John Roberts: The real Beckham shows that image is not everything

England captain's decision to cut back marketing activity reinforces Madrid fans' perception that £25m signing is a worker not a dilettante

A juxtaposition of sport and celebrity last week featured Anna Kournikova presenting music awards and the Beckhams spending an evening at a tennis tournament.

There was even an echo of Kournikova's days as a Wimbledon contender when a spectator at the Madrid Masters in the Rockodromo shouted, "I love you, Victoria!" Mrs Beckham is spoken for, of course. But Kournikova was eligible, as far as we know, when one of her admirers on the Centre Court declared: "Marry me, Anna!" The diva responded with a put-down: "You can't afford me." Amusing, and to the point.

Until Andre Agassi's commitment to tennis made him so much more than a marketing tool, he seemed dedicated to trading on the Nike philosophy that "Image is Everything." That slogan proved to be a powerful premonition of what sport has become, warts and all.

David Beckham, who is striving for a balance between marketing and match-winning, could hardly have picked a more demanding challenge than pleasing all of the supporters of Real Madrid all of the time. Manchester United may have lore and lolly, but Real Madrid have an irresistible romantic quality, the legacy of Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento, Del Sol and Santamaria; a team once described as "snowflakes in the sun".

Those players performed wonders with a football decades ago, at a time when agents and publicity managers largely belonged in Hollywood. But the crux of their craft was the same then as it is now. They were only as good as their last game.

John Charles, the magnificent Welsh player with an impressive natural presence, a combination of physical stature, tremendous ability - whether playing the central role in attack or defence - grace and dignity, experienced more highs than lows in Italian football in the service of Juventus in the early 1960s.

"But I went through a spell of not scoring, which made me rubbish as far as our fans were concerned," Charles recounted some years ago. "Then, in an away match, [Omar] Sivori hit a shot that was deflected into the net off my chest, and I was 'King John' again. There was no in-between. You were either the best or the worst. But that was OK."

Beckham, subjected to similar extremes of judgement at Real Madrid, seems to be in credit so far with the majority of the supporters. Several of those with whom I spoke last week were pleasantly surprised to find the England captain to be a worker and not the dilettante they might have imagined.

Manuel Santana, the 1966 Wimbledon men's singles champion, is a lifelong Real Madrid supporter. "I wore the Real Madrid badge on my tennis shirt the day I won Wimbledon," he said, beaming with pride. "When I lifted up the trophy I felt I had won it for Real Madrid, because they were my team, and I also played tennis for the Real Madrid Club."

Santana, the tournament director of the Madrid Masters, likes what he has seen of Beckham. "We have so many good players," he said, "and I wondered how he would fit in. But the blondie has surprised me. He plays so well with the rest of the team and controls the midfield with Zidane. The only problem is when we play away. The opponents are always very physical towards Real."

Having had his share of acclaim in another era, Santana does not envy the hype surrounding the Beckhams. "I feel sorry for them," he said. "They can't go anywhere. They can't do anything."

That is what "image" does for people, although the source of a report in one British newspaper that the arrival of the Beckhams at the Madrid Masters caused "mayhem" in the stadium obviously cannot tell the difference between curiosity and chaos.

While it may be bending a point to suggest that Real Madrid invested £25m in Beckham as part of a worldwide marketing exercise, as exemplified by a pre-season tour of the Far East, there is no doubt that the club have become increasingly aware of their value in recent years.

The sale of their training ground, land on which the purchasers plan to built four tower blocks, caused a major controversy but yielded £360m. The deal, described by one observer as "like lifting a white rabbit from a top hat", cleared the club's long-standing debt and left them with a budget of £165m for the 2003-04 season.

A new training centre is underway, and a profit of £31.5m is projected for 2003-04 - seven times more than last season - with 35 per cent of the club's income expected to be generated by marketing and 31 per cent from television.

Whatever Beckham's PR advisers may have in mind, it has never been more important for him to keep his eye on the ball than it is now.

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