckham now.

"It is difficult to see where he goes or what he does if Real don't want him or he is determined to get back to England and rebuild his marriage," he said. "Who will want him? Who can afford him?

"Will it be Chelsea with all their Russian oil millions? I don't think so. They have better players on their books already. Arsenal may be champions and in the most lucrative European competition but they are cash-strapped because they are building a new stadium.

"I can't see him playing anywhere below the Premiership and he will certainly not be going back to Manchester United."

That is the biggest certainty of all. In fact, it is beginning to look as if that shrewd Scot Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager for the last 15 years, was right. Ferguson made no secret of his dislike for Victoria — Posh from her days with the briefly famous group known as the Spice Girls — or the show business life of parties and holidays in out of the way places the couple lived outside football.

At the time Ferguson was accused of being old-fashioned because Beckham was still turning in great performances at Old Trafford, the Stadium of Dreams according to the most romantic football folk.

But now, says my expert, Beckham is no longer a football hero and some of his fall from grace can be attributed to his lifestyle. "Yes, I know he has won matches with spectacular free kicks, but more and more it looks as if he is relying on his reputation. The old hard work that used to make up for his other deficiencies has gone and he no longer dominates a match as he used to.

"It is sad but true — Beckham's best days are behind him." Yet little more than a year ago when he went to Real Madrid after a whole summer of speculation in the British and Spanish newspapers it was all so different.

His 25 million pounds sterling transfer, the way he had led England into the World Cup finals, his amazing free kicks, and his own personal commitment to success whether he was playing for Manchester United or the national team seemed to ensure he would also be a superstar among the Real stars.

The dream lived on for a while even though a niggling injury prevented him from making a perfect showing in the World Cup in Japan and Korea.

Beckham became the idol of the Madrid fans who cheered him for his hard work as well as his startling, match-winning goals.

But in the last few months all that has faded against the background of revelations about his life off the pitch, the unwillingness of his wife to bring their two boys to make a permanent home in Spain and finally stories about his affair with one of their staff.

Becks and Posh say they are a united family but they are only likely to remain so if he can find a club in England — and that means London — and in any case a divorce seems like a self-fulfilling prophesy. It is what show biz people do, isn't it? Have a high profile wedding, paid for by a magazine, have two beautiful children, find someone else, fight it out in the newspapers and on television, and then divorce. Probably more than once.

David Beckham storms off, after being sent out in Real Madrid's match against Murcia. — Pic. AFP-

I was standing in Barbados airport when a tabloid reporter told me that a British newspaper had an exclusive about Beckham's affair.

"It is the must-have story of the year," he said. "There have been rumours and now he has been caught bang to rights."

Those two gloating sentences say much about the way the Beckhams have suffered at the hands of the British Press, although on many occasions they used the Press as aggressively as the Press used them.

There are many examples of the way the newspapers exploited every move in the Becks life but one will suffice.

When he was transferred to Real Madrid all the tabloids appointed men to do nothing else for the next year except move to Spain and track him every day.

This obsession with the Beckhams followed a typical pattern of the way in which the British tabloids deal with glamorous young people. Build them up and knock them down. Apply what the Australians call the tall poppy syndrome. When it gets too big you cut it down to size and if someone gets badly hurt in the process, so what?

The Beckhams readily accepted this way of life and brought in publicity experts to help them exploit their fame. Hence their marriage on golden thrones. Hence the drip, drip of information about their boys Brooklyn and Romeo, the cost of their various houses like the so-called Beckingham Palace, their shopping trips, their spending habits, their show biz friends.

Those pictures you have seen of the pair outside the great London store Harrods, his fashion statements from the hair cuts to the sarong, his flights to see Victoria; all these were calculated moves by one of the slickest public relations campaigns in history.

The newspapers accepted these tit-bits because their readership wanted such tittle tattle but knowing that one day they would have stories about the Beckhams that would send their circulations soaring even higher.

The News of the World is reputed to have put on half a million copies on the day they revealed Beckham's affair with one of his public relations girls so that now the pursuit of the Beckhams has intensified.

Every tiny move, every word, every gesture is analysed as if the future of the government were at stake rather than the tacky shop-a-lot lives of two ordinary people made famous by their physical skills.

Whatever Beckham's future is in Madrid, his England place is assured and in the next two months that could restore his good name.

Beckham with his pop star wife, Victoria. They have to do a lot of rethinking on their relationship. — Pic. STEVE FINN/GETTY IMAGES-

He leads a side without Rio Ferdinand, who is banned for a drugs offence, Gareth Southgate and Jonathon Woodgate, who are injured, into Euro 2004 in Portugal. They ought to be favourites but without these star defenders they may find the rampaging European forwards too hot to handle.

It needs a touch of Beckham magic to overcome this handicap and it appears that his wife is seeking a way to provide the answers.

She has recently begun to wear a simple red string bangle, the symbol of the Kabbalah cult although whether that is fashion or religion remains a mystery. The bangle is supposed to ward off evil spirits and has already been adopted by such intellectual giants as Madonna, Demi Moore, Britney Spears and Sarah Jessica Parker.

The cult also follows a 23-volume bible known as the Zorah which seeks to answer such questions as: Where did we come from? Who are we? Why are we on this earth?

In Beckham's life there are more important questions led by: Where are we going next? and Why on earth is my career not working out the way I want?

He can console himself with his half dozen expensive cars while he surveys the finely manicured lawns of his lovely homes and checks through his growing bank account.

But greatness on the football field? That dream seems to be finished.