Focus: The boy who got too big for his boots

David Beckham OBE has become a global icon, a commodity whose earning power outstrips his playing ability. Now he has outgrown the father figures who groomed him for success, says Stan Hey. But can the most marketable Englishman since the Beatles survive outside the close footballing family that has supported him since childhood?

This Father's Day must be a sombre one in the Beckham household - the Ted Beckham household, that is - as the 53-year-old former footballer-turned-plumber contemplates his son's future away from Manchester United. Nor will the homes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Beckham junior be entirely free of jarring emotion. The manager who looked after David as if he were a foster parent after Ted offered him up at 14 may well reflect on how their relationship has come asunder after 14 years.

There is bound to be a sadness too within the household the tabloids call Beckingham Palace as David and his wife, Victoria, after their publicity tour of the US, come to terms with his eviction from the Manchester United family.

Precisely who is responsible for this turn of events is the subject of frothing speculation. After his last home game at Old Trafford, Beckham paraded around the stadium with his first son, Brooklyn, and made a remark to a fellow player that was lip-read as: "I've had talks".

The United chief executive, Peter Kenyon, denied transfer rumours, saying: "David has a great part to play in the future development of this club." By being sold for £30m? Both camps may have been playing a game of dare that suddenly acquired an irreversible momentum. The result is that Beckham will probably join a new club soon. Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid are bidding.

United's brusque acceptance of Beckham's departure will hurt a young man whose emotional allegiance to the club runs deep, having been generated from an early age by his father. Ted's fervour drove young David north for trips to watch United in action, then the 11-year-old won a national soccer skills competition in 1987. The final was at Old Trafford, and the prize was a trip to Spain to train with Barcelona.

There followed magical days for David as a regular ball-boy for United, until the eventual "transfer" from Brimsdown Rovers of Leytonstone to the Manchester trainee scheme. For a more mythic association, try the fact that Beckham had been born in May 1975, just as United were resurrecting themselves from relegation to the old Second Division.

Thousands of soccer-minded dads try to enact a similar wish fulfilment with their sons every year, but few achieve it. Ted Beckham's delegation of parental responsibility to Alex Ferguson proved to be an astute choice. While he is no Mr Chips, Ferguson has always taken a paternal pride in the youngest players at his club: it is said that he knows them all by name, and keeps a keen eye on their progress.

One senior sportswriter, having finished an interview with Ferguson, found himself being whisked off in the manager's Mercedes to see a youth team in action. They were the 1992 FA Youth Cup winners, a side containing not just Beckham but also Ryan Giggs, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, all future England internationals. Most managers would be ecstatic if one player emerged fully fledged for the Premiership from their youth coops. Ferguson hatched six in one generation.

There was a price to be paid by the youngsters. They had to give up their young male egos and desires in the greater cause of the club. Those who didn't put the work in, who couldn't stay away from the drink or the adoring girls, were sent on their way. Beckham was the last to emerge, but he toed the line and was rewarded with 26 appearances in the 1995-96 season.

Although the young man's talents were now exposed on the pitch, Ferguson kept a protective wrapping around him for several more years. There were no interviews, no photo-calls, just hard work and dedication to United. Even when Beckham scored his first outstanding goal at the beginning of the 1996-97 season - a lob from the halfway line over Wimbledon's goalkeeper Neil Sullivan - Ferguson instantly doused the media clamour.

Tall, blond and good-looking, Beckham was an obvious target for all sorts of exploiters but Ferguson guarded him like a Calvinist preacher. The first lesson was that boozers, gamblers, publicity-seekers and big-heads would suffer damnation. The manager made exceptions for the narcissistic rogue Eric Cantona and the intimidating Roy Keane, because their purpose was also his: to win.

When England called up David Beckham the restraints were loosened. His first notable act of self-expression was to be sighted wearing a sarong alongside his new girlfriend Posh Spice at a party in the south of France in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup. His second was to get himself sent off against Argentina for guilelessly kicking out at Diego Simeone, who had fouled him in the hope of retaliation. Beckham found himself pilloried by the tabloid press and a rabid minority of England supporters. West Ham fans burnt effigies of Beckham when the local lad who'd done bad next came down to East London.

The baiting, which included chants of sexual innuendo about his girlfriend, continued for months. Ferguson's protection of Beckham remained staunch and the player knuckled down to rehabilitation. In 1999 he helped United to a notable treble of Premiership, FA Cup and Champions League.

The marketing and iconolatary of Beckham also began in earnest - with shirts, flags, posters and pillowslips - at the club superstore, then outlets in the Far East. United undertook pre-season tours in these territories to exploit the excitement that the blond bombshell had aroused. David's wedding to Victoria in Ireland in 1999 was sponsored by OK! magazine - the twin thrones at the reception seemed apt for the king and queen of popular culture - but Beckham retained the affection of his manager. He continued to play well, honing his crossing and free-kick skills to near-perfection. Nevertheless, his fashionista instincts, encouraged by Victoria, began to blossom.

His career with England was also flourishing, taking him beyond Ferguson's control, breaking down the usual club rivalries to make him a national hero. He was appointed England captain in 2001.

The self-assertion that had been denied to Beckham during his early twenties now increased, to the irritation of Ferguson. Setting up the family home at a mansion in Hertfordshire fuelled speculation that Posh would become a Yoko Ono figure in the footballer's life. As Beckham's persona was revealed, a spate of jokes about his alleged dimness arose. One involved him calling Fergie round in the middle of the night in frustration at being unable to complete a jigsaw of a tiger. The punch line had the manager telling him to "put the Frosties back in the box, David".

