David Beckham belongs to everybody and nobody


There he is, sitting in the back of a car. The camera bulbs are flaring. That Hollywood grin spreads across his face, soon to be plastered all over tomorrow's newspapers. Again. The car pulls away and David Beckham sits back, chuckles to himself, and thinks... what, exactly?

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In the world of celebrity, a general rule applies: the more you see someone, the less you know them. Every photo opportunity and every press conference paints another layer of abstraction - and obstruction - onto what started off as a person. Football players, like film stars and musicians and Big Brother contestants, are commodified to within an inch of their lives, until the actual essence of those lives are barely even perceptible. What do we actually know about David Beckham's inner landscape?

Once upon a time, Beckham was a teenager with a gentle personality that came across in the kinds of innocent, shoved-together documentaries that only really existed on VHS. His floppy hair and boyish looks meant that he was the ideal antidote to the celebrity vacuum that had begun to take hold of English football after the frenzy around Eric Cantona and Liverpool's 'Spice Boys' had begun to die away. From that moment on, David Beckham was David Beckham™ - a vessel into which ad men, stylists and PR professionals could pour the lukewarm product of their brainstorms and mind maps and focus groups.

Some will argue, of course, that Beckham entered into this devil's covenant with his eyes open; that this wasn't the only path available to him; that countless players - including his one-time mucker Paul Scholes - eschewed superstardom in favour of privacy. There is a certain amount of truth to this: the things that have happened to David Beckham don't just happen without some level of complicity. But, unlike Scholes for instance, Beckham's radiance meant that celebrity was always going to embrace him - as long as his footballing ability was vaguely up to scratch. Besides, these things snowball. A Brylcreem advert leads to a pop star wife, which leads to Bend It Like Beckham, and before you know it, by God, there's a range of underwear with your name on it.

One of the few good things that can be said about the world of celebrity is that it is, in a twisted way, democratic. These days, David Beckham is more of a public good than he is a football player. He's someone everyone can get behind, regardless of their allegiances. Liking David Beckham doesn't even require one to like football; he transcends sport in a way that few have managed over the last century. David Beckham belongs to everyone. He's England's David Beckham, the world's David Beckham, our David Beckham. We saw this illustrated on transfer deadline day: news of Beckham's move to Paris Saint-Germain was met with the kind of collective goodwill usually reserved for royal weddings and other such fripperies.

His career path has helped: since a fight with Sir Alex Ferguson spelt the end of his time at Manchester United, Beckham has become something of a nomad. He jets into glamourous cities (Madrid! Milan! LA! Paris!), charms the local press (if only eventually... hi, America!), scores a few free-kicks and moves on before the relationship can sour or get too serious. By design or by chance, he has never stayed long enough anywhere to make enemies.

But that sword has a second edge. In specialising in itinerancy, he has ensured that this career has been defined by a lack of emotional connection. Everybody likes David Beckham, but how football fans really love him? This is in keeping, of course, with his status as commodity. As an image, as a billboard, as a million dollar smile, David Beckham belongs to everyone. But Beckham the man resides in some gold-plated limbo, just out of our grasp.

What does Beckham think after the camera bulbs stop flaring? Nobody has the faintest idea.


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