Sport on TV: England's Most Hated Man is actually OK

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The Independent Online
IT WASN'T vicious or malicious, it was just a spark of post- adolescent temper, but for the English, David Beckham's kick and red card will be forever the defining moment of the 1998 World Cup. In a film shown straight after the somnolent victory over Luxembourg on Wednesday (it should really have been shown the night before, as a curtain-raiser), Channel 5 asked whether it was symptomatic of some wider sickness in society; or could the incident - and the "my booze hell" experiences of the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Paul Merson and Tony Adams - have been avoided if we trained our footballers in more than just sporting skills?

Though The Trouble With Beckham was an admirably serious-minded attempt to examine the issue, there was a fundamental flaw in lumping together Boy Spice's occasional bouts of petulance and the addictive problems of the Lager Lads. If he has a vice, and if recent Sunday red-tops are to be believed (which they're probably not), it's "playing away", as the current vernacular has it. And anyway, Posh has forgiven him for it, apparently.

Given the fact that his childhood hero was Bryan Robson, drink should have been his thing. After signing for Manchester United at 14 (there's grainy footage of the Junior Cup final at White Hart Lane at which he was spotted by a United scout), he spent his school holidays with the club, and when Robson met the wee lad, he advised the consumption of Guinness and milk to build him up. The 14-pint post-training warm-downs were intended to come later, presumably.

From early on, Beckham was attracting the cameras, and there are clips of the scrawny teenager with Sarah Greene, and in his back garden doing keep-ups for a local magazine programme. But if C5 were trying to explain away That Kick in terms of the boy buckling and snapping under pressure, it was spurious at best. For a start, he went to Old Trafford, where Alex Ferguson treats his young charges like a lioness her cubs. "They deserve to be protected," he growls. "These days the media are hungry."

And the truth is that Beckham seems, off the pitch and on it mostly, to be a remarkably level-headed young man for someone who, as the writer Dave Hill says in the programme, is "part of the great romantic tradition of football" "and he's handsome, and going out with that girl." How did he react after his ignominious return from France? Did he indulge in the kind of lost weekend the tabloids must have been praying for? No, he went shopping with his girlfriend. The Daily Mirror's Harry Harris, perhaps persuaded into over-analysis, suggests that if he'd had media training (from Harris, presumably) and not been "closeted" by Ferguson, perhaps the "flaws" might have been eradicated from his game - which is muddled thinking of the highest order.

More germane was the film's examination of how our present system fails so abjectly to produce anything like rounded individuals. When Beckham filled in his career forms when leaving school, apparently, he could spell neither "professional" nor "footballers". We're taken to Amsterdam, where Ajax, sign lads up at the age of eight and give them lessons along with the football. In this country we're belatedly taking similar steps with our Football Academies, populated by "scholars" rather than "trainees" who are taught how to deal with all the obstacles and temptations on their pilgrims' progress. Bill Beswick, psychologist to the England under-18s, told how he helps his charges deal with matters like decisions going against them, or being persistently fouled.

Presumably Beckham had none of this, but the film doesn't tell us. It's a careless oversight, because if he did receive such tuition, C5's thesis is fatally undermined.

The programme also doesn't tell us whether he had any help in getting over the unfortunate fact of being the Most Hated Person In England for a while. We're given a taste of the tidal wave of bile that rose up to meet him after that unfortunate night in Lyons, my favourite example being the splendidly vein-bulging leader in The Daily Telegraph, which raged against "this Gaultier-saronged, Posh Spiced, Cooled Britannia, look-at- me, what-a-lad, loadsamoney, sex-and-shopping, fame-schooled, daytime- TV, over-coiffed twerp." Phew. Take me to the Rally.

The most eloquent soundbite came, unexpectedly, from Bobby Robson, someone who knows a thing or two himself about being Public Enemy No 1. The problem is simple, he said. "We kill our own heroes." But on the evidence of The Trouble With Beckham, this particular hero has it in him to be grow up to be a man. It's up to us to let him do it.

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