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Wednesday, January 14, 2009
A guarded welcome for the "Spice Boy"

Roberto Gotta

Italy did not let itself down in welcoming David Beckham to its desolate, cold shores. All the expected cliches, silliness, frivolous analysis and a badly disguised sense of disdain, oddly coupled with unabated praise, filtered easily from the pages of newsapapers and TV shows. However, one can hardly believe the mainstream media's view of a subject coincides with the general public's. Beckham's arrival was that of a nemesis, in some sense. He had never been highly rated as a footballer here, in fact the general view had always been he's got a great right foot but lacks pace and could not dribble his way out of a phone box if the door was open. And his arrival in Milan had actually been deemed certain for years, what with the many times his wife was allegedly seen house-hunting in town (not true) or looking for a fat contract with Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset TV empire (not true, either), where, obviously, she could put her perfectly accented Italian to good use at last. Few members of the media actually took the trouble to delve a little deeper into his contribution to England, Manchester United, Real Madrid and, of late, the Los Angeles Galaxy. The very image Beckham helped conjure with his off-the-field activities enveloped the real footballer in the eyes of most of the media and made him almost invisible to those who judge books by their cover and do not get down to the chore of actually watching matches. The whole Madrid experiment had been branded a simple marketing operation geared towards selling No.23 shirts all over the world - mission accomplished, apparently - and the Beckhams had become fair game for those in the Italian media who have a tendency to find, highlight and condemn faults in people who are not part of their everyday routine, finding comfort in the fact they would not get to read what was written about them. One recent example of this double standard was the marriage of an Italian boxer - Clemente Russo - who won a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. His wedding, judging from pictures, was a testament to bad taste, from the wedding suit and dress all the way down to the walking stick encrusted with diamonds the groom used as a fashion accessory on the way to the altar. Yet the same media who has bombarded us with every little slip towards bad taste by the Beckhams have had had apparently no wisecracks to make about the appalling, nouveaux-riche crassness of their boxer's big day. Perhaps because this guy, one of sport's heroes in the past year, might cross their path one day, unlike those British footballers whose loutish behaviour is constantly highlighted while compromising pics of Italian players, whenever they come up, are more likely to be sold to clubs who destroy them rather than to newspapers. In fact, so complete has the "Beckhams=bad taste" equation become in many quarters that a reader's letter printed in a newspaper went as far as to suggest the Beckham's penchant for overdoing it might have influenced the boxer's wedding, as if in this country - foreigners with a rose-tinted view of Italy better look away now - we didn't often come across or have the misfortune of being invited to crass, vulgar, minimally tasted weddings where only the lack of money prevents the happy couple plunging to the depths of the above boxer and bride. Known in Italy as "Spice Boy", a nickname that to the best of my knowledge has never been used back in his native country but is repeated so frequently here people just assume it originated from England, Beckham has been seen as past his prime far longer here than has actually been the case. Being a member of Real Madrid's Galactico squad, he was sometimes bunched together in judgment with all other components of that experiment. When he was briefly left out of the squad by Fabio Capello his banishment gained many more headlines and comments than his subsequent reintroduction to the first team squad, with Capello eventually admitting he'd made a mistake in treating Becks like that. So it was with a lot of baggage - no pun intended - that the Beckhams landed in Italy, but it was immediately clear some in the media were immediately anxious to distance themselves from previous criticism and accept Milan had perhaps pulled off a major coup in luring the former England captain to Serie A. Well, some. Most were still wondering why Milan needed to bring in another ageing midfielder instead of securing a couple of central defenders to steady up a unit that has again suffered from sheer lack of quality, or even a lack of youth. Beckham is seen as another addition to the Panini sticker collection of players Milan carry around Europe which place commercial or propaganda-driven reasons, shirt-selling and headlinge-grabbing as the main goals while, on the field the Rossoneri slip further behind Inter and Juventus. It could just all be true. Perhaps afraid of getting this totally wrong, some in the media began scaling down their scepticism and thinking positively about Beckham, but it was still stomach-churning to see a plethora of stories constantly remarking, through the reporters' or a Milan player's very words, how professional, dedicated, hard-working and down-to-earth the midfielder had been in training in Dubai. It was the media, not Milan or any previous team-mate, who had helped create and spread the image of a player who was more into fashion and catwalks than training, so where's the surprise to see Beckham actually wearing Milan's training kit and not some designer tracksuit? Thus, a schizophrenic attitude raged among the media and the general public ahead of last Sunday's match at Roma. On one hand, there had been a consistent rehabilitation campaign telling us Beckham was not a washed-up player seeking the last crumbs of glory and spotlight while trying to convince Capello he'd still be worth a cap or two. On the other hand, the sceptical kept insisting Milan were just trying to keep their name in lights during a rare UEFA Cup season and had found the perfect match in someone who would relish the opportunity for a last (or next to last, if you listen to the Galaxy) hurrah while adding a glamorous name to his CV. Typically, Victoria Beckham's visit to the Colosseum made front page news in Rome-based newspapers on the morning of the match, but these are perhaps the same media outlets who may then turn around and accuse David and Victoria of looking for any way to grab a headline. After all, it's them who put a lady's stroll to a national monument (plus details inside on the bag she was carrying) on page 1 instead of more serious news. On one side of the fence, Beckham's surprising start at Roma was considered further proof that he's become just another midfielder with a tendency to give the ball away plus a knack of jumping of Pato's shoulders when the Brazilian scored in order to make sure his picture was in the papers the next day. Or, on the other, it was an example of mature passing, awareness of teammates and tactical acumen in not trying to force any issue while settling into a new side. Whatever your opinion, whether you're among those in Rome who booed his introduction or those at the San Siro who only gave him a round of polite applause before the Udinese match, or among those who still get the shivers watching him execute one of his trademark free kicks (if he gets to the front of the line of Pirlo, Seedorf, Ronaldinho, Kaka, of course) and look more complete, albeit slower, than he's ever been, one thing remains true: Beckham's arrival has lit up the Serie A. Which is exactly what Milan and Serie A itself wanted. Josť Mourinho apparently is not quite big enough for us.

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