Until recently, David Beckham was a figure of fun in his home country. But Queen Elizabeth II has now bestowed one of England’s greatest honours upon him, and he is worshipped in temples across Asia. FIFA Magazine tells the story of how Beckham became the first footballer to achieve global stardom

by Simon Kuper

He grew up in a three-bedroom family home on Hampton Road, in a neighbourhood of tree-lined avenues. His father was a kitchen fitter, his mother a hairdresser. David Beckham has travelled quite a distance from Chingford, a suburb on London’s northern fringes. Today he is a global icon more comparable to Marilyn Monroe or Charlie Chaplin than any fellow footballer. Yet he remains a product of Chingford, of the county of Essex and of a particular English class. Real Madrid are gambling that they can make money out of his Essex qualities.

Essex is where the poor inhabitants of London’s East End moved after Luftwaffe bombs destroyed their houses in the Second World War. In the following decades they grew richer with London, and metamorphosed into a new species: “Essex Man” and “Essex Girl”. They spend the days making money in “the City”, London’s financial district, and the evenings drinking and watching football in pubs.

Beckham is an Essex Man. He did not care for school. As a child he followed his family in supporting Manchester United – the club that attracts those who love glamour. What set Beckham apart from other Essex Men was that he rarely drank and was a brilliant footballer. With constant practice he developed the best right foot in the game. At 14 he joined United, where he is remembered as a cheerful and open teenager. Even after scoring from his own half for the first team against Wimbledon in 1996, he would sometimes pop into the club magazine’s offices to say hello.

By then he was already emerging as a great mechanical footballer. When I asked the legendary Dutch player Johan Cruyff whether he considered Beckham complete, he passed on the question, saying he did not want to hurt anyone. Beckham clearly lacks pace, as well as the instinct for space of dribblers like Diego Maradona or Rivaldo. However, unusually for a creative player, he does possess all the workhorse virtues. Raised in United’s collective ethic, Beckham spends most of the match running, like the former Essex schools cross country champion he is.

There is a debate about whether he should play on the right or in central midfield. In fact, particularly for England, he often plays both simultaneously. He wins tackles, is too strong to knock off the ball, and has little need to beat his opponent because he can simply curl the ball around him. Beckham may be a white-booted showman, always attending fashion shows and film openings as his wife’s accessory, yet his form never seems to suffer. For most of his career he has performed week in, week out, as if he were a monk locked up in a permanent training camp. “I knew Beckham before I came here,” says Sven-Göran Eriksson, England’s coach, “but he still surprised me. He is much quicker than I thought, he runs much more than I thought. When you follow him from outside, from another country, you read a lot about him in newspapers, his wife and so on, and you don’t know him as a person. He is a big professional.”

Beckham made his debut for England a month after that goal against Wimbledon. It was with England, at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™, that he experienced his Calvary: in a crucial match against Argentina in St Etienne, he kicked Diego Simeone and was sent off. A ten-man England eventually lost on penalties. Meeting his mother beside the team bus afterwards, Beckham cried.

At 23, he became a national pariah, burned in effigy outside pubs. It got so bad that a placard outside a Nottingham church proclaimed: “God forgives even David Beckham”. He was charged with costing England the World Cup. In fact they would probably have lost to Argentina even with him, not to mention their chances against Holland, Brazil or France in later rounds. Beckham was hounded less for what he had done than for who he was.

He was too good to be true. A brilliant handsome millionaire footballer dating a gorgeous singer, he was living Essex Man’s dream. He had no vices: he did not seem to sleep around, and unlike previous great British footballers did not fall prey to drink.

The English, who prefer their heroes flawed, hated him for it. Beckham was a walking affront to many of them. His leanness – he is 1.83 metres tall but weighs just 75 kilogrammes – was an insult in a country where the average person tends towards the other end of the weight spectrum. And he played for Manchester United, a club despised as much as it is worshipped. His good looks were considered effeminate, a feeling reflected in his nickname: “Becks” is the English abbreviation for the girl’s name Rebecca. Many English people seemed to share Maradona’s view that Beckham was “too beautiful to go onto the field”. “We hate David Beckham” became a favourite terrace chant, heard even during England matches, and there were obscene songs about his wife, the former Spice Girl Victoria “Posh” Adams.

If the lower classes despised his perfection, the professional classes mocked his stupidity. Britain educates the top quartile of its people well and the rest execrably. Beckham could hardly speak a sentence, and when he tried, he did so in a high-pitched Essex nasal monotone. Words did not seem to interest him anyway. The tattoo on his body depicting Victoria’s name in Hindi is apparently misspelled, but that hardly matters: for him and her, the point was how it looked. Beckham has never displayed any intellectual interests, preferring fast cars instead. Among Britain’s higher classes, to praise Beckham - except in the most ironic and camp way - was to mark oneself out as having a mental age of thirteen.

