The Last Word: David Beckham and Joey Barton - Paris match made in heaven and hell

Without incentive, British footballers have betrayed shocking insularity

The front cover of France Football decorates one with horns, the other with halo and wings. Presumably all that remains, when they square up for Marseilles and Paris Saint-Germain tomorrow, is for Joey Barton’s forehead to reduce those pretty cheekbones to a pulp of mandible and cartilage.

At least that would establish definitively that David Beckham is flesh and blood – and not some bionic construct, conjured by a timeless collusion between Giorgio Armani and Mary Shelley.

Otherwise, why stop at a body double for his underpants? Hilary Mantel could then rename the stadium Parc des Princes Plastiques. For here is another cybernetic seraph, another cut-out idol. For all his depreciation as a footballer, Beckham remains a sacred cow, indignantly defended by votaries against the mildest irreverence. His achievement, in seemingly remaining a perfectly decent bloke, sustains a bewildering hagiography. Matching physical pulchritude with public sacrifice for charity, these model consorts gratify a society that increasingly discards “character” in favour of “characters” performing an idealised role.

The gloss of celebrity suppresses human detail. It mistrusts and stifles that unsettled, unsettling zone where all our most interesting bits lurk and smoulder. And it is precisely Barton’s aggressive, nearly mutant obversion of this third dimension that may seem to desecrate the shrine of Beckham. For Barton is as blatant and abrasive, in his complexities and contradictions, as Beckham is soothing in his smooth, wraparound persona. People ask how Barton can possibly be both philosopher and thug. But what kind of human being could never be either?

Either way, the hijack of Le Classique by this cross-Channel pantomime would seem to invite some fairly unflattering conclusions about the French game. Under new Qatari ownership, PSG are supposed to be persuading the football world that they must now be taken very seriously. Yet here they are, hiring Beckham at 37.

While his new manager was prepared to wheel him out at San Siro four years ago, it is hard to imagine Beckham still cutting the mustard in the Milan derby (which also happens to be tomorrow). But those who brought him to Paris knew Beckham would reliably bring that personal sunbeam, temperate and glad, to an environment where some might otherwise perceive a little too much heat, a few too many shadows.

When Barton left the Premier League, meanwhile, he could influence its elite standings only by dint of disgrace and expulsion in the match that determined the title. One way or another, it seems rather demeaning that two performers who could nowadays hope only for a chorus role at La Scala should remain the leading divas of the French national opera.

For you can forget the mean resentments of our own club showdowns: PSG versus Marseilles is animated by the competing vanities of perhaps the world’s most admired capital and its proudly Mediterranean foil. Marseilles are just five points behind, in third. Both camps are united, moreover, by a national self-image of flair and passion. The French look beyond the Pyrenees with Bixente Lizarazu, himself raised in their foothills, and disparage the effete gallantries of Spain: “Their play is like love without the sex, it lacks spice.” And, of course, they also shake their heads over the hectic haste across the Channel. See how José Anigo, sporting director at Marseilles, counsels French players against the big money of the Premier League: “You will end up watching the ball fly over your head for 90 minutes.”

By the same token, whatever the parallel antipathies between them, the very presence of Beckham and Barton at least implies a sense of adventure shared with very few compatriots.

Since the Premier League got its hands on all this dough, British footballers have betrayed shocking insularity. To an extent, admittedly, that reflects Continental contempt for their competence. But that did not prohibit a series of past players succeeding abroad – including at Marseilles, where Chris Waddle won three titles. Some, indeed, were reminded that a prophet tends to be without honour only in his own country. Glenn Hoddle was one such, at Monaco, but more recently Joe Cole’s loan spell at Lille was perhaps the only time he has looked truly fulfilled. (And that is most certainly not because the standard was lower. There were occasions in the Champions League when you wondered why anyone should make such a fuss over young Eden Hazard, when he had such a magisterial team-mate.)

One way or another, then, it can’t just be technical deficiencies that prevent Englishmen with the world at their feet from actually exploring it. Without the financial incentive, it seems they just don’t have the curiosity. Perhaps, then, Barton and Beckham have rather more in common than is surmised. Even Lucifer, after all, was once an angel.