Offside, 29 November

Burchill on Beckham is entertaining, but so wrong.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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‘What does Julie Burchill know about David Beckham – she hasn’t even seen him play?’ That was how the footballing world generally greeted Burchill’s latest cultural treatise, Burchill on Beckham (1).

Their protests bring to mind CLR James’ dictum, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’. Ever since Gazza’s tears flowed that fateful night in Turin 11 years ago, football has acquired an inflated cultural significance that is nowhere better illustrated than in the nouveau-royal status accorded to Posh and Becks. Football-hating Burchill is therefore quite entitled to treat the Beckhams as a ‘pair of beautiful social barometers’ and a ‘spotlight turned on to the poisons of others’.

But entertaining as Burchill’s dissection of Beckham-as-cultural-icon is, she simply gets it wrong.

Consider this for starters. Why do Beckham’s opposing fans chant ‘Posh Spice takes it up the arse’? According to Burchill, it is ‘largely to do with the homoerotic desire of the fans’, who ‘dream of taking it exactly that way from the beautiful Mr Beckham’. Ah, that explains it. In the Burchillian imagination the terraces are populated by a ‘geek chorus’ of repressed homosexuals who ‘go home with hard-ons’.

What was that she said about ‘the poisons of others’? This cod-psychology illuminates nothing except Burchill’s own prejudices about male football fans. Burchill eulogises the hard-working men of the prelapsarian, respectable working-class, as personified by her father, but she loathes their ‘misogynist’ post-industrial descendants. In her diatribes against ‘underclass’ football fans Burchill sounds more Home Office minister than cultural iconoclast.

Ironically, Burchill on Beckham was published weeks after one glorious free kick against Greece transformed Becks from hate figure to national hero. Down at the Pleasant Pheasant pub in South Norwood the same drinkers who had famously strung-up a sarong-clad effigy of Beckham three years ago were now chanting his name. Perhaps their conversion represents some kind of mass coming-out. Wizard of Oz songs at half-time, anyone?

In truth, the reason Beckham was singled out for abuse long before his red card against Argentina was that he played for Britain’s must-hate team – Manchester United. As Carlton Brick points out in the recently published book, Fear and Loathing in World Football, Beckham has simply inherited the role of pantomime villain from Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Paul Ince before him (2). The taunts about Posh were just a variation on the theme of the ubiquitous ‘Stand-up if you hate Man U’ chant. It’s a United thing, not a homo thing.

Why can’t Burchill see this? Probably because she has much in common with the Anyone But United (ABU) brigade who believe Mammon United has betrayed football’s traditions (small boys, wooden rattles, soggy pies – that sort of thing). Despite Burchill’s insistence that ‘socialists’ like her do not envy Beckham’s wealth, much of what she says nonetheless chimes with the anti-commercial orthodoxy of ABU. To her, football has lost ‘the manly love-of-the-game purity that we mope over in those old sepia photographs’ and is now just a ‘Met Bar millionaire’s lark’.

Burchill assumes that David Beckham’s family must have supported Manchester United in the 1960s because then ‘it was against everything poncey, flash and sell-out Southerney – ie, against everything Manchester United is today’. Well, actually, no. To Cockney Reds the United of Best, Law and Charlton represented glamour, aspiration, excellence and a break with parochialism – in other words, everything United is today, except that society’s attitudes to such things has changed.

Today, supporters who eschew their local team (ie, losers) for Manchester United (ie, winners) are dismissed as not being genuine fans. If Julie Burchill liked football, whom would she support? Not United, I’d bet, but a bunch of small-town nobodies unsullied by money or success…like Brighton.

Read on:

spiked-issues: Sport

(1) Julie Burchill, Burchill on Beckham, Yellow Jersey Press, 2001. Buy this book at Amazon (UK)

(2) ‘Can’t live with them, can’t live without them. Reflections on Manchester United’, by Carlton Brick, is published in the anthology Fear and Loathing in World Football, eds Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti, Berg, June 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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