English heroes are routinely reviled at home. Even Winston Churchill – the previous most famous non-royal Briton – has many more streets named after him abroad than in Britain. The basic reason is that the British can place each one of their compatriots precisely on the national class ladder. Just as Churchill was unmistakably upper class, Beckham was clearly Essex Man, and so each was distrusted by members of other classes.

For a couple of years after St Etienne, Beckham was loathed. Strangely, he kept playing brilliantly. And gradually the mood turned. Probably prompted by his wife, Beckham began courting the media, even visiting a newspaper office to shake hands.

He became England captain, a status that guarantees popularity in a country where the football captain is confused in the national mind with army captains who died for Britain on the Somme or at Passchendaele.

Then, on 6 October 2001, in the final minute of a qualifying match against Greece, Beckham converted a brilliant free kick to send England to the World Cup. The morning after, while he was at United’s training ground practising free kicks, crowds gathered outside his flat in Cheshire near Manchester, and at his country mansion in Hertfordshire. It was the nation recanting. At the World Cup, Captain Beckham netted the penalty that defeated his old nemesis, Argentina. After matches at that World Cup he would appear at the press conference, utter the usual inarticulate clichés, smile, and suddenly the journalists loved him for it.

Having touched the nadir had made Beckham an acceptably flawed hero. Crucially, he acknowledged the bad times. He said that before taking the penalty against Argentina, so many things went through his mind that he almost forgot to breathe, and that after scoring, the memories of 1998 came flooding back to him. So did they to everyone in England, a country where the present is merely a shadow of the past. Yet at home Beckham continues to be mocked as well as loved. The website of The Guardian, Britain’s main middle-class liberal newspaper, has covered his transfer to Real Madrid under the rubric, “Massive over-reaction to transfer department”.

Outside Britain, no such caveats seem to apply. This is because foreigners tend to see rather than hear Beckham, and visually he is champion of the world. Like Monroe or Chaplin, he works best without a distracting soundtrack. Silence is part of his appeal. His first autobiography, appropriately, was essentially a picture book.

eckham’s visual power is not just a matter of his beauty, but also of his clothes and his grace of movement. His body is a work of art in progress, the creation of hairdressers, tattooists, football coaches, couturiers and of his wife, who seems to redesign him endlessly as if he were a doll.

Once his appeal was recognised, it was nurtured. In football, it has long been thought best practice to shield yourself from the media. Beckham, however, spent his last holiday on promotional tours of the US and Asia. The inspiration seems to come from his wife: in football you are expected to let your feet speak for you, but in pop music, where you are your image, life is ceaseless self-promotion.

Beckham has become probably the world’s most famous athlete. Statues of him adorn Buddhist and Hindu temples throughout Asia. In Japan, “Bekkamu” is said to have 90 per cent name recognition. Opposing players ask him for his or his wife’s autograph.

Everything associated with Beckham sells. Many of the 50 million people around the world who say they support Manchester United were attracted by him. Beckham has advertised everything from hair cream through sunglasses to chocolate. He is the place where high fashion and football meet, the sweet spot that companies like adidas are seeking. And it is not simply that he sells products - the products sell him, too. Millions of people know Beckham chiefly from his advertisements. He is gaining fame in the US in a similarly oblique way. Years ago he allowed a small independent British film to use his name in its title. Bend It Like Beckham - the tale of two girl footballers - finally appeared last year, turned out to be excellent, and this year is a surprise hit across the US.

Beckham’s name even markets his country. Last summer, when the World Cup coincided with the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, there were unexpectedly high sales of English flags (St George’s Crosses) in England. This was widely remarked upon. Less noted has been the flag’s appearance on fashion items across the world. Once worn chiefly by hooligans, the St George’s Cross has become associated with England’s handsome captain.

Beckham cannot seem to comprehend what he means to Beckhamites. “You just can’t think about it,” he tells friends.

His old United coach, Alex Ferguson, responded to that fame with simple irritation. The Scotsman has a ferociously collective ethic. He distrusts big names: despite managing the world’s richest club, the only superstars bought from abroad in their prime in the last decade were Fabien Barthez and Juan Sebastian Verón. Both had a hard time at United, Ferguson believing that everything you do is thanks to the team, and afterwards you shower, get on the bus and keep your head down.

