x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A star shines in his twilight

During his time as a professional footballer, David Beckham was mocked for his lavish lifestyle and pop star wife.

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When David Beckham was in his pomp as a footballer many admired his performances on the pitch. But off the pitch he was not so popular. Crass, vulgar and thick were some of the kinder descriptions of him. Beckham and his wife, Victoria, otherwise known as "Posh" of the Spice Girls pop group, were mocked relentlessly by comedians in Britain. The Beckhams epitomised the obsession with celebrity, though even his harshest critics conceded Beckham was a fine footballer, unlike many celebrities who were famous merely for being famous. His wife belonged to this new class, since she lacked any discernible talent, apart from the ability to remain stick thin and wear unfeasibly tight clothes while singing out of tune.

Fast forward to Monday and the arrival of David Beckham, now a 33-year-old father of three long past his best as a player, in Dubai to join his temporary teammates of AC Milan, the Italian club, on a winter training break and the transformation is remarkable. There are still elements of the Beckham that used to provide such rich pickings for British satirists. He is plastered with tattoos: the names of his three sons - Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz - and his wife in assorted languages. There are also religious symbols decorating his torso, which he has collected as he has tried to broaden his understanding of the world beyond football and fashion. He still talks in clichés. He is still besotted by his own charisma: it is easy to imagine him in the morning standing in front of the mirror admiring the chiselled features, the designer stubble and honed body as he experiments with his expensive outfits. But today's David Beckham is now a likeable, modest individual who seems aware of his limitations and is grateful for his success.

He is employed by Los Angeles Galaxy, but their season has ended and he wants to remain fit enough to be considered for selection for England. AC Milan might need an experienced player like him over the next few months in Serie A, the Italian's equivalent of the Premier League, so the deal - which means Beckham will be with the Italians until early March - suits everyone. Providing he is fit, he could make his first appearance for the Italians on Jan 6 in a friendly match in Dubai against Hamburg.

Some of Milan's training sessions in Dubai will be open to the public. Although Beckham is no longer mobbed by hysterical teenage girls, he still has extraordinary appeal. Thousands of people, many of whom would stare blankly if you asked whether a 4-4-2 formation suited Beckham, will want to see him train in Dubai. Victoria and their three sons plan to visit the emirate, where Beckham owns a house. Photographs of the A-list couple, immaculately groomed and smiling, are sure to fill the local media.

He is a global brand who earns tens of millions every year. His name can boost the sales of everything - clothes, perfumes, sunglasses. No longer is his appeal confined to football. Few sportsmen or sportswomen achieve this transcending fame. Usually genius - such as Muhammad Ali in boxing, Pele in football and John McEnroe in tennis - is required. Beckham was only a world class player, never a great one, yet he has managed to join this elite group. How has this talented, but not great, footballer become a global brand?

The son of a kitchen fitter and a hairdresser, he was brought up in Essex, near London, the county which is known as the home of bling and symbolised by bleached blondes wearing too much jewellery and short skirts. Beckham was a brilliant young player and was snapped up by Manchester United, the team he worshipped. He made his debut for the club in 1992 and by the mid-1990s was the glamour boy of the Premier League, which had been created a few years earlier by First Division clubs eager to capitalise on the money pouring into the game from television. Footballers now earned pop star salaries from clubs. Good looking stars like Beckham could also make millions from advertising and sponsorship deals. Football was as much show business as sport.

In 1997 Beckham met Victoria Adams, popularly known as Posh Spice of the Spice Girls. It was the height of "Cool Britannia", an era when pop stars and sportsmen and women were considered brand ambassadors for the United Kingdom. In July 1999 they married in a ceremony which was both appalling and hilarious because it was so self-indulgent. The couple sold the "exclusive" rights to the ceremony to a gossip magazine for £500,000. The photographs - such as the newly-weds sitting on thrones - confirmed that "Posh and Becks", as they were universally known, were now officially ridiculous.

On the pitch Beckham was in his prime. Manchester United dominated the domestic and European game. Beckham became an England regular and in 2000 was made captain. But he was never loved - he could not tackle or dribble. He was simply functional. He could also be petulant. He had the ability to whip balls across the face of the goal to the consternation of the defence. He was deadly with free kicks. United fans respected him, but said he would not figure in their Greatest Ever XI. Of course, compared with ordinary mortals Beckham was a superb athlete. That is why he won so many trophies with United and why he has won 106 England caps, 58 as captain.

He left United for Real Madrid in 2003 for £25 million. Some in Britain were glad to see the back of the Beckhams. They summed up, it was felt, everything that had gone wrong with football and the country. They were self-obsessed, shallow and selfish; they flaunted their wealth and surrounded themselves with sycophants. Their agents set up mega-deals with advertisers while their lawyers kept watch for infringements of copyright or unflattering comments.

Then slowly, imperceptibly, the Beckhams began to change. He remained vain, but now there was a refreshing hint of self-mockery. He also seemed surprised, and grateful, that clubs and companies were prepared to pay him so much (it is estimated that he earned US$27 million [Dh99.165m] between June 2005 and June 2006). Perhaps it was age and fatherhood, but there was a new self-awareness. When he was dropped by Real Madrid he did not sulk, the usual reaction from fading superstars, but trained harder. He expanded his work for charity. He was emerging now as an ambassador for British sport, albeit one who was paid millions to lend his name to a range of toiletries and to pose in designer underpants.

Victoria also matured. Once seen as the ultimate WAG (wife and girlfriend, the acronym for the glamorous partners of England players), she was turning into a caring mother, a loyal wife and, astonishingly, seemed to have a talent for designing clothes. In summer 2007 the Beckhams moved to Los Angeles, where the local football team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, who play in the MSL (Major Soccer League), had signed Beckham for five years on a rumoured annual salary of $6.5 million. Beckham's advisers rubbed their hands and said he would make much more from spin-offs, such as advertising.

As a player Beckham has shrunk. Even his agent in London, Simon Oliveira, who is in overall charge of Beckham's many commercial activities, agrees that "the football side of things" has not gone as well as expected in the States. Oliveira, who works at 19 Management, the company set up by Simon Fuller, the former manager of the Spice Girls, says: "Going to the States is not only about playing football for David. It was about raising awareness of the game there, being an ambassador."

Despite mediocre performances on the pitch, Beckham, who often looks as if he wishes he was somewhere else, has shown that he still possesses remarkable charisma. Whenever he plays crowds expand by upwards of 10,000, a vast increase by the standards of the MSL. LA Galaxy report healthy sales of Beckham shirts. The club is struggling in the league but, because of Beckham, has been valued at $100 million - more than any other club in the MSL.

Americans also like and admire him in ways that the British and the Spanish have never done. He is a clean-cut family man who has made a success of his life. He is polite. He lends his name and time to charities. In the States this makes him one of the good guys. The Beckhams also clearly enjoy the over-the-top lifestyle of LA. He adores big, fast cars, he loves clothes and looking good. Milan have not taken him on loan out of sympathy - because Beckham wants to win more England caps and won't have a chance unless he turns out for a big European club. Nor will the club make serious money from selling Beckham shirts, since he is only with them for a few months. The club has taken him because its brain trust thinks he can still perform on the pitch. He remains super-fit and will reignite, Milan hope, when he is playing alongside world-class players rather than the journeymen of the MSL.

Beckham's critics scoff at this. He is too old, too slow, too rich, they say, like a boxer who has fought too often. They could be wrong. Beckham is a focused and determined man. If he wants one more flourish as a player badly enough, then he may yet surprise everyone. * The National