Boring Like Beckham
I want to be a pop idol.
Todd Haynes, Velvet Goldmine
If you are a soccer fan stop reading this review after this first paragraph. David Beckham is devoted to the game. His singular ambition is the pursuit of the black and white ball. His devotion borders on a madness which if you share should be illuminating.
But if you are more ambivalent consider the rest of the review. Soccer eclipses everything: family, school, love. It is not that they are unimportant but they are squeezed into the story after the fact. Beckham’s acceptable cultural dialogue seems to be solely focused on the game. Of course, autobiographies are, as a rule, self-serving and a lot can be made of the meaning of a sport,or any singular ambition in society. But Beckham only dwells at surface level. Glowing respect is given to coaches and fellow players but no drama. (Even a fistfight with his coach is underplayed.) The book reads as a simple history of his training and playing. Games occurred. Training is hard.
In his introduction, Beckham takes a tone of global understanding and warmth. Americans love soccer and are always supportive of the sport and all sports. Manchester United will forever be the best team, but Real Madrid is the best as well. His first principle seems to be: Alienate no one. A perfect example is the story of joining his first team: “My mum remembers me being spotted playing in the park and a bloke called Stuart Underwood knocking on our front door to ask about me. My dad, though, reckons, there was an advertisement about a new boys’ soccer team in the local paper and that afternoon over at Chase Lane was sort of a trial. Either way, I’m grateful.” And again: “The three of them—Steve, Stuart and my dad—used to argue a lot but it was all in the cause. They were honest people wanting to make the team as good as they could.” He refuses to take a side. Drama needs conflict, but there is no real conflict here. Beckham seems truly a practitioner of “if you can’t say anything nice . . .”
Beckham should take a lesson from his fellow countryman Quentin Crisp, who chose the same manner of celebrity, the fame of no offense, and learn that the well-turned phrase can prevent boredom. Although he does seem to have taken Mr. Crisp’s advice that books are to be written and not read.
The superstar athlete seems to come in two types: the genuine, true-spirit, the Michael Jordan, the Joe Lewis, and the chaotic, rabble-rouser, the Dennis Rodman, the Jack Johnson. Beckham clearly identifies with the first, idolizing Michael Jordan to the point of fawning over him when he sees him at a restaurant. His parents were hard- working, but made sure he had all the advantages in soccer and the boy, who not pressured, succeeded for them. He is not the pink nail-polished, panty-wearing metrosexual husband of Posh Spice. He is the average bloke who is living the sports fantasy (through hard work and training). He is the soccer equivalent to Dirk Diggler, the super-endowed porn star of Boogie Nights who philosophizes that everyone is good at one thing.
Although it is difficult to tell whether everything is actually as easily worked out as portrayed or whether he is playing nice, the story does perk up when he meets Victoria (Posh Spice), providing an interest other than soccer. And he does devote several mildly interesting pages to her and his children. But even the early clandestine rendezvous lack a certain intrigue as he comments on his lust as like that of a teenager (Beckham being in his twenties at the time) and the events surrounding an attempted kidnapping of his children are bracketed by the details of an on-the-field action. These stories could be mined for much more power to present us Beckham the Human, or even Beckham the Star, but for now we’re stuck with Beckham the Soccer Player.