Offside, 18 April
The anatomy of the furore about That Foot.
You wait months for a shared national experience, and then two come along at the same time.
The day after the Queen Mother had been delivered to the ground the nation was rocked by news of David Beckham’s broken foot. At every watercooler, in every workplace, in every city across the land, amateur orthopaedic surgeons feverishly debated the finer points of metatarsal injuries.
The UK prime minister issued a statement saying that ‘nothing was more important to England’s arrangements for the World Cup than the state of David Beckham’s foot’. ‘Beck us pray’, implored the Sun, urging its readers to lay their hands on a picture of That Foot and ‘make it better’ (1).
The sheer quantity of column inches devoted to one man’s foot illustrates that the national football team is one of few genuinely popular institutions in this country – paradoxically so, given its track record of heroic failures.
But the significance of the injury is not confined to Britain. After all, this is no ordinary footballer but Sir David of Beckingham Palace: football star, global pin-up, and nouveau-royal. Thanks to a combination of his football skills, good looks, and celebrity marriage to Posh Spice, Beckham has acquired an iconic status unrivalled by any other footballer in the world.
Figo, Rivaldo, and Zidane might be better players, but Beckham’s name is more likely to adorn the replica shirts of teenagers everywhere from Tokyo to Tibet. ‘England are my favourite team because of Beckham. It would be terrible if he can’t come to Japan’, said Japanese student Saori Iida. I wonder if the World Cup venues will be teeming with Hackett-clad Japanese teenagers singing England fans’ old favourite, ‘No surrender to IRA’.
Last week I predicted that Pedro Duscher, the Argentine defender whose flying studs did the damage, could expect vilification worthy of a war criminal (see Offside, 11 April). Admittedly, as predictions go, this didn’t require tremendous powers of foresight. Nonetheless, Osama bin Duscher seemed taken aback when he was hounded by the English press-pack.
Ironically, the initial reaction to Duscher’s tackle had been far from hysterical. ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley called it a ‘good challenge’; a phrase he may well live to regret. Sir Alex Ferguson, too, refused to condemn Duscher, saying ‘The game of football is about tackles and I think the player maybe had to go for it’.
But as soon as the extent of Beckham’s injury became known, the tackle was reinterpreted as an evil Argie plot to nobble the England skipper. Beckham’s father described the tackle as ‘diabolical’, while the tabloids branded Duscher a ‘soccer savage’ and the ‘laughing assassin’. At first, ‘Dirty’ Duscher was unapologetic. ‘Football is a man’s game. I’ve nothing to be sorry for’, insisted the man with the girlie ponytail.
But after a taskforce of English tabloid hacks had been dispatched to his home, Duscher soon changed his tune and apologised to Beckham. ‘I was chased by them and they gave me the impression I had done something terrible’, whimpered the now contrite Duscher. ‘It’s very hard when all of the press of one country is attacking you.’ Gotcha!
Are we guilty of heaping too much expectation upon David Beckham? The Independent‘s Deborah Orr thinks so: ‘Just by being present in Japan and South Korea, Beckham was expected to make the England team invincible, without even kicking a ball’ (2).
But while such delusions characterise the absurd media reaction to Beckham’s injury, how many football fans seriously believe England can win the World Cup? I haven’t met anyone who does – well, no sane person anyway. We don’t expect Becks to lift the trophy, but England does have a team capable of reaching the quarter-finals, at least. The loss of Beckham would deal a severe blow to even these modest ambitions.
David Beckham is not a magician, but he is a world-class player, unlike most of his England team-mates.
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