David Beckham: the golden timewarp
There are probably only two men in the world who believe that David Beckham has the ability to be playing in the latter stages of the Uefa Champions League: David Beckham and Carlo Ancelotti. How apt that they found each other in Paris, at the Saint-Germain club, in mid-winter. The perfect city for the perfect love story.
It did not seem to matter that Beckham’s presence against Barcelona in the Parc des Princes on Tuesday night left the Saint-Germain midfield vulnerable to malfunction. Beckham is the most famous player in the world – no, make that the most famous human being ever – so it must have suited Saint-Germain to have him there.
Beckham has long reminded me of an incident in Los Angeles during the golden era of silent comedy. Charlie Chaplin was in good form. He treated his dinner guests to a delightful rendition of an operatic aria. "Why, Mr Chaplin, I never knew you could sing so beautifully," a female guest said. Chaplin replied, "I cannot sing at all. I was only imitating Caruso." Just an illusion, see.
It was the same when England played Greece at Old Trafford in October 2001, when Beckham was, according to legend, having the match of his life. He ended his high-energy performance, during which he covered exactly 10 miles, by scoring the goal that sent England to World Cup 2002. If it looked too good to be true, that is because it was. It was Beckham’s imitation of a world-class player. Just an illusion.
Few bothered to ask that if Beckham was so good, why Greece dominated midfield so easily. Repeated viewings of the match will reveal that Beckham’s endurance blinded many observers to the truth: first, that his display lacked discipline and sophistication; second, that Greece were better than their lowly football reputation suggested.
Although Beckham was never world class, and has been in decline since 2004, he still seems to find himself at the centre of the big events. He has even turned the Champions League into a playground for his public-relations skills.
I do not blame him. How many of us would turn down a chance to play in the last eight of the Champions League? Nobody seemed to care that Beckham’s place in the team came at the expense of a superior midfield player, Marco Verratti.
Only in the latter stages, with Beckham off the pitch, did Saint-Germain have the shape and urgency in midfield to put Barcelona under pressure. By using Beckham for 70 minutes, Ancelotti had gambled – and the gamble failed. Beckham, never the fastest, found himself existing in a timewarp. He was running as if the air around him contained an extra thickness. When he left the field, to be replaced by Verratti, Beckham looked as though he had just run the London Marathon in a pantomime horse, with his wife’s make-up collection in a rucksack on his back.
As Beckham stumbled towards the dugout, looking all of his 37 years, a key question presented itself: would Beckham have made the team had he not been so famous? The truth is that he would get nowhere near the Saint-Germain reserve team if this was all about merit. But it is not about merit. It is about fame. It is about celebrity. It is about Beckham. He is football royalty, which means that the rules change (just as they do, arguably, for the Royal Family in London).
With Beckham off the pitch, Saint-Germain improved and forced a 2-2 draw that hitherto was unlikely. A coincidnce, perhaps, but there was no doubting the extent to which the home team increased the pace in midfield for the final 20 minutes.
If Saint-Germain are to have any chance of winning the tie, Ancelotti needs to realise that Beckham will be of more value to the team sitting in the stands in an expensive suit.