David Beckham and the Deathly Hallows

With Beckham and Harry Potter both being in the news at the moment, I started seeing them as a parallel pair: you can identify lots of sound reasons why Becks is a big star and the Harry Potter books have sold so many copies, but in both cases you’re left with a sense that their actual level of success is out of proportion.

Becks with a Harry Potter scar

If anything it’s easier to see why David Beckham is a star: he was a key member of the most successful incarnation of the most popular team in world sport; he started going out with, and duly married, a member of one of the most successful British pop groups of all time when they were at their peak; he’s incredibly good-looking, and not just by footballer standards; he played a key role in some of the most memorable moments for the England football team; and his whole metrosexual, homoerotic image seemed genuinely radical in the blokey, working-class context of British football. And he seems like a nice man.

And yet… how did all that amount to him becoming a global superstar, without him, for example, winning the World Cup? Having lived through the whole period of his rise to prominence, I know that, in a British context, it all seemed to make sense at the time. But did the sarong really make a big impact in Tehran? Were the Spice Girls such a big deal in Shanghai? I remember reading about a journalist who went to do a story about would-be suicide bombers in Palestine. While he was interviewing them, someone came in with the football results. “Manchester United won!” (much cheering) “and Beckham scored!” (even more cheering, and cries of Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!). Why him, and not Ryan Giggs, or Michael Owen, or any of his other talented contemporaries? Raul? Batistuta? Figo?

The same can be said about the Harry Potter books (and indeed the Spice Girls). You can easily find reasons why they’re popular: they combine a sense of teen alienation with an inventive magical world; boarding school stories are popular; the wordplay is entertaining. There are a lot of boxes being ticked. But why are they a complete publishing phenomenon? Presumably J.K. Rowling has no more idea than the rest of us. After two or three books, did she ever lie awake at night wondering whether she was going to suddenly lose her touch, and her fans would pick up the next volume, read a hundred pages and never quite feel the need to finish it?

It’s easy to dismiss it as being driven solely by ‘hype’. And there is clearly a snowball effect where the marketing people seize on a success and drive it forward by spending money on it. But if it was as easy as that, there would never be a blockbuster movie that flopped or an unsuccessful second album. LA Galaxy may well be about to discover that no amount of hype can magically persuade people to spend money on something that doesn’t interest them.

And I’m not saying that they are overrated, exactly. Beckham at his best is a very very good footballer; the books are an enjoyable read. But Beckham would have to be Pele, Puskas and Cruyff rolled into one to justify his profile, and the Harry Potter books have been so freakishly successful that it would be disproportionate for anything short of the second coming of Shakespeare. That’s not their fault. I just wonder how it happens. Some magic combination of ingredients? Mob hysteria? Blind luck?

Soccer in the US

All the coverage about the position of soccer in the US, and whether Beckham moving there will have any impact, had me thinking. If his new home ground is only half-full, he’ll still be playing in front of about 13,000 fans. It’s true, that’s not very many compared to the Bernabéu or Old Trafford, but it’s a good crowd for a match in the Rugby Union Premiership and a miraculous one for county cricket.

Average attendances for soccer in the US (the 5th most popular team sport) are significantly higher than those for rugby in the UK (the 2nd most popular team sport). In fact, according to this list of sports attendances on Wikipedia, the English rugby premiership draws the biggest audiences of any non-soccer league in Europe, and it still only has an average attendance of 10,271; not just less than Major League Soccer, but less than the National Lacrosse League in the US.

Perhaps ‘why don’t Americans like soccer?’ is the wrong question. More interestingly: why does Europe only manage to support one team sport as a megabusiness while North America supports three or four? Why is Europe a sporting monoculture?

Beckham going to LA

David Beckham’s decision to leave Real Madrid and move to LA Galaxy is effectively a kind of retirement; an acceptance that he’s not going to be part of an England team that wins a trophy and that this year is his last chance to be part of another Champion’s League winning team. I suspect that it’s those trophies he measures his career in; that deep down, all those Premiership and FA Cup winners’ medals are second best. That’s a testament to just how dominant that Manchester United team of the 90s was, but also to the real drive and ambition of Beckham. I guess that means that by his own standards, he’s a failure; but I tend to admire him for aiming high rather than blame him for falling short. If more England players held themselves to the same high standards and had the same kind of work ethic, we might have won something since 1966.

The Premiership has been less interesting in his absence; sport is, among other things, a form of entertainment, and it needs people who generate buzz. Of course the competition still has its stars — Jose Mourinho and Christiano Ronaldo spring to mind — but Becks was, for a period, not just a famous sportsman or a celebrity, but a genuinely glamorous old-school superstar. And however silly much of the attention ultimately was — the hairstyles, the homoerotic photoshoots, the diamonds, the clothes, the tattoos, the wedding — it was all harmless fun which added to the gaiety of life. There’s also the football. Perhaps some people got quickly bored by the sight of opposition defenders standing around disconsolately with their hands on their hips, having just seen a free kick flash past them into the corner of the goal. Personally I could watch it all day.

Perhaps in a year or two, when the dust has settled and England fans have had some time to realise that players who can produce match-winning moments of brilliance aren’t easy to find, we’ll have less of the crap about Beckham being ‘over-rated’. It’s true, he’s not a Zidane or a Maradona or a Ronaldinho in terms of sheer talent, and he wasn’t the kind of player who could regularly dominate a match, but he was still better than nearly every player I’ve ever seen play for England. Even now, past his best, he’s better than most.

It feels like I’m writing an obituary. Footballers are like mayflies; one minute they’re gangly young things, full of potential, and then before you know it they’re struggling to keep up with the pace of the game and having to find something else to do with the rest of their lives. The rumour is that Becks wants to be a movie star, a prospect I find slightly horrifying. But it’s hard to see what else he could do. I imagine he wants to keep in the spotlight, but he doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for commentator or manager. Fashion designer? Politician? Raconteur?

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