Ferguson's most prominent response to his protégé's increasing independence was to drop him from the team after he had missed training because Brooklyn was ill. The battle lines were being drawn. Beckham's appearance on Michael Parkinson's television chat show revealed him as a charming, self-deprecating, dedicated family man, and he enhanced this new profile with some stirring performances in World Cup qualifiers.

As the adulation rolled in so did the endorsement deals for Police sunglasses and Vodafone mobiles. Ferguson, however, let it be known "he may be doing it for England but he's not doing it for us". Beckham was subsequently "rested" for several games. Ferguson's disaffection was probably compounded by Beckham's open admiration for the serene management style of Eriksson, another father-figure. United finished without a trophy in 2002, while the injured Beckham rushed his recovery to be ready for the World Cup. Just before the tournament he appeared on the cover of GQ magazine, shirtless, torso doused in baby-oil, fingernails painted dark purple, draped in a white cashmere jacket. If Ferguson saw this he would have choked on his porridge, for it was a clear signal that he had lost control of the man he had sheltered since a boy. In an accompanying interview with David Furnish, Elton John's partner, Beckham expressed his delight at being voted Britain's Best Dressed Man by the magazine's readers: "I'm really glad that there's a side to my life rather than just football. It makes things a bit more interesting than just reading about the football side. Although some people might try and turn around and say 'You know, it just goes with the showbiz lifestyle'. Well, I haven't got a showbiz lifestyle."

Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ who was present at the shoot, confirms that the transition from mere international footballer was a knowing one. "Beckham has become the most important male fashion icon in this country because he's such a unique mix. He is a marketing man's dream: he's heterosexual, yet walks around in sarongs, hairnets and his wife's knickers. He is resolutely working class so he can withstand the brickbats regarding his dress sense. He does have innate style, but also has the sense to know who to experiment with. He was perfectly happy to go along with our ideas regarding his clothes and his general look, although he was very specific when it came to the actual pictures. He has a lot more control over the way he looks than people might think."

United regained their Premiership title last season, but not without some "hair-dryer" rants by Ferguson about hunger, commitment and focus. One of them got so heated that Fergie kicked out at a stray boot which struck Beckham above the left eye. Dressing room spats are traditionally kept secret but the world knew all about this one the next day when the player went on a conspicuous shopping trip with strips over the wound. It was a minor injury but a major rift was caused; and this not long after Beckham had signed a new contract, having jousted over his image rights. He was dropped from several key games - a humiliation.

Whether Beckham instigated the transfer momentum or the United board just decided it was time to cash in the club's major asset will be secret for years. To outsiders, it seems an inevitable parting of the ways between a young man who wants to be himself before it's too late, and a man who has finally lost patience with his protégé's pursuits.

Nobody should imagine that Beckham - now David Beckham OBE - is being wilful. He was almost in tears after his last match at Old Trafford. Nor should they see Ferguson as a total tyrant. He is a man of quiet kindness, whether supporting striking miners or attending the funeral of a sports journalist. But this is business.

So what about the young man himself: is he too big for his boots? Not, perhaps, in the sense of being cocky - the opposite seems true, whatever Fergie may think - but the person appears dwarfed by his own brand. His earning power outstrips his playing ability. Now he is leaving home, voluntarily or otherwise, removing himself from the protective footballing family into whose care his own father sent him. Will he cope?

His repertoire of hairstyles may suggest a certain playful naivety, but Beckham is already used to being a commodity. This week he's on a glad-handing commercial tour of the Far East for an oil company. He also has the wisdom of the SFX Sports Agency, who market other "nice guys" such as Gary Lineker and Andre Agassi. Of course, he will have to play football well, especially if he lines up alongside such fellow icons as Roberto Carlos and Zinedine Zidane. In Spain, footballers are trusted to handle themselves both on and off the pitch, encouraged to be mature rather than being treated like schoolboys itching to be naughty. So while his leaving home may be painful now, all parties can expect to benefit. Beckham will become even more marketable. Ferguson will have £30m to fund his dream of another European title. And Ted will get to be a frequent flyer from Stansted. Nobody loses.

Why Spanish clubs want to put their shirts on Beckham in battle for world domination

So why do Real Madrid and Barcelona want him so badly? David Beckham is a skilful midfielder but he will also give his new club a chance of winning the contest for world commercial domination.

"We want the children playing football in Singapore, Ohio and Australia to wear Barcelona shirts," says Ferran Soriano, prospective financial director at Barca. "David Beckham is central to that plan of making our football club a global business. We've always been popular in South America but it's our position in the Far East we want to expand."

The same goes for Real Madrid, which has long been jealous of Manchester United's global status. It already has players who are huge in both Europe and Latin America, notably the Brazilians Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos; and sold 480,000 shirts worth £14m after buying the French-Algerian midfielder Zinedine Zidane and thus entering the market for merchandising in Arabic countries. The impact of the Englishman would be even greater.

"David Beckham is the most recognised sports person in Asia," says Peter Harris, director of sponsorship at Vodafone, which sponsors United. Nine out of 10 Japanese people know his name. He has obsessive fans in Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea. The oil company Castrol signed him up after 80 per cent of respondents in Thailand, Vietnam and China said they would be more likely to buy its products if Becks told them to. Research suggests a third of overseas football fans follow a team because they like an individual player. United has nearly 17 million fans in Asia but could lose five million of them to Real or Barca if he leaves.

Beckham will get a bigger annual salary than his current £3.6m, plus £2m for the right to exploit his image. Both Spanish clubs would honour his personal deals with adidas, Marks & Spencer, Police sunglasses and others, which earn him about £10m a year. And signing for a Spanish club would give him access to the one market he has yet to crack. Few in the US have heard of him but playing for Madrid or Barcelona, with their strong links to the Hispanic population, would change all that.

Cole Moreton

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