Where now for Brand Beckham?

He's the most commercially potent footballer ever. But with his career at a crossroads, his sponsors are facing some tough decisions. Ian Burrell reports from Madrid

As David Beckham took his place on the bench for Real Madrid's most recent home game at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, the photographers lined up before him like the Napoleonic firing squad in Goya's El Tres de Mayo, the masterpiece on display in the nearby Prado museum.

It was the biggest match of the season - El Clasico against Barcelona - yet Beckham, so recently the undisputed figurehead of English football, was once more suffering the ignominy of being named a mere substitute.

Beckham was well aware of the picture photographers had been asked to wire: "Goldenballs" without his lustre, stuck on the sidelines while former Old Trafford colleague Ruud van Nistelrooy and the other Real stars - Robinho, Raul, Cannavaro - took the limelight. It was a shot the snappers weren't going to get.

As the cameras flashed, so Becks flashed back with his teeth. Ker-ching, every smile worth a small fortune in maintaining the value of Brand Beckham.

He showed the same media nous a couple of weeks earlier at Real Betis in Seville. While the other substitutes sat forlornly, Beckham waited in the tunnel until after kick-off to ensure the picture opportunity was lost.

Dropped from the England squad, David Beckham is now struggling to get a game even with his club, threatening the demise of the most powerful personal brand in British sport.

This month he lost his lucrative deal as the face of Police sunglasses to the Spanish actor Antonio Banderas. The setback will not have helped his relationship with Gillette, with whom he signed a three-year deal in 2004.

That was the year a BBC survey found that 37 per cent of Britons rated Beckham more influential than God, and when marketing expert Matt Haig named him with Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lopez as the three individuals among the world's top 100 brands. Haig wrote: "His brand power is about much more than the soccer prowess he has displayed for Manchester United and Real Madrid."

But can one survive without the other? Gerry Armstrong, the former Northern Ireland, Spurs and Real Mallorca striker, who commentates on Spanish football for Sky Sports, has his doubts:"He has to be playing, in my opinion. I cannot see him signing a new contract if he's not playing regularly. When Real Madrid toured Asia it was the David Beckham tour, not the Real Madrid tour. He's a good-looking lad with a clean image that appeals to a lot of companies and he earns a lot more from his endorsements than he does from playing football."

Beckham makes around £10m a year from deals with Pepsi, Adidas, Motorola, Gillette and Coty perfume. Armstrong remembers the impact of his signing for Madrid in 2003. "They sold one million shirts in nine months at 72 euros each. It paid for the transfer fee straight away."

But the idea that the player might leave Madrid has gathered pace following an interview with Spanish paper La Razon, which some British journalists chose to interpret as a sign that he was preparing for his departure, with his current contract only lasting until the end of this season.

When he moved to Spain, a small army of British media moved with him. The Daily Mirror dispatched Stephen Moyes to Madrid. Eric Beauchamp was sent by The Sun and Antony Kastrinakis by the News of the World. Sid Lowe files to The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, and Paul Giblin to the Press Association, among others.

But the pack is now dwindling, as interest in Beckham pales and editors concentrate on younger stars such as Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott. One of the diehards of the Madrid pack, who asks not be named, says: "You would never have thought this but Brand Beckham is going out of fashion. Everything his media people are doing now is to protect the brand. He has always battled back but with England it is the end of the Beckham era and it could be the end of the Beckham era at Real Madrid."

The reporter says the player - even when not scoring - does what he can to associate himself with success. "When a goal is scored he is the first player to congratulate the scorer. That will be the picture on the back pages of the newspapers - it's always Becks and the goalscorer. Young players can learn so much from him about image."

There were no goal celebration photo opportunities for Beckham against Barcelona. Coach Fabio Capello brought him on with just eight minutes to play, long enough only for Becks to collect a yellow card awarded, ironically, for time-wasting.

Rob Palmer, Armstrong's co-commentator, was the first television journalist to interview the teenage protégé when he was on loan at Preston North End. "He said to me, 'Do I look at you or the camera?' He could find a camera now at one million miles," he laughs. "Beckham was the last of the galacticos. Ronaldo was the South American market and Zidane was the European market but Beckham is universal."

The loss of Becks from Spain would not be great news for Sky, which has televised La Liga for a decade, watched the value of the rights go up and just forked out £30m for coverage until 2009.

But Nigel Dean, Sky's Spanish football producer, does not seem too worried. "He's lost his England squad place and maybe the effect of any departure from Spain is not as much as it might have been at an earlier stage."

Beckham has some able advisers fighting his corner, most notably Simon Oliveira of Simon Fuller's 19 Management and Julian Henry of Henry's House PR agency. It seems to work. As soon as England's form dipped under new manager Steve McClaren this month, The Sun was running a "Bring Back Beckham" campaign - even though he had been dropped by Real.

Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, who writes for the sports paper Diario AS and recently interviewed Beckham, takes a more dispassionate view. "To the Spanish public he is less of an icon and more of a football player. His battle has always been to convince people that he is a player first and an icon second and the lack of reaction in Spain to him being on the bench at least shows he has got his wish. The debate in England is never tactical, it's all about personalities and controversies." Balague expects Beckham to play a role as a squad player this season and indeed he started in a low-key cup tie on Wednesday evening.

That might not be enough for the man who is still regarded in many parts of the world as the most famous footballer of all. One member of the British hack pack in Madrid is convinced he will leave Europe altogether. "I think he will go to America - it's perfect for David and Victoria. Brand Beckham is both of them together and she's had things on hold while he has been here in Madrid. He will be the star player in the American league and I think what he does there will almost eclipse what he's done here. They used to say he's the biggest star since George Best but that's wrong - there has never been anyone like Beckham."

The Beckhams have used US publicist Paul Bloch to raise their profile stateside, where the couple are busy cultivating celebrity friends such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Beckham mania has been a slower burn in the US but is certainly happening now. This summer he was chosen, alongside Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and ice skater Sasha Cohen to promote the drinking of milk in American schools. He was named in Vanity Fair's best-dressed list for 2006 and is regularly the subject of interview requests from the Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman shows.

China and India are regarded as growth markets for Beckham and he will be central to new campaigns in those countries for both Motorola and Adidas.

Oliveira, his publicist, denies the severance of the relationship with Police or the loss of his place in the Real line-up will lead to the demise of Brand Beckham. "All of his sponsors very much have a long-term vision of David's role in their campaigns. They work with David not just as a footballer but also for his appeal outside the sports pages."

Publicist Alan Edwards, whose Outside Organisation has represented the Beckhams, points to the long-term value of the David Beckham Academy, which he describes as "a great concept". The soccer school ties in neatly with Beckham's work as a global ambassador for Unicef, and therein probably lies the key to his future.

As PR Mark Borkowski notes, Beckham could be set to become the great champion of British sport, a Sir Bobby Charlton with truly global appeal and a better hairstyle. "Pele and Beckenbauer have shown how Beckham could still use the game as a backdrop to developing his brand. His next role could be as a great sporting ambassador and the London Olympics will be the key."