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World Cup Tart

Jessica Hodges

He is the primo monogamous Alpha male that we all, at one time or another, fantasize about being close to.

It has been said that when people stop believing in God they believe not in nothing, but in anything. And in our increasingly secular society, where sport has become the alter before which crazed penitents fling themselves effing and blinding in search of grace, the shy boy with the clever feet surely carries a heavy burden on those silky shoulders.
� Julie Burchill, Burchill on Beckham, Random House 2001.

Although I am generally proud to be an American, I am not supporting America's bid for the World Cup this year. I have turned my back on my homeland in order to support the motherland's football team. In-ger-land! In-ger-land! I chant with the best of them. This may sound unpatriotic on my part, but I have found a love I cannot deny. He is hot. He is loyal. He is so, so good! Number 7, Captain of England, Mr. David Beckham.

I know I might be doing a bit of damage to the new female football fan's image, given that many would not want to be seen watching the sport for the view alone, but something had to get us into it, and it wasn't going to be the accessories. Beckham is, firstly, a world-class soccer star. I could wax poetically on his ball control, the curve he can put on a free kick to send it into the goal, or his reliable corner kicks, but that is not what my column is about.

This is about his undeniable X factor, the reason why Beckham is also valued as a sunglasses model, Adidas spokesman, young father, and supportive family man to mouthy pop star wife, Posh Spice. He is the primo monogamous Alpha male that we all, at one time or another, fantasize about being close to. And I am not just talking about his hetero girl fans.

Love of sport, be it baseball, basketball, football or hockey has always been about being in love, romantically. And boy, do I, and a whole bunch of other people in this country, have it bad! England's hopes are resting on Beckham's shoulders, and I for one, think they are strong enough to take us all the way. Let me I start my falling in love with football story at the beginning . . .

Five or six years ago, when I was still in the stages of impressing my future husband, a Brit, I agreed to go to his friend's flat to watch my first full European football match: Manchester United v. Porto. Indifferent to most sport at the time, I figured a 90-minute match couldn't be that boring. The host provided the typical beer (but it was bitter) and pizza (but it was tasteless) that I would find at an American, hosted-at-home event. Yet I soon discovered that this was unlike any other sports on TV party that I had experienced before. This was pure pleasure and I wanted more!

The players' speed on the pitch astounded me. The Manchester United team moved together like a flock of birds: always in tune with each other and the ball. Their conviction and strength was inspiring. It was sheer beauty. And all those nice legs didn't pass me by, either.

Manchester won four-nil that game and I became one of their millions of supporters. (It took me a while to learn that not all games were that exciting, but I have grown to love even the goal-less matches.) Wizened, lifelong football fans tell me that the tradition of choosing your team comes down to geography, usually based on where you grow up, or where you first discovered football. But unlike in America where you can switch from the New York Knicks to the LA Lakers based on a cross-country move, once you've chosen your team here, it is for life. You can hate them, but you can never desert them.

I never truly understood team loyalty or sports fans when I lived in America. I watched the Superbowl to see the new commercials; the World Series only meant that my TV schedule was messed up; and watching March Madness was more about cabin fever than college basketball. But my first Manchester United match moved me. I had picked my team.

You are probably wondering what all this has to do with England and fine young Beckham. For the past ten years, the very team that charmed me has honed Beckham's talent and craft. Legend has it he inherited his love of Manchester United from his dad, a fan himself, and when his talent became obvious he focused on nothing else than joining his chosen team. (To be fair, Beckham is not the only great player Man U offers: Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and late addition Teddy Sherringham � who has since moved to Tottenham but was a major part in the treble winning United side of 1999 � all played a major role last Friday when In-ger-land! beat supreme rivals Argentina in Sapporo, Japan.)

Beckham recently appeared on the cover of the UK women's magazine, Marie Claire. He is the first man to be featured alone on their cover. This may not sound revolutionary as he is so obviously a pin-up, but I believe it is an indication of the changing climate around women and football and football and David Beckham.

