Red Englishman

N. U. ABILASH

NOT too long ago, David Beckham used to say that red was the colour he loved the most. The faithful who then used to assemble in Old Trafford on Saturday evenings had only one chant on their lips even as the world's best right-sided midfielder created chance after chance for his central players with his radar-guided right-footed crosses and long-range passes: "There is only one David Beckham." Ironically, in the two-and-a-half years that he has stopped wearing the Manchester United red, the colour has come back to haunt the England captain. The red-card count — including the one earlier this month in Real Madrid's narrow home win against La Liga side Getafe — is five, of which one was in an England shirt during the World Cup Qualifier against Austria in Old Trafford, a ground where he has never been sent off in the seven years he had been a Manchester United regular.

The world has certainly not come crashing on England captain David Beckham during the last 18 months which has seen all the five red cards — his national team booked a berth to Germany after being in the doldrums for a while and the team celebrated that achievement with a win against rivals Argentina in a friendly in Geneva; he has asked for a new contract with club Real Madrid which will keep him there till 2009 and which will make him the world's highest paid footballer by a country mile thanks to astronomical image rights.

But, ironically, the image — that carefully constructed PR and marketing drive begun during the Manchester United days and continued till date — of the one man harmoniously uniting many parts has come crashing down. His admirers have realised that the many parts — consistent workaholic footballer, responsible captain, dutiful husband and father, style icon, fashion trend-setter, West End glitterati, brand ambassador — are as mutually reconcilable as the political positions of Saddam Hussein and George Bush. (For instance, Beckham's reward for being the `cosmopolitan' caring husband and father in 2000 was getting a huge chunk of manager Alex Ferguson's mind — their relationship progressively deteriorated in the next three years leading to the `flying boot' incident in 2003. For the first time in nine years, Beckham had missed training for reasons other than injury because he had to be beside son Brooklyn, who was in hospital in London a few days before Manchester United's Premiership match against Leeds United.) Perhaps more significant is that reality has dawned on Beckham that he has been caught in a wild goose chase, puppeteered by top-notch PR firms and celebrity management agencies. After the spate of red cards — some harsh such as the one in the Austria match and the eventually-rescinded one against Valencia in October — and penalty misses — the most significant being the miss in the Euro 2004 tie-breaker against Portugal — the superstar footballer recently acknowledged while opening his football academy in London that "it has always been tough to live up to the expectations of people. I went through a bad phase in my personal life, which rubbed off on the football as well. I am wiser now and I can concentrate on the tasks ahead, winning the La Liga with Real and the World Cup with England."

The key word here is `went'. Beckham and wife `Posh Spice' Victoria — who has relocated to Madrid with children after reports in the spring of 2004 in British tabloids of Beckham's affair with former secretary Rebecca Loos — state that the only worry for them now is the continued illness of their second son, three-year-old Romeo, who has been in and out of Madrid and London hospitals during the last few weeks suffering from convulsions.

However, a former nanny of the couple's children sold her story to British tabloid News of the World this April in which she said that the couple's marriage has been on the rocks after l'affaire Loos and that the couple are together only because of commercial considerations — the Times Rich List of 2004 put their combined worth at �65m and a recent rich list published by football magazine Four Four Two put Beckham's worth alone at �75m. The Beckhams had challenged the legality of the tabloid publishing the story in the London High Court on the basis that the former nanny had signed a confidentiality clause in her contract. However, the Court ruled that the tabloid is free to publish the story because it is "of public interest" — the man in question is, after all, the England captain.

In the middle of all this, 30-year-old Beckham has come up with superb performances on the field for both England and Real Madrid. In England's 3-2 win against Argentina in the November friendly in Geneva, he was `Mr Legs' once more, the man who was chasing down everything everywhere and giving those superb long balls and passes to Owen and Rooney upfront and keeping Lampard and Gerrard busy with his passing. This performance, in his 50th match as England captain, was reminiscent of his display in the crucial World Cup Qualifier against Greece in Old Trafford in 2001, a game which is remembered more for his incredible 30-yard strike off a free kick deep in injury time. During the whole of this September and October, he was in incandescent form for Real Madrid on the right, which made teammate Roberto Carlos state he wished the English superstar had been Brazilian.

George Best may have pointed out that Beckham is far from being the complete footballer. Beckham's virtues as a footballer lie in role-playing to perfection and in rigid positional play. Beckham, unlike the free-spirited Best, has only sought to add to his basket of responsibilities, whether it is on or off the field. His recent experiments in the holding central midfielder's position with both club and country — reasonably successful for Real and a complete failure for England — exemplifies this commitment. So does the disposition of the Englishman to travel solitarily after the match to work on a troubled marriage.

Not unexpectedly, the deeply masculine and conservative football establishment has lashed out at what they deem to be Beckham's `emasculation' at the hands of a `dominating' wife. There have been reports that spoilt brat Wayne Rooney was not alone in detesting his captain's lifestyle and the endorsement of it by manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and the FA. Academic Andrew Parker wrote that for all his consumerist sheen, Beckham has been an exception to the social rules of the football community, which is a throwback to Victorian working class and public school masculinities in the matter of gender role-playing in the family. (In spite of the homophobia of the English football community, Beckham welcomed the decision of the gay community in Britain to elect him the gay icon of 2004.)

Perhaps, Beckham's red cards are the results of frustration born out of the realisation that time cannot be equitably divided between professional responsibilities and family commitments. David Beckham better watch out, though, for it is almost World Cup time yet again and the 1998 ghosts of St. Etienne and Diego Simeone have begun to take human form.