Beckham always obeyed these rules. He seldom spoke in the changing room. If United has a team leader it is Roy Keane, and even the Neville brothers had more of a voice than Beckham. Yet to read the press, you might have thought that United’s squad consisted of just one player. Ferguson was also outraged by the way that private incidents – such as when he famously kicked a boot into Beckham’s face – made the newspapers. It was not that Beckham leaked the stories. His wife’s PR people did.

Unlike Ferguson, United’s commercial executives love superstars. They know United gained 50 million fans largely thanks to George Best, Eric Cantona and Beckham. Particularly now that the club is trying to garner revenues from Asia and the US, continents where it currently earns practically nothing, Beckham should have been crucial.

Yet even though United is a company quoted on the London stock exchange, Ferguson is allowed to buy and sell players with little regard to commercial considerations. When Beckham’s form finally faltered this season, Ferguson pounced. He benched Beckham and then allowed him to leave.

United can make a commercial case for doing so. Perhaps the most serious company in football, the club plans years ahead. Beckham has at most five good seasons left. He is costing Real a transfer fee of £25 million, plus a salary of about £5 million a year for four years. United calculated that Beckham at 28 is not worth £45 million.

Real, by contrast, can argue that they got a bargain. Initially United had sought a transfer fee of £38 million. Then the same thing happened as with Ronaldo last season: by assembling several superstars, Real have made themselves so attractive to new superstars that Beckham, like Ronaldo before him, only wanted to join Real. This allowed the club to pretend that it did not particularly want the player, but if he insisted, well, it would agree to take him. Naturally this suppressed the price.

The people who run Real try to think like business executives. They believe that to justify Beckham’s purchase, the club must now get at least £45 million worth of value out of him. Jose Angel Sanchez, Real’s marketing manager, admitted to me that before Real sign a player, they first assess the income he will produce. This goes far beyond shirt sales.

“You have to talk about the price of a VIP box at the Bernabeu about three years ago, and the price it is today,” says Sanchez. “Or the growth of the number of countries that get Real’s matches on TV. Zinedine Zidane came and we sold our TV channel to most of the Arab countries in a very nice deal. Everything gets better when you get this kind of player.”

It is impossible to say how much of each category of Real’s income derives from which superstar. But as Jorge Valdano, Real’s sporting director, told me in Madrid in April: “The recent signings have doubled the budget. They have filled the stadium. Now we can even play friendlies that bring in €1.5 million - €2 million a game.” When I suggested that Beckham was a player who would sell shirts, Valdano laughed and added: “… and who can play football! Those two things are certain. But his position is more than covered.”

Real already had Figo and the youngster Oscar Minambres for the right flank, and Zidane in the middle. What the team needed was a centre-back. However, the club did not sign Beckham chiefly to win prizes. By buying him, it weakened its chief commercial rival and strengthened itself in the battle for football’s new colonies of Asia and the US.

Making £45 million out of sport’s biggest icon is feasible. The question is whether Real can do it. Football is a notoriously incompetent business. “I’m going to be politically correct,” says Peter Draper, “but it’s not as well-managed as it should be. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many clubs in trouble.”

In fact Beckham’s move to Madrid may be about love rather than money. Beforehand there had been exaggerated stories about the tendency of British players to fail abroad. It was prophesied (rightly) that Beckham would not learn Spanish. It was said (wrongly) that he was more brand than footballer.

Yet at Real Madrid he has looked liberated. Where Ferguson had treated him as a one-touch automaton tied to the touchline except for free kicks, Beckham is now free to roam, dwell on the ball, and hit 50-yard passes. In his first three league matches for Real, he touched the ball more often than any other player in la Liga, made more passes and started more attacks.

Real’s fans love him for his Fergusonian work ethic – an ethic they sometimes miss in their other galacticos. And the galacticos themselves recognise him as a peer. Beckham’s passes are the balls Roberto Carlos was always meant to receive. So much does the Englishman enjoy playing with the little man that he sometimes seems to pass to him almost wherever he goes, as a sort of expression of love.

No, they don’t have a word in common, and it does not matter. When Real were awarded a free kick against Malaga early in the season, Roberto Carlos was getting ready to blast the ball into the stands as usual, when Beckham appeared and let it be known through his interpreter, Luis Figo, that he wanted to take it. After a brief debate, Roberto Carlos ran a decoy and Beckham, of course, scored.

“It’s amazing because Roberto Carlos doesn’t speak hardly any English but he’s one of the ones I get on really well with,” comments Beckham, with a trademark lack of grammar. He never communicated with words anyway. Spanish may be a foreign language, but as the British comedian Ali G commented, Beckham was only slowly learning English. He talks with his body and the ball.

Chingford must feel like centuries ago. Now his home is the Bernabeu.