According to a new academic study from Warwick University, David Beckham, the England football captain, is the most "influential" man in Britain, a model of modern, progressive, benevolent manhood. He is nothing of the kind. Whenever I see Beckham nowadays, in a newspaper, on television or at a press conference, I think that he is trying to sell me something. That is because he nearly always is. Sunglasses, mobile phones, hair grease, Marks & Spencer, Pepsi, sportswear, Rage Software: there is nothing, it seems, that he will not endorse in return for a hefty fee. Except, perhaps, for books.
Beckham earns a reported £90,000 per week as a Manchester United player. As England captain, he is thought to receive a decent retainer from the Football Association. There is, in addition, the multimillion-pound boot contract, the lucrative sponsorship deal with Adidas and the £2m-plus advance he negotiated last year for his forthcoming autobiography. This has enabled him to buy as many houses and sports cars as anyone could ever could wish for. Which makes one wonder: how much more money does one household need, especially one in which the working mother herself is a very wealthy ex-Spice Girl?
John King, author of The Football Factory, one of the best novels I have ever read about what it means to be a fan, recalls, in a review in this week's New Statesman (see page 54), how the 1970s were a "golden age in English football when money was a bonus and not the motivation". There must have been a time in Beckham's life, before it was complicated by celebrity, fashion considerations and by the greed of agents and image advisers, when he must have felt like that about the game he plays so well (though not as well as his partner in the Manchester United midfield, the quiet and diligent Paul Scholes, or any one of Arsenal's fast-raiding forwards, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires).
Beckham's latest commercial adventure is a video for Pepsi Cola, from which he receives an annual stipend of £3m. The video was shot in AlmerIa, Spain, the location for Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns of the 1960s. Beckham, dressed in a stetson and a long, rugged duster coat, appears in town as an austere, laconic gunslinger (you would hardly expect a hit man to be loquacious, let alone Beckham). He encounters, in a dishevelled bar, the Real Madrid goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, cast in the role of anti-hero. Perhaps we should allow Beckham to take up the story. "I walk into a bar and Casillas drinks my Pepsi. So I take him out for a penalty shoot-out and it goes on from there." Pretty dramatic stuff, then.
Beckham has been fortunate to play throughout the gaudiest spending spree in the history of professional football. No one can begrudge his desire to take what he can from a game that, before the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, treated its players like indentured labour. That, however, was a long time ago. The top players of today are the new plutocrats of our age, liberated, within a few years of leaving school, from all mundane financial restraint.
At the press launch for his new Pepsi video, Beckham was asked if, like Vinnie Jones, he hoped one day to become an actor. He had no such ambition, he said, but agreed that he was becoming more comfortable "the more of these things I do". No doubt, in time, he will become even more comfortable in front of a camera, because there is little sign, at present, that he has any intention of moderating his relentless pursuit of money for its own sake.
Global capitalism has, at present, no greater ambassador than David Beckham. His life is dedicated to conspicuous consumption and ostentatious display. In this, he represents all that is worst and most excessive about our winner-takes-all society. He is, in more ways than he could ever imagine, the face of our nation, the face of our times. Influential indeed.