Beckham's Italian Job

Football's most fashionable player arrives in Milan today to relaunch his career in the game's most fashion-conscious city. It is already a major media event but, as Frank Dunne reports, the Englishman still has much to prove
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The Independent Football

When David Beckham arrives at Milan's Linate airport by private jet this morning to begin his brief loan spell with Milan he will be hoping to breathe some life into the dying embers of his international playing career.

The Italian media is gearing up for saturation coverage over the next three months but couldn't care less about the things occupying English minds, whether the England coach, Fabio Capello, continues to pick Beckham, or takes him to the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010. The focus is on the glitz, glamour and gossip surrounding "the royal family of English football", David and Victoria.

It looks like a marriage made in heaven: the world's most marketable footballer in one of the world's fashion capitals playing for the most glamorous of Italian football clubs. Rupert Murdoch's pay-television platform, Sky Italia, certainly thinks so. Sky outbid other broadcasters – including Mediaset, which belongs to Milan's owner, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi – for the exclusive rights to broadcast Beckham's press conference at 7pm local time this evening.

Sky is a football-obsessed broadcaster but its website suggested questions about Beckham's fitness or how he might fit into Milan's 4-3-2-1 formation were not top of the agenda. The presentation at San Siro will be followed, the site reported, by an aperitivo in a luxurious villa on the Viale Abruzzi, where guests will include Tony Blair and Roman Abramovich. Actor George Clooney will be popping down from his villa on Lake Como to rub shoulders with Victoria's former Spice Girls colleagues. The Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria Parker, model Kate Moss and designers Dolce & Gabbana are expected.

Nobody doubts that the Beckhams know how to throw a good party. But the former Manchester United and Real Madrid player will have to work hard to shift his name from the gossip columns to the football headlines. Yesterday's Gazzetta dello Sport, the country's main sports paper, was emblematic. Page eight was dedicated to Milan, discussing the club's injury list, the line-up for tomorrow night's league game against Udinese and possible reinforcements in the January transfer window. Page nine was dedicated to the Beckhams. Readers were informed of the Beckhams' choice of hotel (the Four Seasons in Via Gesu, apparently); that their requests for various designer stores to be closed tomorrow to allow them to shop privately had been turned down; and Victoria had been signed up by Giorgio Armani to model underwear.

Even the left-leaning La Repubblica couldn't resist. In a front-page story about the arrival of the Beckhams, the only mention of David was in a final paragraph pointing out that Milan have been inundated with requests to play friendly matches. The rest of the piece was dedicated to Victoria's alleged decision to pull out of a television special when she discovered the show would be hosted by Ilaria D'Amico, one of Italian television's most attractive and voluptuous presenters. "Perhaps for Mrs Beckham, a quick search on Google was enough to make her feel suddenly inadequate about a direct comparison," the paper suggested.

Italians can hardly be blamed for thinking football is only a small part of the story. When Beckham's loan from the US side LA Galaxy was announced in October, Milan's managing director, Adriano Galliani, seemed to give the game away. "Today's football isn't just about skill and tactics," he said. "It's also about full stadiums, TV ratings and sponsors." In a poll conducted that week by the Corriere della Sera paper, 83.6 per cent of readers defined the loan as "purely a marketing operation", with only 16.4 per cent calling it "a good signing which will strengthen the squad".

Sports industry experts have little doubt the deal is primarily about marketing. Giovanni Palazzi, president of the Italian sponsorship consultancy, StageUp, defined it as "a deal in which two brands – Beckham and Milan – come together to enhance the visibility of both. Beckham is a global brand and he has decided to divide his time between two of his biggest markets, the US and Europe. It's no coincidence he chose Milan, Italy's fashion capital, because most of his brand value is tied to fashion."

Perhaps the real question about the loan is whether the 33-year-old Beckham can do enough between January and March to convince Milan to offer him a deal through to the end of next season. Playing regularly in one of Europe's toughest leagues would certainly enhance Beckham's chances of going to South Africa. His age would not be an issue for Milan, where experience is highly prized. In the first-team squad, 14 players are the wrong side of 30.

The view in October was that Beckham would train with the first team and might get a run-out as a substitute in the Coppa Italia or the Uefa Cup. But coach Carlo Ancelotti may no longer have the luxury of relegating Beckham to cameo roles. Ahead of tomorrow night's game, nine players were doubtful with knocks or strains. The midfielder Gennaro Gattuso is out for the rest of the season with ruptured knee ligaments, defender Alessandro Nesta continues to have back problems and Brazilian forward Kaka is struggling with a recurrent swelling of the groin.

