Beckham, master of the soft-sell


LONDON: The David and Victoria Beckham phenomenon, having left Hollywood somewhat underwhelmed, touched down at Narita Airport in Tokyo on Wednesday to the tumult of a thousand shrieking girls, fans of the soccer player. 

The night before, at the end of a two-day stopover in Britain between the couple's Eastern and Western promotional tours, David Beckham agreed to a deal that moves him from Manchester United to Real Madrid for a transfer fee of E35 million (US$41 million). 

That trade is subject to two conditions: First, that Beckham passes a head-to-toe medical examination in Madrid on July 1, and, second, that bank guarantees are in place for the money that Real will pay United in instalments, part of which will be performance-related. 

He may not be among the top 10 football talents in the world, but the commercial imperative outweighing Beckham's limited but eye-catching sporting ability has already begun. Real Madrid, which already boasts a collection of individual all-stars, wooed Beckham because of his unique marketing appeal – especially in Asia. 

Beckham is the face, the figure and the fashion icon who can sell a brand to Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thais and Vietnamese like no other. 

The Beckhams, Britain's alternative Royal Family, are worth US$80 million in their joint bank accounts. They are the couple of dreams. He captains England and scores by bending free kicks through the air in a manner that was once thought unique to Brazilians. She was “Posh Spice” in a female group that briefly dominated pop music. 

They married, had a son, Brooklyn, and a second boy, Romeo, and as far as anyone can tell, have lived happily ever after. 

Though he takes his fame with the laid-back nonchalance of a Robert Redford, Beckham goes along with his wife's insatiable desire for publicity. They have turned their fame into a fortune few couples from working-class backgrounds have ever experienced. 

What Real Madrid are buying into is not simply Beckham's quality to deliver a goal from a free kick almost as if he guides it by radar. Indeed there is a pecking order at the club for such kicks - starting with Roberto Carlos, a Brazilian, and progressing through Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Fernando Hierro. Yet in that singular skill, most people would take Beckham ahead of all of them. 

However, he has to be integrated into this cosmopolitan team of stars, and to earn his place in the best collection of attacking players assembled in the modern game. Two things Real says he cannot have are the No. 7 shirt, which is worn by Raul Gonzalez, the Madrid-born leader of the attack, and the right-wing position he occupied for a full decade at Manchester United - that is the preserve of the Portuguese winger Figo. Last March, long before Madrid was supposed to be interested in signing Beckham, the Real coach, Vicente del Bosque, mused that the club would find a place for Beckham “somewhere” on the field. That place is thought to be on the left side of central midfield, alongside Claude Makelele and Zidane. 

Beckham, for all the imagery around him, will match any player when it comes to team spirit and the work ethic. He does not want and will not look for the weirdly separate treatment he has had lately from England's national squad – booked into a villa rather than the five-star hotel with the rest of the players, flying first class while his teammates travel club. 

Those perks were explained away by England's football association as essential to the protection and privacy of the star player, especially when his wife and children accompany him to training camp or on tour. 

Sven Goran Eriksson, the Swede who coaches England, is happy to accommodate his captain this way. Sir Alex Ferguson, the Scot who has managed Beckham and brought him through from schoolboy to soccer star, is not. 

Indeed, the speculation is that Ferguson got rid of Beckham because the manager, who began his working life as a shipyard apprentice in Glasgow, can no longer stand the fame game pursued by the Beckhams. 

There is a grain of truth in this.  

Ferguson, 61, believes a sportsman should build his life around playing and resting his body to play. The summer of 2003, in which the Beckhams spent three weeks trying to relaunch her career in films or music, followed by this 10-day dash across Asia selling chocolate, beauty clinics, mobile phones and motor oil, is anathema to the Ferguson credo. 

Ferguson is not averse to branching out himself. He has a share in a thoroughbred racehorse that nets him upward of E6 million – the basic annual salary Beckham will get from Madrid – now that the horse is at stud. 

Beckham, 28, makes his role as England captain his priority and Ferguson has concluded that Beckham has passed the peak of his usefulness to Manchester United. Thus selling him for such a fee must seem like good business. 

Ferguson works for a company listed on the Stock Exchange. He wants to buy Ronaldinho, the galvanic Brazilian whose days at Paris Saint-Germain are almost over. And the Manchester United PLC board tells the manager you must sell before you can buy. 

For Madrid, buying is the preserve of the president, Florentino Perez, a building contractor by trade.  

The president came to power at Real by promising the members that he would buy the greatest players on earth. He took Figo from Barcelona in the first year of his presidency. He added Zidane from Juventus the following year and Ronaldo from Inter Milan in year three. Now he has Beckham. 

Perez has a mission to globalize the Real Madrid brand. He started well behind Manchester United, who are the clear leaders in this business of maximising company profits by selling replica shirts and a thousand other branded objects to Asians, and some day soon to the relatively untapped markets in the Americas. 

But United have reached the point where their image – and that of the sponsors who pay tens of millions of pounds to United – is almost in conflict with the Beckham icon in the East. 

Real Madrid, who cut a 50-50 deal with their stars on image marketing rights, want to break into United's sales abroad. 

In a world where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy was obliged during political talks in Jerusalem to answer a question about whether his club, AC Milan, would bid US$40 million for Beckham, everyone needs to regain some perspective. 

That came the other day in a survey by The Straits Times in Singapore, where United launched their first and biggest megastore. Levinia Cher, an 11-year-old whose bedroom is lined with Beckham posters, was asked if she was forced to choose between the player and Manchester United, which would it be?  

“The club,” she said. “I like him because he has style, but he's not the best of players.” – IHT 

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