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The downside of Becks’ 100th cap

Dragging ‘the Messiah’ out of semi-retirement to play his hundredth game for England only showed that the team lacks creativity and wit.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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The best thing about England’s 1-0 defeat against France? England fans refusing to join in the Mexican wave. Good on them. Shame about the football though.

The game was dull or so I’ve been told. I missed the first half and could only stomach about 15 minutes of the second before I lost interest and went to get something to eat. In fact, I was thoroughly bored long before kick off. Why? Because the pre-match build up was All About Beckham. Would he get his 100th cap or wouldn’t he? Would he start the game? Would he lead the team out? Jesus wept, what’s wrong with this country?

Anyone who understands football realised a long time ago that he wasn’t the Messiah. Yet the nation is still obsessed with Beckham. Why? Simon Barnes tried to answer this riddle in The Times (London) last week. ‘He is a prat of the first water, a self-publicist who does things calculated to alienate his core audience, a leader who loved the title of leader more than the practice of leadership, and, at base, a man who was unable to take England beyond a certain level because of a sense of vertigo: because, when it really counted, he consistently suffered from a failure of nerve.’ And yet, as Barnes observes, ‘Beckham has his place in national affections and it is not to be shifted’ (1).

Barnes’ explanation is twofold. First, we admire his decency and honesty. Think Ricky Butcher, the loveable simpleton from EastEnders. Secondly, we’re suckers for the Beckham story. He fell from grace after his red card against Argentina in 1998 but achieved redemption with That Free Kick against Greece in 2001. As Barnes explains: ‘In Beckham’s fall and his rising again, we all see something of ourselves, for we all know hardship and all would love to rise above it with such courage, in such triumph: we, too, would have run at the photographers, arms extended, to tell the world: you can’t bloody well destroy me.’

In other words, Becks is like a comic book hero, the protagonist of countless cheesy feelgood American sports movies. You know the type: the boxer from the wrong side of the tracks who overcomes adversity to win the title. He gets knocked down but he gets up again. He’s not the Messiah but Beckham’s story has a strongly Biblical flavour. As the cultural theorist Carlton Brick has observed: ‘Beckham the brand is all about salvation, redemption, even resurrection.’

Now, I would agree that there’s a lot to admire about Beckham’s professionalism. He didn’t wilt when the boo-boys were on his back after 1998. He got on with his job and won them over. He didn’t complain about being frozen out by Fabio Capello at Real Madrid and by Steve McClaren for England. He worked hard in training and won back his place. I like his mental resilience, his bloody-minded refusal to be written off.

But I don’t think that it’s Beckham’s bouncebackability alone that explains our national obsession with him. I think there are two factors at work here. Firstly, Becks isn’t just a footballer, he is a celebrity. An A-list, über-celebrity in fact. And Britain is hooked on celebrity culture. And, as we know, you don’t actually have to achieve anything notable to acquire celebrity status. Admittedly, a century of caps for England is nothing to be sniffed at. He’s no dizzy-headed, do-nothing professional celeb like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson.

But, in general, Becks is idolised by people who don’t really know anything about football. His appeal to women and gay men has little to do with his Opta stats and everything to do with his popstar wife and showbiz lifestyle – not to mention the homoerotic photo shoots. Beckham’s celebrity status is not dependent on his performances on the pitch so, sadly, for those of us who have no interest in his haircuts, his clothes or his very public private life (the distinction is pretty blurred these days), Beckham the celebrity will continue to give good copy.

The second reason that Beckham still dominates the sports pages is that, as far as the England national team is concerned, there’s precious little else to shout about. It’s not because of what Beckham has but what England lack: wit and creativity. We run out of ideas all too easily so we fall back time and again on Beckham’s set pieces. He should have been put out to pasture long ago but his putative successors – Aaron Lennon, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and David Bentley – have yet to convince us that they are international footballers. Steven Gerrard is rarely the dominant buccaneering figure that he is for Liverpool. Frank Lampard has become a convenient scapegoat for the collective failings of the team. Wayne Rooney’s performances at Euro 2004 briefly led us to believe that he was the new Messiah. But his brittle temperament and even more brittle toes have impeded his international career. Rooney may well make his mark on the big stage but, at present, that’s more likely to be in a Manchester United jersey than an England one.

The most depressing thing about watching England is not the absence of a soccer genius. Players like Maradona, Cruyff, Zidane or Best are historical freaks. You might encounter one or two of them in any epoch. Most international teams have to make do without a Messiah. All the best teams have their creative players, their playmakers – but more importantly, they can play as a team. And that what’s depressing about England. The players simply don’t perform as a cohesive unit. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. There’s nothing more dispiriting than watching the cream of English football’s persistent inability to keep possession of the ball. And it’s this collective failure that leads us to confer Messiah status on to every half-decent English footballer.

I’m counting on Capello to turn things round. If anyone can he’s the man – though if he fails then we really are buggered. And if Capello is able to transform a collection of mortals into a proper football team, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll cease our futile quest for a football Messiah.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) David Beckham is a poser, self-publicist and first-rate prat. So why do we still love him?, The Times (London), 28 March 2008

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