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Beckham, 'El Blanco'

No top-flight action this week, save Spain's rather unconvincing 2-2 draw in Ukraine, so plenty of time for the 4th Estate to cook up some gossip and keep 'em talking in the bars over here.

I've had at least a dozen conversations this week about Beckham, most of which arrived at three basic conclusions:

  • He's not as good as Figo.

  • But he'd sell more shirts.

  • Are the shops in Madrid really better than in Manchester?

    This is basically what the world has become, and Beckham stands at the forefront of our new set of values, framed and fuelled by the language of consumerism.

    It's what Santiago Segurola, Spain's best football writer, has labelled 'Fast-Food Fútbol' - a neat phrase which sums up the way in which sport has failed to keep itself at a distance from the mindset of the shopping mall, so much so that it has become one and the same thing - the inevitable consequence of which has been a declining interest in truly judging a footballer for what he does out on the pitch.

    Spain sees Beckham most nights dressed as a cowboy, or sitting in an airport lounge signing autographs, or fiddling with his mobile phone at the supermarket check-out. The silent assumption is, from such high-profile advertising, that Beckham is a great player.

    Not that this is young David's fault, of course, but in the not so-far-off old days, players were usually bought on the exclusive grounds that they could do a job out on the pitch, as opposed to within advertising agencies.

    Beckham is indeed a useful player, but the Spanish are much more sceptical about his divinity than most of the English press, and have consequently focused almost exclusively on matters unrelated to his anointed right foot.

    The sports tabloid Marca was in London for the Umbro presentation of England's new kit last week, and David Ruiz, the London correspondent, decided to go for an 'exclusive' with Becks, who was inevitably one of the models chosen for the occasion.

    The paper's cover the next day led with the header 'Beckham nos responde a la gran pregunta' (Beckham answers the big question), which was of course whether or not he fancies playing for Real Madrid next year, in case you didn't know.

    To the side of the headline beautiful Becks was staring left, hand on chin, pondering the big question. Since the future economies of England and Spain may well depend on which decision he makes, we were advised to turn to pages 3 and 4 for his answer.

    The Spanish are only sceptical about Beckham's ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck (as can Figo) and impose himself on the whole 90 minutes. They know he can curl in a cross and score from the occasional free-kick.

    It turns out that the correspondent Ruiz, shoving his way to the front during the press photograph session, barked out the question 'David! Florentino Pérez says he thinks you're good and that he wouldn't mind signing you. Would you come?' The world held its breath whilst David rubbed his chin, smiled... and said nothing. Ah, but you see - he didn't deny that he wouldn't be interested, and so Marca's Kafkaesque conclusion is that he will indeed join the rest of the advertising stars next year at the Bernabéu.

    Beckham did actually respond obliquely after some time, but only to say that Madrid was a great club with a great tradition, but that so was Man Utd. Hey, but it sells the papers! The boy Ruiz done a good job.

    Such was the kerfuffle the next day that Jorge Valdano, Madrid's Director of Football, was obliged to make a statement to the effect that the possibility of Beckham's transfer was 'remote' and that the prospect of Figo's departure was remoter still - in fact it was 'impossible', insisted the Argentine.

    Interestingly, he justified this once again with arguments unrelated to the actual field of play - Figo is a leader, he has an important influence on the training ground and in the changing-rooms, the younger players look up to him, etc, etc.

    Not once did Valdano proffer the opinion that Figo, who occupies the same right-hand channels as Beckham, was still a better player than the Englishman. There has since been some muffled support for Figo's case in a couple of papers, but most observers would find it hard to deny the general feeling here that the Portuguese international is past his best, despite having improved this year after a disappointing and injury-plagued 2002.

    He doesn't shift so many shirts as before, and there is a growing feeling that players such as Guti should be getting more games in. Guti, of course, is a more left-sided player, but there is really no other player on the books with Figo's characteristics, and McManaman is more than likely to be on his way at the end of the season.

    The Spanish are only sceptical about Beckham's ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck (as can Figo) and impose his style and presence on the whole 90 minutes. They know he can curl in a cross, and score from the occasional free-kick, but they don't know whether he can really run a game.

    Beckham: 'Answering' big questions
    Beckham: 'Answering' big questions

    In Spain, this is the true sign of greatness - when the strategy of the opponents is exclusively focused on the 'anulación' (cancelling out) of such players like Zidane - and Figo in the past.

    Do English teams have to do this with Beckham, week in week out? I don't know, but it seems to me that Valdano's words are a smokescreen, similar to the pronouncements that were made when speculation began about both Zidane and Ronaldo.

    Real Madrid need to offload some other big earners, but Beckham is definitely the player they are looking for, fast-food syndrome notwithstanding.

    Besides, the only way that England's golden boy is going to develop further as a player is away from Old Trafford.

    Ryan Giggs seems to have arrived at the same conclusion about his own prospects, but too late. Not that the problem is necessarily Old Trafford, but the limited demands that the English game makes on potentially great players like Beckham.

    What more does he have to prove in the Premiership? Not a lot. But surrounded by a different set of outrageously gifted players at Madrid, and presented with the challenge of a slower, more thoughtful pace of football, he would surely prosper. And the shops are just fine. It rains less than in Manchester too. Go for it, David. You know it makes sense.

    Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm, can be bought via the internet. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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