Milan are third in Serie A, nine points behind the leaders Internazionale, and when they return from their sunshine break in Dubai next month they face their toughest two months of the season. Matches against Roma, Fiorentina and Lazio are followed in mid-February by the derby against Inter, which could prove to be a season-defining game. Milan want to keep Beckham, and his $5m-a-year salary (£3.4m) would not be an obstacle. Milan's top players, like Kaka and Ronaldinho, earn around €8m (£7.5m) a season.

Beckham has a unilateral exit clause in his contract with LA Galaxy, which he can trigger from next October, so there would be little point in Galaxy's owners, AEG, resisting if the player were determined to leave. The official line from LA Galaxy is that they want Beckham back but the off-the-record view in US football circles is that "the Beckham effect" – in raising the profile of the league around the world – is on the wane and that his salary might be better spent on bringing in eight or nine good players.

The biggest problem for Milan would be to put together some kind of deal on image rights, merchandising and sponsorship which could enable Beckham to match his estimated $25m (£17m)-a-year income in the US. Galliani said Beckham's advertising contracts were "scary". A longer-term deal would open up valuable possibilities for both parties. Alex Fynn, a football consultant and former director of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, said Milan would benefit from an increase in merchandising income and, possibly, increased ticket sales. "In terms of advertising and sponsorships, he would need to be there for at least 12 months to have an impact. That is the time advertisers need to build a campaign."

Another spin-off of a longer deal could be the return to UK television screens of Serie A. Riccardo Silva, whose agency MP & Silva sells the international TV rights to Serie A, said there had been strong interest from two free-to-air broadcasters for the rights to Milan's games during the loan period.

If things go well for Beckham in the next three months, in March he could be faced with a big dilemma: keep taking the Yankee dollar and risk his England place or try to re-establish himself among the world's best players. It may be the moment that defines whether he is, at heart, a brand or a footballer.

He was left in no doubt this week about what Capello thinks. If Beckham is playing for Milan he will be considered for selection for England's friendly against Spain in February. If not, he won't get picked. "There are no special rules for anybody," Capello said. There is at least one Italian who is not buying into the hype.

Veterans club: The thirtysomethings (and one fortysomething) who play at Milan

*Paolo Maldini, 40

It is 23 years and 11 months since Signor Milan (below) made his debut – on that date five of his first team colleagues were not yet born.

*Filippo Inzaghi, 35

Famously "born in an offside position", that day is now in the distant past but such longevity contributes to his second place on the all-time Champions League scoring charts.

*Dida, 35

Much mocked over here, in part for fan-slapping theatricals and Brazilian goalkeeping prejudice, his 2003 penalty shoot-out heroics helped Milan to the first of two Champions league titles they have won with the Brazilian in goal.

*Emerson, 32

Like Beckham, he has had a close but often fractious relationship with Fabio Capello, who managed him at Juventus and Madrid. Once nicknamed Puma for his feline grace, now more likely to be found curled up on laps than chasing prey.

*Clarence Seedorf, 32

Now a golden oldie, there was a time – back in 1992 – when this Dutch midfielder became Ajax's youngest ever player, a record he still holds.

*Andriy Shevchenko, 32

The fact that the Ukrainian striker had already turned nine when his family were forced to move by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster gives an indication of his age; that he met his wife at an Armani after-party suggests that the Milan paparazzi should prepare to snap some double dates with Posh and Becks.

City of culture : Sights and sounds of Goldenballs' latest stomping ground

*Duomo di Milano

Some 3,500 statues adorn the exterior of this vast cathedral which was started in 1386 and finished in 1805 because Napoleon wanted to be crowned King of Italy there. If Becks is lucky enough to visit on a clear day, the vista from the roof reaches as far as the Alps.

*Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Completed in 1867, this exquisite glass-roofed arcade with marble flooring is perfect for post-match warm-downs, people-watching and coffee-drinking. Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton can all be found here.

*La Scala

Outside the galleria is one of the world's most famous theatres of dreams. The opera season opened, as per tradition, on 7 December and in February Posh and Becks can take in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, about those most jealous and separated of lovers.

*Cimitero Monumentale

The perfect place for Becks to gain a sense of those who have left their imprint on the city – he may even spot the odd team-mate if he waits long enough. The Formula 1 champion Alberto Ascari and philosopher Carlo Cattaneo are both buried here.

*Gold

If too much mortality has got Becks down a trip to Gold will perk him up. This Dolce & Gabbana-owned bar is the epitomy of opulence. According to 'Time Out' it is "the place to head for those who live to be fabulous and like to be looked at" – poor LA Galaxy must feel like a jilted lover on a "break".

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