Beckham: celebration, punishment and redemption
Written by Ili Hyseni
Many footballers have had a fractious relationship with the media. News companies are known for launching targeted campaigns against some of the biggest names in the game. They are strategic in nature, often coming at sensitive times such as before a World Cup. Tabloid newspapers have a tradition of this, targeting Raheem Sterling over a tattoo before the tournament in Russia for example.
The situation 25 years ago was no different. David Beckham’s experience with the media is one of celebration, punishment and then redemption. When Beckham burst onto the scene at United the initial media coverage was positive. This was a bright young talent who had his whole club and international career ahead of time. For papers like The Sun the golden boy of English football had it all; the looks, the talent and the girlfriend. In an early biography, Beckham is described as liking the occasional beer with his friends or a glass of wine with his meal, but never more than once a week. “You have to take care of yourself at this level”.
News is sadly nothing if not entertaining and the narrative around Beckham quickly shifted to the sensational as much was made of his personal relationships, fashion choices and perceived lack of masculinity. His treatment in the tabloid press was medieval. While 800 years ago public shaming took place in a town square, Beckham’s was drawn out daily in the papers. Summer 1998 proved to be a tough period for David Beckham as he struggled to stay out of the gossip columns. A widely shared and now infamous image of him wearing a sarong on holiday with Victoria proved to be the beginning of a tense relationship with the media. The papers pounced on the photos, berating him for deviating away from masculine conventions and making suggestions about his emasculated character.
Publications now considered progressive once disapproved of Beckham’s fashion choices. GQ commented: “[the sarong] made him look like a right twerp” while the Evening Standard quipped: “Beckham does un-masculine things; attending fashion events like London Fashion Week.” In the last couple of years these same publications have conducted shoots and published double page spreads celebrating the style choices of the likes of Hector Bellerin and Dominic Calvert Lewin.
Not long after the sarong incident, a red card at the World Cup in a crucial game against Argentina was made as a point of national shame by the media who’s coverage of the incident no doubt fomented the incessant abuse Beckham faced by fans for the duration of the next season. Coupled with the image of him in the sarong, Beckham was not only castigated for the World Cup incident but also for his image; that of a wealthy footballer who played for a club perceived to have spent their way to the top of football. His character and style was too alternative, too adventurous for those part of the traditionally working class football subculture.
There are similarities in the treatment of David Beckham to that of Paul Pogba. Both Manchester United midfielders have been used as scapegoats during tough periods for the club. They have been sacrificial offerings at times when United have performed poorly and been the subject of jealous media coverage.
The construction of a feminized and emasculated Beckham who wore what his wife told him to encouraged abuse in the terraces. The abuse was rooted in working class fears of both feminism and homo-eroticism, with chants focussed on anal sex such as “does she take it up the arse?” aimed at Victoria Beckham. In his work, Freud has discussed how humour and aggressiveness intersect and in this case, what was perceived as humour by the fans was actually used as a weapon.
For Beckham, unlike many other footballers, redemption in the eyes of the press did eventually come. He was rehabilitated by those who berated him after a successful season in which he won the treble in 1999. Praised once again for his maturity and discipline, Beckham’s reputation was rebuilt. His marriage to Victoria was a highly publicised event, elevating the couple to pseudo royal status. The media rights to the wedding were sold to OK magazine for a speculated fee of £1 million. Days of coverage by both tabloid and broad sheet papers played on the nostalgic yearning for displays of wealth that only the Royal family used to put on, a chance for wealthy elites to advertise their riches with the power of mass media.
David Beckham was one of the first footballers of his kind. A post modern icon at a time when there were still traditional figures within the game. Figures that espoused traditional working class masculine values. Beckham grew up in a time when men’s interest in fashion was being promoted by the likes of GQ and FHM. It was the beginning of what we see today, an environment where sport and fashion are intrinsically intertwined, an environment where people are famous for simply being famous.