Madness in Madrid as Beckham puts on his shirt

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The Independent Online

It was less than half an hour after David Beckham had been handed his shirt by Alfredo di Stefano and already Miguel Castello, the manager of Real Madrid's club shop at the Bernabeu, was feeling overwhelmed.

The first row of Beckham shirts had already disappeared at the hefty price of €78 (£56) and anyone buying them was being filmed and interviewed by a clutch of camera crews. By the end of the day all 300 had gone. "It's a little mad," reflected Castello. "He's not the Pope, he's just a football player."

The truth is that Beckham is no longer "just a football player", a fact acknowledged by the Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, in the hushed surroundings of the Raimundo Saporta basketball pavilion which had been converted into a theatre complete with operatic music for Beckham's "presentation".

When Diego Maradona was transferred to Barcelona in June 1982, the president of Boca Juniors congratulated his opposite number, Josep Nunez, for "signing the best footballer in the world". Perez could not make that claim yesterday. Although his statement that Beckham was "a man of our times and a symbol of modern-day stardom," rang very true, the one about him being "one of the best English players of all time," would have raised some eyebrows.

Having assembled the captains of England, France and Spain in one dressing-room, Perez, a man with no interest in food, fashion or anything unrelated to Real Madrid, was entitled to his victory speech. "We love Beckham because he makes us the best team on and off the pitch... The only limit we have is our imagination. Fundamentally, Beckham is here because he wanted to be. He is fulfilling his dreams by playing for the team of his dreams."

Beckham spoke a couple of lines of English and for the benefit of the Spanish media finished with: "Gracias. Hala Madrid" (Thank you. Come on Madrid). The British ambassador to Spain, Stephen Wright, gushed: "I don't know who gave him advice on his pronunciation but they can be pretty pleased with themselves. It was perfect." His backroom advice has always been pretty good, but it was only three words.

Then, on the pitch in Madrid's Ciudad Deportiva training ground, other emotional boxes were neatly ticked. Eva Peron was famed for her love of the "descamisados" or shirtless ones of Argentina and as Beckham approached the Real fans, one young lad, an 11-year-old, Alfonso Lopez, ran on and embraced him. Conveniently, his torso was bare and a spare shirt bearing the magic No 23 and Beckham's name was lying on the ground nearby which his hero dressed him in.

The same stunt had been pulled when Ronaldo was presented last year and the message was the same: "Make your boy happy. Buy him a Real Madrid shirt". Despite intense speculation - the Spanish sports newspaper Marca had conducted a poll of its readers to find their favourite number, which turned out to be the No 8 worn by Steve McManaman - 23 was chosen because, quite simply, it was available.

Beckham can do the PR effortlessly, but many wonder how he will fit in. Apart from the new coach, Carlos Queiroz, only two members of Real's frontline squad, McManaman and Luis Figo, speak fluent English and the former is likely to be sold. Changed back into the expensively-torn jeans which some in the Spanish media fancifully thought had been ripped into the shape of a No 7, Beckham broached the subject of Queiroz's appointment in his interview for Real Madrid Television conducted by John Carlin, who writes on Spanish football for The Independent.

"The truth is, I was taken by surprise when Carlos came to Real Madrid," he said. "It's a challenge for him and he will be able to help me while I still don't speak Spanish. It will be good to have him alongside me early on. At Manchester United he did a lot of work with the defence but also in other areas.

"It will be important for me to express myself in Spanish as soon as possible. I'll make a real effort because it will help me integrate. Signing for Real Madrid is a challenge in family as well as footballing terms. It's a new life for me, my wife and children; new schools, new customs. I'm looking forward to it."

There is little reason to doubt it. Beckham may not have been academically gifted when growing up in Leytonstone, but he is intelligent and has adapted seamlessly to his wife's lifestyle of fashion and music. With friends such as the actor, Nigel Havers, and Elton John, he has shown himself to be nothing if not curious and there are few parallels with Paul Gascoigne's transfer to Italy more than a decade ago. "Right, we've arrived in Rome when do we get to Lazio?", only to be told Lazio was in Rome. Unlike Gascoigne, Beckham's fitness, training routines and private life are beyond reproach.

Whether he is accepted in the Bernabeu depends as much on the British press as anything he does himself. Some tabloids have already moved to appoint "David Beckham correspondents" which threatens to endanger the unwritten rules of Spanish sports journalism - you get daily access to players in a way that would horrify Manchester United but in return the media avoids the bars and restaurants used by the team.

Beckham adopted a soothing tone towards his colleagues. "I haven't come here to be a great star. I'm here to be part of a team full of great players who are stars. We haven't talked about my position. The first thing I'll have to do is battle to win a place. All the players have to fight to be in the starting line-up; that's what makes the team so great and helps them win so many titles."

Beside the interviewer and subject was the European Cup that Real have won nine times and which they must regain next season or else risk the most high-profile transfer in the history of the sport being condemned as a failure. For all the shirts sold, that is the only thing that matters.

VESTED INTERESTS WILL JORDAN'S NUMBER OPEN UP AMERICA?

What's in a number? Real Madrid's decision to allocate the No 23 shirt to David Beckham yesterday had no obvious significance, yet lovers of American sport may have detected a cunning, almost subliminal plot by Real to break into the potentially massive and lucrative United States market.

For 23 is the number synonymous with Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards basketball legend, who is arguably the only figure in sport who comes close to Beckham's global appeal to fans and advertisers alike. The Bulls retired the number in honour of Jordan.

By a poignant coincidence, 23 was also the number worn by Marc-Vivien Foé for Manchester City against Beckham and United last season. City have retired the number after Foé's fatal collapse last week, and Cameroon, whose No 17 top he distinguished, are to follow suit.

At Old Trafford, Beckham was latterly No 7, which Eric Cantona seemed to have made his own, but at the Bernabeu that number is jealously guarded by Raul. No 10, coveted worldwide because of its associations with Pele, Diego Maradona, Michel Platini et al, belongs to Luis Figo at Real.

Stanley Matthews was No 7 with Stoke, except for one game at No 11 in his penultimate season. Johan Cruyff, a natural No 10, favoured No 14. The practice of retiring a number, originally an American concept, is spreading. Napoli and Santos no longer have a No 10 in homage to Maradona and Pele, while Roma's No 6 ended with Aldair's departure.

Arsenal and Chelsea pioneered numbered shirts in 1928, but 11 years passed before the Football League made them mandatory. The first FA Cup final in which they were worn, in 1933, saw Everton take Nos 1-11 and Manchester City 12-22. Now, to adapt an old cliché, Beckham must make the No 23 shirt his own.

Phil Shaw

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