"I'm thinking of packing it in and moving to Madrid," an experienced Fleet Street reporter told me at a party in an Indian restaurant last week. The veteran journalist on a tabloid newspaper was convinced that David and Victoria Beckham's departure to Spain would allow him to quit his staff job and the British climate and provide him with a decent income from stories about them.
Alas, my acquaintance may have been a little slow off the mark. A hack pack is already being formed around the sarong-clad, Alice-band-wearing new king of Castile. The Daily Mirror has appointed a David Beckham correspondent. The Sun is expected to follow suit. Even faster out of the blocks was the former Mail staffer and Madrid-based football specialist Graham Hunter, who quickly spotted the gold mine that was the arrival of Golden Balls and has been filing for broadsheets and tabloids alike.
In prime position is John Carlin, a Barcelona-based British journalist who writes on Spanish football for The Independent. Carlin was on an assignment in Africa when he was invited by Real Madrid to interview Beckham for its television channel.
British news reporters based in Spain have traditionally had one of two roles. For the tabloid hacks, the primary task has been to trawl the bars of the Costa del Sol for suntanned south-London expats of interest to Scotland Yard. The broadsheet brief has been to reflect the cultural changes in the land of Velazquez and Almodovar and to report the sporadic clashes between the Spanish fishing-fleet and our own.
But the Mirror's Stephen Moyes and the other Beckham correspondents will not be concerned by any of that. Moyes has been dispatched to the Spanish capital with the job spec: "Live, sleep and breathe Beckham." Moyes's command of Spanish is "non-existent", his editor, Piers Morgan, boasts in the current edition of Press Gazette (adding that he hopes his reporter will gatecrash Beckham's language classes). Last week, in one of Moyes's first offerings - strapline: "Becksmania hits Madrid" - he filed intricate details of the footballer's medical examination. "Six paparazzi photographers tried to keep up with the cavalcade, led by a silver Lexus jeep carrying security staff," said the piece. "Emerging from the car into bright sunlight, Becks was momentarily blinded by the flashes of cameras."
Unlike previous novelty bylines such as lottery correspondent, the title of David Beckham correspondent should not be a short-lived journalistic post and could survive for years. The job is a mixed blessing. Beckham hacks will have been pleasantly surprised to find that they have daily access to their subject when he passes through a "mixed area" on his way to Real's Ciudad Deportivo sports ground. By contrast, the media have not had access to Manchester United's Carrington training-ground for more than four years, and the club organised just one interview with Beckham in the whole of last season.
But the downside for the Beckham correspondents is that any attempt to deploy traditional Fleet Street tabloid trickery and follow the footballer on his trips to Madrid's swanky restaurants and fashion retailers will result in a withdrawal of their training-ground access. Such behaviour will also provoke a furious response from the Spanish press, which has learnt to respect Real's rules and will not take kindly to Beckham being put under wraps.
La Marca, a Spanish sports daily that outsells all of the country's newspapers, is undergoing a Beckham hysteria of its own and has acres of pages to fill on the minutiae of the player's new Iberian lifestyle. The Madrid stars Raul and Luis Figo have already expressed dismay at the presence of reporters and paparazzi on their doorsteps since Beckham's signing was announced.
Sir Alex Ferguson's approach of shielding players from the media (if not from himself) was imposed for a reason, and Real may be forced to take similarly tough action to protect their £25m investment.
The club's new No 23 may have shifted 8,000 replica shirts in his first week without kicking a ball in anger, but the level of expectation at the Bernabeu must intimidate even Golden Balls. Nothing short of total success will be acceptable, as Real's coach, Vicente del Bosque, found out a fortnight ago when he was fired within hours of winning the Spanish league because of earlier shortcomings in the pan-European Champions League.
From the giddiest tier of the Bernabeu, I watched as the title was won in a thrilling decider against Athletic Bilbao. The celebrations were staggering. As the final whistle sounded, the stadium lights went out, and fireworks lit the night sky. Flag-bearers poured on to the pitch in procession, and the players danced a jig of triumph. From my seat in the gods (81 quid and worth every penny), the captain, Zinedine Zidane, and co looked like pin men.
If the British Madrid hack pack starts to misbehave, Real may ensure that that's as close as it will be allowed to get to David Beckham.Reuse content