Beckham saga a British soap opera

June 12, 2003
By Steve Wilstein

If Prince Charles were sold to Spain for close to $50 million there might be less uproar in England than there is over the proposed sale of soccer megastar David Beckham.

Beckham is the face and, with his frequent changes, the hairstyle of English soccer.

He means as much to Manchester United as Derek Jeter does to the New York Yankees.

He means more to England than any athlete in a team sport does to the United States.

He is a large part of the identity of soccer worldwide, even more so lately with the surprisingly successful movie ``Bend It Like Beckham,'' about an immigrant Indian girl trying to curl a free kick the way he does around a wall of defenders.

Captain of England's national team and husband of pop star Posh Spice (Victoria Adams), the 28-year-old Beckham makes front-page news whether he plays or sits, goes shopping or gets a new haircut. Sarongs and mohawks make this man, and he remakes himself when the mood suits.

The thought of Manchester United dealing him off to Barcelona, Real Madrid or one of the two Italian soccer giants in Milan for a nearly $50 million transfer fee has set off a national outburst of harrumphing and caterwauling.

Fans call him an invaluable treasure, detractors claim he's more glitz than talent, but most everyone resents the unsavory manner in which the deal is being done.

Beckham, himself, vacationing with his family in California and testing future life as a celebrity on this side of the pond, has said through his agent that he feels like a ``political pawn'' in Joan Laporta's bid Sunday for the Barcelona club presidency. The players' union head of English soccer put it a different way, saying Beckham is being treated like a ``secondhand car.''

From the pubs to the famously overwrought headlines of the tabloids, Beckham's possible send-off, whispered about for months, is playing out as a soap opera of royal proportions with nasty undertones.

There is the intrigue of his alleged rift with coach Alex Ferguson, stories of jealousies over Beckham's fame, intimations that his defense is too soft, that his best days are behind him and that the team might somehow be better without his impeccable crosses.

The photo keeps popping up of Beckham after the ``flying boot'' affair in February, when Ferguson reacted angrily to a loss and kicked a soccer boot in the locker room that accidentally cut Beckham over the left eye.

Loyalty is a much-prized virtue in sports, but it doesn't seem to count for much on either side of the Atlantic when there is money to be made. Manchester United, which has a four-game tour this summer in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, didn't get to be soccer's wealthiest team by putting sentimentality ahead of a good deal.

Just as American teams routinely trade away stars when the price and time are right, Manchester United is prepared to part ways with a player it nurtured then featured as a midfielder for nearly 13 years. In that span, Beckham helped Manchester United win six of its eight league titles in 11 years and the European Champions Cup in 1999.

Once, a player even of Beckham's stature would have had no choice but to go where his club dealt him. But athletes have clout these days, in England as in the United States, and the business-savvy Beckham can shape this deal just as he shapes a shot.

A pop culture icon who makes $12 million to $18 million a year, Beckham has suggested through his management group that he will reject the deal with Barcelona, which also is contingent on Laporta's election. But that doesn't mean Beckham won't try to push a different deal that might bring him more money and more success with Real Madrid.

Or, to Manchester United's consternation, he could refuse to bend at all and stay with the team until his contract is up in two years, even if that means sitting on the bench and in Ferguson's doghouse. That strategy, ugly as it might be for him and the team, could put Beckham in the position of shopping himself around as a free agent and leave Manchester United with little but regret for humiliating him.

And that's what this deal may come down to: Beckham trying to take control after feeling jilted by his club. Madrid can offer him a team already loaded with stars, while either Milan team can give him and his wife a boost in the world of fashion.

Beckham was burned in effigy by some fans when England lost to Argentina in the 1998 World Cup after he was sent off for kicking an opponent. He was embraced by nearly all fans when he became captain of England and led the team in last year's World Cup. He's enjoyed all the highs and lows a player can feel, and now is the time for him to look to one final chapter in the game and the kind of life that fits him afterward.

Barcelona? Madrid? Milan? How about a house in Hollywood?

Pele once took his game to America. Maybe Beckham will, too.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press