Football is now said to be the number one sport played by women in the UK. The recent indie film hit, Bend it Like Beckham, features two young girls set on becoming professional football players despite their disapproving families. Beckham is the only football star that could universally be seen to inspire young female players. His X factor, allows for that schoolgirl crush, and his talent and hard work offer the inspiration to succeed, no matter what the uphill battles are. (Remember the criticism the US Women's soccer team received after they took off their jerseys � as most male players do � after winning the World Cup in 1998? It's an uphill battle, girls!)

Famed but bitter journo/cultural commentator Julie Burchill dedicated a whole book, Burchill on Beckham, in her attempt to explain the phenomenon of Beckham. She values him as a much needed sports hero in England because of his unusual "dignity under pressure, decency in decadence, [and] true talent amid the putrefaction of publicity". (Random House 2001: 121)

Four years ago, England lost their bid for the World Cup after Beckham was sent off for flicking an Argentinean player in the back of the leg. Never mind that this same player had just tackled our No. 7 and pulled his hair. England lost and that was all anyone cared about. The hatred exhibited by fans in the UK was astounding. Some hung effigies of Beckham outside pubs, other's mailed him bullets. He was vilified in the press. Beckham, understandably, fled to the country. When he joined his then girlfriend on the Spice World Tour, he impregnated her. We should have recognized his ability to succeed in the face of despair then.

Once back on the pitch, for both Man U and England, Beckham suffered grotesque verbal abuse. Fans verbally attacked his wife and child, trying to rattle him. But he kept his head down and worked his tail off, only once succumbing to the urge to flip the fans off. The photo printed in the morning papers showed Becks calmly sticking his middle figure up. He looked dignified, even then. By the end of the next season, Beckham's value as a player was undeniable. He began to surpass his wife's popularity.

Since then, the Beckham's have become a sort of working class royalty. They have entertained us with their fashion sense, their home, (dubbed "Beckingham Palace"), their self-made fortunes and their unquestionable love for each other. Victoria Beckham, a.k.a. Posh Spice, has no career as a pop star left, but she still manages several magazine covers a month. Heat Magazine, a cross between People and The National Inquirer, seem to have her on the cover almost every other week. David's varying hairstyles have captured the country's imaginations. The debut of his World Cup 'do was almost as anticipated as the announcement of the starting team.

The last few years have left English fans moaning and whinging about the state of their team, but Sven Goran Eriksson, the new, and for the first time "foreign", Swedish manager has changed all that. He has put together a young team and created an atmosphere of hope. And, despite the history, he has made Beckham captain, recognizing in him an inspirational leader who was overlooked even by the Man U manager, Alex Ferguson.

Sven's choice paid off. Not only did England kick some major German arse (5-1) in a World Cup qualifier, but Beckham, the yearling captain, pulled us back from the brink of elimination with an equalizing goal in the final minute of their last qualifying game against Greece. His mistake four years ago is finally fading.

When I think about my love of football and how much it has taught me, I can't help but think about that cheesy Kevin Costner in the flick, Field of Dreams. That movie totally illustrates love of a sport encapsulating all the important elements of life: love, hurt, happiness, anger, generational bonding, success and failure. Beckham's story reflects these things, as well.

I am sure that David Beckham values his female fans. They have supported him more freely than the lads. While his looks and desirable-Alpha-male status are reasons for the love and devotion (and these things have brought him a gay fan base as well), his talent on the pitch came first.

Last Friday Beckham scored the winning goal against Argentina. He volunteered to take that match-deciding penalty. From the look on his face I think it is safe to say it was a combination of his personal wants and his role as leader. If it went wrong he knew he could handle the fall out. It went right and all seems to be forgotten.

So often images of our sports heroes are comprised of PR campaigns, Nike ads, and the highlights of a few great moments in their careers. David Beckham has all of those things, but they have come because of his loyalty to his team, to his country and to himself.

I heard someone on the radio call him "Sir Beckham". It may have been a joke, or perhaps it was an understandable slip. The Queen could do worse than knight David Beckham. Come to think of it, she's knighting Mick "7,000 women and counting" Jagger. The dignity and grace with which Manchester U Captain, David Beckham, approaches his game is enough to make anyone's heart pitter patter � even the Queen's.

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