Ken Jones: Why the Beckham celebrity cult has become a ludicrous obsession

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The Independent Football

The other day we were talking, some veterans of this trade, about sport as we once knew it. I beg no younger types to groan and say: "Yes, we've heard it all before: the upright sports performers, how they put love of playing above profit, how newspapers concentrated on the games not extracurricular activities, how trusting relationships between stars of the day and their chroniclers were common-place."

This was not our theme. We were talking mainly about the modern media obsession with celebrity and its effect on how people perceive sport. Inevitably, you may think, this involved David Beckham, whose narcissistic instincts ensure that he never misses a photo opportunity, doubtless to the despair of Sir Alex Ferguson.

The story which threw our little group back on memories of a time that was vastly different concerned the injury Beckham picked up when turning out last week for England against South Africa in Durban. I cannot imagine there is a football follower who now does not know the precise location of the scaphoid bone and how long it normally takes to heal, all because of the disproportionate attention Beckham receives.

From personal experience, I can confirm that a busted scaphoid is at worst an inconvenience. And yet last week Sky made it seem as though nothing else in the match mattered, concentrating more on Beckham's minor injury than the football. News is news, but this was a ludicrous turn of events that had some of us deploring the excesses of contemporary sports coverage.

An example was the recent mindless suggestion that Beckham ranks as the most famous figure in sports history. I fancy I hear the protesting murmur of Muhammad Ali, saying: "No way, brother, I was the biggest, the best, the prettiest."

In Beckham's case, iconic status does not provide irrefutable proof of prowess. He may be the most coveted shirt swap, but true stature eludes him: terrific right foot, excellent vision, but no pace, no tricks. Sven Goran Eriksson's statement, "Nobody plays football like David Beckham," sounds daft unless you allow for blips in translation. What the England coach probably meant was that no player knows how to employ his strengths better.

Certainly, no player is better at selling himself. Boosted by image rights, the strategy planned by his wife Victoria's publicity machine, Beckham's earning power in football is second to none. That he has achieved this while falling short of the highest individual standards tells us about the time in which we live, the pervading editorial belief that celebrity sells.

When Jack Hutchinson was sports editor of the Daily Mirror, he told me: "Always go to an a event, a game or a fight, with an open mind. Never mentally write your intro before the game." He said that in 1958, and it still applies.

Unfortunately, this has become the exception rather than the rule. After Michael Owen's exploits in the 1998 World Cup finals, he could almost count on being named man of the match just for warming up before Liverpool's games. If Wayne Rooney plays, he is a headline. If it's England, it must be Beckham.

Bright moments come easy to the impartial sports observer. However, they are unlikely to include fascination with Beckham's tonsorial tastes or the teenage Rooney's acquisition of a girlfriend. John Charles finds it baffling. Recalling his glory days with Juventus, one of the clubs said to be interested in Beckham, he said: "We just got on with it, trained and played. I'm not saying that people weren't interested in our private lives, but the sensible thing was to keep a low profile. From what I read about him, and the pictures I see, I don't think Beckham would find that easy."

As husband and father, Beckham is beyond reproach. No scandal is attached to him. But those of us who rage against the tide of the times cannot fail to find his ceaseless quest for personal publicity, with the assistance of fawning news outlets, irritating.

So it was with some relief that I contemplated a trip to the United States, only to discover that Beckham, sans braids, is there with his wife and family. The phrase that springs to mind is: Give us peace.

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