Mind your language: the key to Real happiness

Beckham's exemplary attitude may serve him well. Tim Rich sees the pitfalls as the Madrid circus opens
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The Independent Football

The motorcade carrying the most famous footballer in the world sped through the hot Spanish streets crowded with fans. Merchandising deals had already been signed and a film would be marketed in Los Angeles on the strength of his transfer; a separate company would handle the image rights. Two years later, Diego Maradona was bankrupt and Barcelona were deep in crisis.

Unlike the Argentine, David Beckham's cheques will not bounce, but the England captain and world's most beautiful footballer will be subjected to the same ruinous attention. Most people already know the details of Real Madrid's pre-season better than they do Arsenal's: return to the Ciudad Deportiva training ground on 23 July, Far Eastern tour, Spanish Super Cup with Real Mallorca - each one covered intensively by "David Beckham correspondents" from the British tabloids. When he reports back to Ciudad Deportiva, Beckham will theoretically be available for interview on a daily basis, and there is a limit to how often the media will tolerate a reply of "sin comentarios".

It is a truism that those Englishmen who succeed abroad do so because they learn the language. David Platt, a nice, ambitious boy, began learning Italian more than a year before his transfer to Bari. Ian Rush wanted to put the Italian tapes on before he went to Juventus "but I always ended up playing music in the car". Isolated in his villa near Turin, Rush rued the fact that digestive biscuits were unobtainable.

Madrid has remarkably few people who understand English, but given Beckham's character, his superlative attitude to repetitive training, like taking free-kicks, and his curiosity about other cultures, it is unlikely to be a problem. "Gracias, hala Madrid" - the words he uttered as his "presentation'' - should be the first of many carefully chosen phrases. Unlike Paul Gascoigne in Rome, he is unlikely to grab the microphone and belch when asked for a comment.

It is Gascoigne's move to Lazio and Maradona's to Barcelona that Beckham's transfer most closely resembles in terms of its stature. Neither succeeded, and the moral of both their stories is that, above all, Beckham must avoid injury. The brutal tackle by Andoni Goikoetxea, "The Butcher of Bilbao", in September 1983 not only wrecked Maradona's season, it ruined him financially; McDonald's cancelled their planned adverts when the crew discovered they could only film him from the waist up.

The film of his life, into which Maradona had ploughed more than $1m of his own money, was also shelved and never properly released. His vast retinue sponged away his day-to-day earnings, and his move to Napoli was motivated solely by the need to earn a signing-on fee.

Gascoigne was, famously, never fit, which did for him far more than his inability to speak Italian. The Lazio players quite enjoyed his mime acts, but only fleetingly did he offer glimpses of that rare, special talent. Should Beckham lose his place in this "dream team", personalised benchwarmers may join the flood of Beckham memorabilia on sale in the Bernabeu's club shop.

The amount Real Madrid will make in Beckham merchandise has been wildly exaggerated. One English tabloid suggested that the entire fee - £25m - would be recouped on shirt sales alone. Manchester United make around £20 for every jersey they sell in England and perhaps £5 for every one bought in the Far East. In 2001-02, Real sold a total of 480,000 shirts. He is not that popular.

Figures for players' salaries are notoriously hard to pin down, but Beckham may have taken a slight pay cut to move to Madrid, who have offered him the "standard" £4.2m a year paid to their most glittering stars such as Raul, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. Since they are suspicious of him anyway, this is probably all to the good. Kevin Keegan initially unearthed considerable poison at Hamburg when the club revealed he was being paid more than any footballer in Germany. At one stage, several players refused to pass to him. Maradona eased matters when insisting that the Barcelona players be given the same win bonuses as him, while Gascoigne was never that highly paid - earning £500,000 a year at Lazio, half Des Walker's salary at Sampdoria.

Beckham's transfer has been almost entirely talked of in numbers: how many shirts sold, how much for image rights, what salary, what does 23 signify? But the only number that counts in Madrid is La Decima - The Tenth. When Real won the European Cup in Glasgow last year, it was called simply La Noventa - the Ninth. Their failure in the semi-final essentially cost Vicente del Bosque his job.

Gascoigne and Keegan entered arenas where they would be judged on their performance alone; Lazio had not won Serie A since 1974, while Hamburg finished sixth in the Bundesliga in Keegan's first season. But at Madrid the levels of expectation are frightening. When Del Bosque's reign opened with a 5-1 defeat by Zaragoza, the crowd chanted: "We're going to burn your Ferraris". Beckham will find they are not joking.