David Beckham’s Alaska
by Sam Fayyaz · January 14, 2011
Famed British literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s book Figures of Dissent (2003) includes essays on radical political and cultural figures like the eccentric Lacanian critical theorist Slavoj Žižek, post-colonial scholar Gayatri Spivak, Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Eliot. Sandwiched between his terse but dense musings on these radical thinkers and anti-establishment gadflies is an essay on David Beckham. The essay, first published in the Guardian as a review of Beckham’s 2000 autobiography My World, is charitable enough to Beckham the man, who Eagleton notes seems like a genuinely “loving father” and someone who clearly “detests racism.” However, in less than three pages Eagleton also convincingly establishes that Beckham the man is all but irrelevant to his legacy and appeal as a public figure if not as a “figure of dissent.” For Eagleton, Beckham’s visceral allure is rooted in his ability to symbolically balance working-class chav-ness with late-capitalist sexiness: a tattooed teetotaler whom men imagine performing gut-busting acts of physical exertion for club and country, and whom women imagine performing gut-busting acts of physical exertion for, well, something else entirely. His status as soccer god and metropolitan sex god is based on the subtle ruse that he is more anti-establishment than he actually is. And what he actually is, according to Eagleton, is a “public fetish,” a monument to neoliberal consumer-culture vapidity that has come to represent the post-Thatcher, post-Love Actually British cultural milieu.
And more than British: Three weeks ago, to mark the 10th anniversary of diplomatic relations between North Korea and Britain, North Korean television aired a censored version of the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham—the first time the authoritarian regime has broadcast a Western film. The movie is a fizzy paean to cross-cultural understanding and gender parity where Beckham operates as the living embodiment of an idealized conception of football as an inherently colorblind enterprise that can foster multiculturalism, and even romantic love. The man’s representation of an agreeable Englishness seems to knows no bounds on the global stage. Rather than a figure of dissent, then, Beckham is a cozy, just slightly edgy reminder that some mavericks can be made patriots and some patriots made mavericks.
That is why, in certain quarters, his recent demands to be loaned out to Tottenham are being packaged as a kind of stylish patriotism. Martin Samuel suggests that English football needs David Beckham even if English football clubs do not, and that “he should be given his own office at the Football Association and whatever title he wants,” because “he could take on the self-interest of the professional game, and would have the backing of the public if he did.” Samuel writes:
“Why I would let David Beckham run English football,” by Martin Samuel. Daily Mail, January 6, 2011. [Italics mine.]
For all his celebrity trappings, in his work with the London Olympic team and, more recently, the doomed World Cup bid, Beckham has earned a reputation as a man of substance. It is to be hoped he also possesses valid opinions on the way football should be run, its role in society, on the grass roots and how best to benefit the England team. Ignore his accent. He is not thick, he just comes from Leytonstone. They all speak like that round there.
Samuel’s insistence that Beckham is a man of substance is belied by his admission that he knows nothing of what Beckham substantively thinks. To his credit, Samuel understands that in footballing terms Beckham is at best a luxury and at worst an irrelevancy in the Premier League. The former England captain’s ability to hit a telling cross is now hopelessly compromised by his laborious trotting, which is terribly slow in MLS and would be positively glacial in England. Yet Samuel’s claim that Beckham has an immediate role to play in English football administration glosses over the fact that he is a paid athlete under contract for the LA Galaxy, overstates his gravitas as a negotiator considering England’s failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup, and overlooks the fact that Beckham himself is seeking a position on the wing at White Hart Lane presumably to play football. In so doing, he unwittingly confirms Eagleton’s point that Beckham is an empty suit who is conveniently filled by the fantasies of observers: Beckham the FA savior, Beckham the veteran who can give the Spurs dressing room some mettle to challenge for the title.
I won’t rehearse the grievances of Galaxy supporters, but their bewilderment and anger at his perpetual flirtation with European clubs might be the result of a genuine divorce from the environment that made him a national treasure. That isn’t to say, of course, that as Americans we can’t appreciate the grotesque ubiquity of fading or irrelevant talent. We suffer Brett Favre, Lindsey Lohan, and Sarah Palin with great relish. And like the former governor of Alaska, David Beckham manages with every muttering to bully the media into rapt attention. As with Palin, Beckham’s fans pin their hopes on his persona and tell themselves, as Samuel has, that he knows better, that he’s a populist revolutionary ready to defy the corrupt powers of the game. Like Palin’s, his capriciousness is packaged as bigger-picture loyalty—I’m quitting Alaska to commit to America, I’m quitting Los Angeles to commit to England. And, most importantly, like Palin, he is compelling to the extent that this capriciousness is presented as nonconformity rather than avarice or narcissism. Although Beckham, unlike Palin, was once very good at his day job and might therefore be running on fumes rather than false promise.
Sam Fayyaz is a PhD student at UMASS, Amherst where he studies political science when he’s not anoraking about soccer.
Although England’s failure to land the World Cup probably has more to do with FIFA’s idiosyncrasies and corruption than it does with Beckham, who by all accounts did well as one of the public faces for England’s bid. Samuel, in fact, refers to the bid as “doomed” which suggests he understands this. Nevertheless, given his admitted ignorance of Beckham’s thoughts on advancing the sport, how can Samuel claim to be more than yet another admirer of Brand Beckham?
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