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10 October 2023

Did celebrity ruin David Beckham?

Netflix reveals a footballer betrayed by celebrity.

By Clive Martin

“Brand Beckham” must never die, and to survive it has to keep moving. Like capitalism itself, the family cannot stand still, they must live through perpetual growth. Nothing can get in the way: not retirement, scandal or even young Brooklyn’s immense void of talent.

In Beckham-land, every world event or micro-trend is an opportunity to make money and/or content. A World Cup in Qatar? Get your suit on, David. London Fashion Week? Get your shades on, Victoria. Research shows teenagers like watching recipe videos on Instagram? Get your apron on, Brooklyn. The Queen’s dead? Get in the bloody queue Becks.

In many ways, it’s surprising that the ol’ Netflix hagiography has taken this long. In recent years there has been a glut of documentaries about sporting icons, the Premier League and Noughties’ nostalgia figures – and David is the character that brings these poles together. Not just an athlete, beyond celebrity, he embodies an entire era. He’s a walking moment in time, wearing Britpop optimism like the questionable durags he used to favour.

Despite intermittent appearances from Victoria, the show, entitled Beckham, is very much about David – and mostly about football. It begins in Proustian fashion, when an encounter with a beehive takes David back to “that goal” against Wimbledon in 1996. From here, it spans the entire length of his playing career, from his part in Manchester United’s 1999 treble win, to the Galactico experiment at Real Madrid, to playing with part-time pool cleaners in LA and his autumn renaissance with AC Milan.

Mostly, it’s a captivating watch. The way in which the archive football footage, all big collars and knee-ruining pitches, is combined with music of the era (like Oasis’s “Supersonic”) goes beyond nostalgia and becomes almost viscerally transportive. Talking about the atmosphere at Old Trafford, Rio Ferdinand declares at one point: “If you could bottle that feeling and sell it, you’d be a billionaire” – and bottling feelings is what Beckham does best. Even Gary Neville comes across well in it, which is quite the feat indeed.

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Yet there is always an overwhelming sense that you’ve seen this all before. The Manchester United boys have been on a blistering run of content production in recent years, and many of the stories in the first two episodes of Beckham have been well covered by the likes of The Impossible Dream, The Class of ’92, The United Way and the Beckham-produced Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League, plus endless podcasts, Monday Night Football appearances and two series focusing on their ownership of Salford City FC. At times, it can feel like the class of ’92 are rivalling Karl Ove Knausgård in the self-mythology stakes, approaching Kardashian-levels of brand manipulation.

Because of this total United overload, the most interesting parts of Beckham are the lesser-covered, later stories. His time at Real Madrid brings a group of highly charismatic, bonafide legends into the talking heads’ seats, and former teammate Miguel Salgado, looking like a Marbella Klaus Kinski, probably ought to command his own Netflix series. The Real president Florentino Pérez also appears, adding a nicely sinister, vampiric tone to the show’s middle episodes. 

One of the more intriguing subplots – and one which wasn’t hugely explained back then – is Beckham’s time at LA Galaxy, when he was apparently earning more during the time it took to use the toilet than some of his teammates were making in a year. His feud with homegrown Major League Soccer star Landon Donovan also provides some narrative conflict.

[See also: Celebrating failure is a mistake]

The documentary makes an interesting case for Beckham being a trailblazer, without hammering down that idea too much. For better or for worse, he broke wage records, turned himself into a brand like no footballer before, and essentially set the precedent for the Saudi Pro League when moving to the MLS in 2007. “He always wanted to be more than just a footballer,” Gary Neville says at one point, an ambition that seems to have gone wildly out of control.

But what does the show really tell us about the man? Beckham is one of the most photographed, interviewed people in postwar British history, yet I think it’s fair to say he remains a difficult character to really pin down. There is a wealth of bullshit surrounding Brand Beckham and few of his self-commissioned series have managed to cut through the spin. Not since the Queen has someone in British life been so omnipresent, yet so unknowable.

Beckham makes a valiant effort to show us something new, but doesn’t quite get there. There are some nods to Beckham’s OCD-ish tendencies around cleaning, and a slight hint at a shopping addiction, but these feel somewhat underdeveloped, and I can remember Beckham talking about this as far back as the 2003 documentary The Real Beckhams. Mostly, David comes across an impish, laconic, fatherly figure – and something of a thrillseeker. Victoria on the other hand, appears to have more invested in “spilling the beans”, and provides most of the Last Dance-style exposition.

Throughout the show, David and Victoria talk about the pressures of fame but Fisher Stevens, the director, cleverly shows us much of this was self-generated. For every harrowing paparazzi scare or tabloid nightmare, there is some ridiculous, forgotten Pepsi advert or photo opportunity with Tom Cruise.

Photo by Netflix

As an aesthetic document, the show is particularly amusing. Throughout the four-episode arc, David and Victoria don some of the best and worst fashion of the era, moving from Rockports and faux fur coats, to starry Hollywood white ensembles, to their demure, Soho Farmhouse chic of today. Both are now associated with a kind of middlebrow Condé Nast vision of luxury – all Belstaff and crisp white shirts – so it’s nice to be reminded that they wore matching Paisley Park purple numbers for their wedding reception, and sold the pictures to OK!, not Vogue. Thes occasional lapses into deep tackiness make them only more endearing.

Thankfully, the kids, or their own career-pushing significant others, don’t appear until the very end – in a short, touching get together at David’s elaborate BBQ zone in their Cotswolds pad. Yet in this moment you can see the all-encompassing thirst for survival at the heart of Brand Beckham. That desire they have to pass down the torch, even in the face of total public antipathy.

But really, this is a show about football, and perhaps about unfulfilled potential. The overwhelming impression I came out with at the end is that Beckham was an athlete who let his celebrity consume everything. He spent much of his later career in exile, on the bench, clogging along at glamour clubs, when really, he should have been a Premier League legend. Beckham hints at several sliding doors moments, including a permanent move to Milan – yet Hollywood had to come first.

There is a final scene in which David, jostling with Romeo on their home football pitch, rattles off his achievements, his title and cup wins across the world. He has as many trophies as many of the greats, but they seem almost incidental to his career, and that all-consuming brand he runs to this day.

[See also: Why doesn’t football love Keir Starmer?]

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