Difficult to interpret David Beckham’s ‘celebrity exuberance’ decision as a mistake

Alex Ferguson’s new book is full of praise for Barcelona, who he identifies as the best team he ever faced

Alex Ferguson says David Beckham’s football was affected by his celebrity lifestyle in his new and controversial autobiography.

Alex Ferguson says David Beckham’s football was affected by his celebrity lifestyle in his new and controversial autobiography.


Alex Ferguson’s new book is full of praise for Barcelona, who he identifies as the best team he ever faced. The one caveat he raises is that he could never figure out how their key players could play so many games.

Real Madrid knocked Ferguson’s United out of Europe three times but he is less respectful of their tradition, which he describes as “all-out attack and celebrity exuberance”.

Ferguson takes a dim view of “celebrity exuberance”, as he makes plain in the chapter about David Beckham, which consists of Ferguson clucking and tutting about Beckham’s career choices as though the player had ended up sleeping in a doorway.

Ten years after selling Beckham to Real Madrid, Ferguson still refuses to give him any credit for knowing his own mind. In his view, Beckham threw away his chance of becoming “an absolute top-dog player” after falling under the fatal influence of his wife.

An alternative view is that Beckham always knew that he wasn’t quite gifted enough to be the best footballer in the world. He might, however, have a chance of being the richest and most famous. So he did what he had to do. You play to your strengths.

It’s difficult to imagine that Beckham’s career could have been more successful had he concentrated on football alone. “He could have been one of the greatest Man United legends,” Ferguson says. Like Roy Keane? Keane gave himself up to Ferguson’s cause, body and soul, and his reward is to be trashed in his former manager’s book.

At some point – maybe the moment when Ferguson kicked a boot into his face in the course of a dressing-room row – Beckham decided there was more to life than serving Alex Ferguson.

In the spring of 2003, he was approaching his 28th birthday. He had already won the Champions League with Manchester United and was about to add a sixth Premier League title. What were his options? He could stay and maybe win another league title or two, until Ferguson decided he’d outlived his usefulness, like Paul Ince, Mark Hughes or Jaap Stam. Or he could strike out on his own. He ended up becoming the most famous footballer in history and amassing a nine-digit fortune. In hindsight, it’s difficult to interpret his decision to embrace celebrity exuberance as a mistake.

Fashion photographers
Unless you’re Ferguson, whose lack of understanding of Beckham’s achievement is as evident as his scorn for it. “Imagine Gary Neville with fashion photographers: ‘Could you bloody hurry up!’” he writes. Imagine fashion photographers with Gary Neville, though. Neville was a good soldier to the end, and as such has Ferguson’s approval, but who can say what choices he might have made if he’d had the options that were available to Beckham?

It would also be wrong to assume that the choice Beckham made was the easy option. One reason so many of the best players in the world want to join Madrid is that they sense that to succeed there, in the shadow of di Stefano and Zidane, before that relentlessly demanding, unforgiving crowd, is something only the greatest players can do. Beckham didn’t succeed in becoming a club legend, but neither did he disgrace himself.

It was this challenge that drew Gareth Bale to Madrid (though the celebrity exuberance that means he’s already earned nearly three million pounds there was also a factor). But joining Madrid doesn’t automatically confer superstar status. The prospective superstars have to earn it. The one thing they can be sure of is that they will get no help from the club.

Graft and intelligence
The summer Beckham joined Real Madrid, they sold Claude Makelele, who had held together their midfield for four seasons. This year, Bale’s arrival triggered the sale of Mesut Özil, whose graft and intelligence had defined the attacking structure of the team.

Özil and Makelele had something in common: unlike Bale and Beckham, they were players whose contributions were not immediately obvious in terms of spectacular goals and match-winning moments. When Makelele was sold, the balance of Madrid’s midfield was lost and Beckham wasn’t the only player who found it difficult to thrive amid the chaos. It remains to be seen if the loss of Özil will reverberate in the same way, but on Saturday, when Madrid lost 2-1 at Barcelona, the attack was bereft of identity and ideas.

Bale was not quite fit, but played anyway, since it would have been embarrassing for Perez if he’d missed out. He has played only a handful of matches in his career at centre-forward, but that’s the position he occupied for Madrid as they took on one of the best teams in the world. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that he wasn’t up to the job.

Right now, Bale isn’t showing the assurance of the natural-born superstar. At one point in the second half, Ronaldo had possession on the left, and Bale, standing centrally, half-raised his hand in a half-hearted appeal for the ball. If you want Ronaldo to give you the ball you have to at least look like you want it. A few seconds later he was withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Neymar scored one goal and made another. People sniggered that Barcelona had signed twice the player for half the price. If Bale wants to be the new Ronaldo and not the new Kaka, it’s time to take his destiny in his own hands.

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