David Beckham, England international footballer, Brylcreem-boy, fiancé of a Spice Girl, came back from the World Cup final in disgrace. Back-page headlines declared him persona non grata, the shame of England. Many fans, asked by the tabloids to stand in judgement, considered him unforgivable. Even The Times joined in, headlining an article on Beckham's upcoming season in Hell with the unequivocal 'Why we will never forgive him for ruining our summer with that fractious little kick'.
Beckham's crime? Oh, he kicked another footballer. While playing football. Not, you will agree, a rare occurrence. Nor is it usually the sort of behaviour that would result in hung in effigy from a lamp-post, the rather charmless gesture that welcomed Beckham back to Manchester, where he plays his club football. Of course, the kick was at a rather special time, and had rather special consequences. England were playing Argentina in the second round of the World Cup finals, probably the biggest game in which most of the England players will ever participate. Beckham was fouled by one of the Argentinean players, Diego Simeone. This was tactically good for the team, if in a minor way. Beckham had earned his team a free kick. However, while laid out on the ground, with play at a temporary halt, he undid his good work by lashing out at Simeone with his foot. Mr Posh Spice was sent off, more for the pointless malice of his action than from any danger of physical injury. England subsequently lost the match and were out of the World Cup. Beckham became the scapegoat of a disappointed nation.
What exactly was the nature of Beckham's sin, however? And what can all this tell us about the body politics of football? For a start, we should reject the obvious source of national upset, the notion that Beckham lost us the World Cup. When England scored late on, it was disallowed because team captain Alan Shearer had elbowed the goalkeeper in the face. Unlike Beckham's harmless schoolyard kick in the leg, this could have caused concussion or a broken cheekbone, yet Shearer was instantly forgiven. The reason? He was trying. Trying hard. Giving 100 per cent. Giving 110 per cent, even, in football-speak. Beckham's gratuitous foul was incomprehensible and unforgivable because of its selfishness, because it put the player before the team.
The truth is, for the serious football fan (the sort who turns to the back page of the paper before reading the front-page headline and who knows the names of all of the reserve players at his local club) there is nothing worse than a player who thinks he is more important than the team. Fans really hate a footballer who doesn't realise that they own him. 'Loyal servant of the club' is the highest praise a supporter can give. Fans like to be told that no player is bigger than the club. Its the explanation given when a club has to sell those players who win matches, the talented ones. The fans accept it because, if truth be told, they don't love skilful players; they are suspicious of them. This can be best seen in the xenophobia that is only gradually dying out in British football. Many clubs still have their token foreign player, brought in for the superior skill factor, but damned with faint praise by club and media alike as tricky, unpredictable, a fancy dan. When push comes to shove they are moody, petulant, work-shy. These players are ultimately dismissed as not committed to the club, not willing to become loyal servants. And why should they be? The implicit charge, that they are simply mercenaries, is essentially true. They are employees, not servants, and it does not particularly matter for which club they happen to play. The trouble is that such players display the commercial truth about football, and threaten the fantasy that the fan carries around with him while he watches his team - that could be me out there. And if it were him, the fan would give 110 per cent, and more.
The illogic of giving 110 per cent is all about the myth of the humble workhorse, the moderately talented but utterly committed servant, transcending his true level for the glory of the local team. It is here, and not in the talented mercenary, that the fan can see himself. The fan likes those who know that they are no more than vassals, communally owned, sacrificing their bodies for the common good.
So, Beckham, sacrificing his body in the World Cup (literally, leaving his team one body short), failed to do so for the good of the team. It did not help that he was already seen as a fancy dan - too young, too talented, too arrogant, too rich to have to be anyone's servant, ever. In a single kick, Beckham earned the anger of English fans towards all players who had risen above their station. Tabloids wondered whether he should leave the country permanently to escape the wrath of disappointed supporters. This would be a nice irony, as it would turn him into the unpredictable, petulant, foreign star for some club on the Continent. For his first major game back in England, fans provided a welcoming banner, Beck-scum. The notoriously vituperative fans of West Ham United, in London's East End, displayed at the match red cards reading 'You're a disgrace to your country'. That was August.
By September, surveys showed that around three in four thought that it was time to forgive David Beckham. It was a remarkable turnaround. At West Ham, Beckham was booed whenever he touched the ball. It is still happening, but less and less with each game. Another England player, Paul Ince, also faced constant boos when he played at West Ham this season. He has done so every time he has gone there for nearly a decade, since he left for a richer club. Pace the commentators of The Times, Beckham will eventually be forgiven by all English fans. It is Ince, and all the other players who have broken club loyalty, who will never be forgiven by the fans of those clubs. There was a genuine desire to punish Beckham for his crime, for the perceived damage he did his national team. He turned out to be beyond reach. The national team is an abstract, not a club. The passion runs more widely, but not as deep. It is not a local resource, funded by the vehement pride of its fans. People will still make the easy protest of booing Beckham, but they know that they cannot touch him. They donít own him. They don't have possession of his body. He does not have to sell it, 110 per cent, each week. Beckham's body has been sold elsewhere. The real owners are Brylcreem, Sky television, Adidas sportswear - the companies who have paid for the rights to his image and who pay for pictures of it to be put on to front covers and supermarket shelves throughout the country. Forgiveness is in their hands; and their hands are in their pockets.