No gold medal for Goldenballs Beckham

Dropping Beckham from the Olympic squad may have effectively ended his international career, but it was the kindest thing to do.

David Beckham’s dream is over. There will be no gold medal for the golden-haired Goldenballs of English football, the towering presence who has stood astride Wembley these past 15 years, and who was hoping for one last hurrah.

There will be no close-ups of Posh in the crowd as he takes a deep breath and lines up the vital last-minute free-kick to go sailing into the top corner. There will be no frenzied applause as he jogs up and down the touchline at what at first appears to be warming-up speed but is actually as fast as he can go nowadays. And there will be no glory for Beckham as his international career comes to a close without him even kicking a ball.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Stuart Pearce, the former electrician and part-time national hero who is now coach of the Great Britain Olympic football team, has opted for pragmatism rather than pride, and left Becks out of the final squad.

In some ways it’s sad that someone who was so instrumental in bringing the Games to his East London backyard should be passed over in favour of players who have achieved much less, yet who can run faster. But in a purely competitive sense, Pearce has made the right choice for everyone – probably including Beckham himself.

A brilliant career with England, Manchester United, Real Madrid (and yes, the LA Galaxy) is coming to an end. He may still be young at 37 (I say this as a 37-year-old), but his best days are well behind him, when he was scoring at will and delivering incredible dead balls from all over the pitch.

Despite the moments of joy he brought at international level – the smashed redemption penalty against Argentina, the coruscating free-kicks against Colombia, Greece and Ecuador, the vital part he played in that 5-1 false dawn against Germany in Munich – he couldn’t lead England to glory, no matter how hard everyone tried.

He was so talented, England tried everything with him, even playing him as a ‘quarterback’ on one particularly ill-conceived night of shame when Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England were well beaten by Northern Ireland. But that reflected a part of the problem with his brilliance: Beckham was made for a game with rolling substitutions. His all-round game, emphasised perhaps by his jumping out of a crucial tackle that led to Brazil’s goal in the World Cup quarter-final Shizuoka in 2002, never matched his technical class, and that only became more obvious as time went on.

Beckham is part of the misfiring ‘golden generation’ who have promised so much but delivered so little. The less sparkling part of his legacy lives on – where once he was the undroppable player, put in the team regardless of form or tactics, now it’s Wayne Rooney who occupies the position of England’s sine qua non, even if he’s not quite up to scratch – as was the case in Euro 2012 and that tame capitulation to Italy the other night. But so do the best qualities that Beckham brought – a devotion to the England shirt, a desire to put skill first and graft second, and a fierce competitive edge.

In some ways, it’s a kindness that Pearce has given Beckham by denying him his last lap of honour. Imagine him hopelessly outpaced as he attempts to keep up with the under-23s haring up and down the wing, waiting for one dead-ball situation to rescue the team. Imagine his team-mates hearing a bigger roar for someone on the bench than they hear for themselves.

That’s no way for the man to bow out. He deserves better – a knighthood will probably do, in time. For now, he’ll just have to watch from the sidelines like the rest of us, if he can get tickets (and I suspect he might). In the end, the decision to drop him was made for purely footballing reasons – something Beckham will probably respect in time, no matter how much it hurts right now.


David Beckham holds the Olympic Flame as it arrives at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall. Photograph: Getty Images
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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.