Chris McGrath: How Beckham the villain won over the masses – well, most of us

He has found a contiguity between his image in the game and role in a match
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The Independent Football

How did the mannequin become a role model?

There was a time when David Beckham seemed to condense all the froth and fickleness of Premier League football in its new, self-regarding pomp. That infamous kick at Diego Simeone, at the 1998 World Cup, threatened to rupture the flimsy skein of celebrity masking the shortcomings that divide a very decent footballer from greatness. But just as he could not be sensibly reviled for that single, fleeting folly, so one free kick against Greece, however timely, could not redress the broader reservations about Beckham's defining role in an England team that discovered reasons for complacency everywhere except on a football pitch.

Something else, then, must account for the way he is nowadays embraced with affection even by some who perceive a continued disparity, between style and substance, in the evening of his career. And if that something else still owes a lot to style – to the hint of exhibitionism he can introduce even to the selfless virtues of perseverance and teamwork – then it must be said that it is by no means lacking substance.

The fact is that Beckham, having long been outstripped by his reputation, has now found a contiguity between his image in the game, and his role in a match. Yes, his defection to Hollywood at first seemed an admission that his waning powers could only sustain his marquee billing in a less exacting environment. And much the same sadly holds true of these cameos at Milan, whose promising young manager has more than one ageing ego on his hands already. But nobody could mistake the ardour behind Beckham's longevity. For all the distractions in his life, here is a bloke who just loves to play.

And if the fruits of this renewal can be admired by a man as austere as Fabio Capello, then they should perhaps also be acknowledged by those of us who inflate our own, rather less competent judgement with the certainties of cynicism. Beckham cannot be blamed if his emergence from the bench for an umpteenth cap prompts shrill salutes from the Wembley stands, and fatuous ones from the TV studio. And it is unequivocally to his credit that he has retained his dignity throughout, even on those rare occasions when he has glimpsed John Terry's present PR vertigo. And, likewise, that he always conducts himself so irreproachably, on such awkward stages as the World Cup draw.

While we now know he will never in his life skin a full-back, and lament the ways he disfigures himself for fashion, it is no hardship to admit some empathy with the hagiographers. For to be so adored surely means little, next to being so respected.