David Beckham, you might recall, was nigh-on buried under the mountain of criticism that followed the announcement last year that he would be an ambassador for the World Cup in Qatar, the country’s human rights record making this appear like one lucrative gig too many for the fella and his brand.
Considering the last Sunday Times Rich List put his and his wife Victoria’s combined worth at £425 million, the not-unreasonable question was: how much money does a bloke need?
But watching the first two episodes of the four-part Netflix documentary series on his life and times thus far is a reminder that his brand has survived many a hiccup before, so he might well have viewed the reaction to his Qatar link-up as just another blip.
Now, there’s a very large red flag fluttering above this series, which will be unleashed on Netflix on Wednesday morning: it was made with Beckham’s own production company and received his full co-operation. So, that’s enough to set any alarm bells ringing.
On the flip side, it was directed by Fisher Stevens, his CV boasting an Oscar for the documentary The Cove, about Japan’s dismal dolphin-hunting industry, as well as a string of acting roles including that of Hugo “I metabolise fast because I’m dynamic” Baker in Succession. An unlikely patsy, then.
We’ll see what parts three and four bring, whether that cosy-up with Qatar will be addressed, but the opening two are largely sympathetic to Beckham – and if you remember that effigy of him hung from a noose outside a London pub back in the summer of 1998, that’s understandable enough.
His crime was to be sent off against Argentina for that leg-flick in the direction of Diego Simeone in the World Cup, England subsequently losing in a penalty shoot-out.
He’d let his nation down, was the general verdict, and a good chunk of said nation reminded him of his treachery every time he took to the field in the following season.
And when he was out and about, he was spat on and abused, one paper choosing him as the bullseye for their cut-out dartboard – “Still bitter? Take your fury out!” – where he was surrounded by luminaries such as Argentina’s Falklands war general Galtieri, Jeremy Beadle and Paul Daniels. Like, what?
“In that time, mental health wasn’t a thing,” says Rio Ferdinand when he reflected on what Beckham endured that season, the poisonous bile directed at him beyond belief. And not just from the tabloids: as the story often goes, the BBC and ITV had reporters embedded outside his home, all the while talking about how he had let his country down.
He was 23 at the time.
“The whole country hated me,” says Beckham, “I felt very vulnerable and alone. I wish there was a pill that you could take to erase certain memories. It changed my life.”
There is, of course, an awkward question to be asked here, one that Fisher chose not to put. The Beckhams had courted and attempted to manipulate their media attention since they first became a couple, all in the pursuit of building that brand. They played with fire, and got burnt badly by it during this spell when it became more profitable to vilify rather than revere them.
Until then? “They were the new Charles and Diana in some ways ... they were like royalty,” says Gary Neville, Beckham’s best mate and companion down Manchester United’s deadly right side in that era. “I was a side dish really, not the beef, I was the mustard on the side.”
But that season is a hard watch, a reminder of how the British press can turn so brutally on their erstwhile heroes.
They couldn’t get enough of Posh Spice until then. But when Victoria’s medical advice was that she needed a Caesarean to deliver her first baby, their headlines screamed “Too posh to push”. Jesus.
Meanwhile, a “broken” Beckham, as Victoria described him, would drive for hours up and down the nearest motorway, “with nowhere to go”, anything to take himself away from the unrelenting hate.
And all the while, he had his crushingly pushy father’s words echoing in his ears, that his best was never good enough. There’s not a therapist out there who could get their heads around what this fella endured. It says something of his resilience that he was able to build the career he did.
Light relief? There’s not much. But Victoria can be a hoot.
As she sat at a game with “75,000 people” singing a decidedly crude chant about her sexual preferences, she recalled the woman who sat next to her.
The chant was, she says, “embarrassing, it was hurtful”.
“The lady turned to me, she didn’t know what to say. So, she said, ‘Do you want a Polo?’”
The Beckhams may well be minted, but good Lord, they’ve been through it.