Matthew Norman: We expect more of Beckham than Blair

He may now suspect that this bold attempt to rebrand himself as the Isaiah Berlin of football was misconceived
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If only our two national leaders could meet for a manly drink, whether in the drawing room at Chequers or the robing room at Beckingham Palace, they would bathe each other in the most luxuriant exchange of empathetic self-pity since Lady Thatcher last took tea at the Ritz with General Pinochet.

If only our two national leaders could meet for a manly drink, whether in the drawing room at Chequers or the robing room at Beckingham Palace, they would bathe each other in the most luxuriant exchange of empathetic self-pity since Lady Thatcher last took tea at the Ritz with General Pinochet.

Imagine them, the one twirling a glass of a superior Chilean red, the other sipping a Bacardi and coke, as their thoughts turn to their shared blight and burden. "Tall Poppy Syndrome, Prime Minister, that's what I call it." "David, you're so right. It's the British disease, isn't it?" "Yeah, all they do is build you up to knock you down ..."

So compelling are the parallels between the careers of these two that Wednesday's syncronicity seemed only natural. The traceless rise in the mid-1990s, the fecund marriage to the dark, ambitiously careerist wife, the obsession with manipulating headlines, the years of adoration, the overt attempt to supplant the House of Windsor in the public's affection, the collapse of a defining relationship with a domineering Scottish psychotic (even today, Alex Ferguson and Alastair Campbell remain the best of mates), then the inevitable fall from grace ... who could be surprised that they chose the same day to apologise to the nation that built them up to knock them down?

That their apologies were so strikingly different in tone and range merely reflects the gulf in seriousness between their misdemeanours. The Prime Minister was saying a grudging, graceless sorry for acting, in the very best of faith, upon flawed intelligence, thus contributing to the deaths of tens of thousands, the de facto destruction of the United Nations, and the escalation of the terrorist threat here and across the planet.

In accordance with Bill Shankly's much quoted dictum - that football isn't a matter of life and death, it's far more important than that - David Beckham had rather more to answer for than that. On Saturday night, to recap briefly, the England captain perpetrated an act of gamesmanship by doing something Mr Blair prefers to avoid, and directly attacked Thatcher (in this case, Ben Thatcher of Wales).

Beckham was playing the rule book in precisely the way that anyone with half a brain - and there, of course, we come to the crux - would have done. Knowing he'd busted a couple of ribs, he chose to win himself a second booking in the World Cup qualifying competition, thus earning a ban for a match he wouldn't be fit for anyway and thereby clearing the yellow card slate for his return to the side.

With criminal conspiracies carried out by national leaders, the truism holds that it's never the actual crime that does the damage, but the cover-up. In this case, the opposite was true. Eschewing the precedent of Richard M Nixon, Beckham publicly bragged about it in the manner of a man eager to establish his credentials as a thinker.

The years of Alastair McGowan's impersonation, the memory of having to grin his way through Ali G's brutal teasing on Comic Relief, the remorseless public mirth about that squeaky voice ... the miracle is that he managed to suppress the resentment for so long. Finally, on Saturday, he snapped, 'fessing up that the Thatcher foul was a cunning ruse, and pitiably adding: "People don't think I've got the brains to be clever."

With hindsight, he may now suspect that this bold attempt to rebrand himself as the Isaiah Berlin of association football was misconceived. Rather than the anticipated delegation of university chancellors bearing honorary doctorates, he finds the philosophers of world football lining up to kick him. No less influential a moralist than Geoff Hurst - still gorging himself on the cold pie baked in 1966, despite having flogged his World Cup medal a few years ago - echoes the general mood by accusing him of "bringing the country into disrepute".

Maybe Sir Geoff is right. Maybe, in the salons of Paris and the soukhs of Araby, people suffer an ague of scandalised disbelief that all Tony Blair's splendid work in the Gulf to bolster Britain's reputation has been undermined by David Beckham. Certainly, the opinion polls confirm that his offence was much the graver of the two. The Daily Mirror reveals that 71 per cent want him stripped of the England captaincy, a position of such importance that its duties range from wearing an armband to shaking the referee's hand before kick-off. This is about double the number who believe Tony Blair should lose his job over Iraq.

With this in mind, it's no wonder that the Beckham apology was so much more complete than Mr Blair's, even including a word of regret for letting down a quietly spoken, balding Swedish gentleman. I like to picture Dr Blix, doubtless closely tracking L'Affaire Beckham from his home in Stockholm, dredging up a wry smile about that.

However, even while this moral distinction between the two offences makes such perfect sense, you do begin to sniff out minor inconsistencies elsewhere. The Thatcher assault was what football folk know, aptly enough, as "handbags at five paces" - a trivial foul by any standards, let alone the deliberate and triumphant attempt to end a Manchester City player's career of which Roy Keane boasted in his autobiography. Yet the outrage over that, from Fifa and others, was muted in comparison.

As for the man who assumed the captaincy on Wednesday, and whom Daily Mirror readers presumably wish to replace Beckham permanently, Michael Owen is among the more relentless gamesmen in world football, and whenever he cons a penalty out of a gullible ref, we laud him for working the system so adroitly.

The double standards at work here are so wilfully absurd that it can only be explained as a crude act of transference. Beckham is being savaged for what he did, not on the pitch in Manchester, but in his bedroom in Madrid. Had he given a similarly fulsome apology for exploding the fantasy of his perfect marriage, after the fashion of Bill Clinton's "Ah. Haave. Sinnned." at that prayer breakfast, if he'd done a Martin Bashir interview and begged forgiveness, well, would one minor act of footballing cynicism have unleashed such a tempest of disapproval?

What he seems not to understand is that, when it comes to breaking the rules, being a Prime Minister, like being an ordinary footballer, is easy because the expectations of both are so desperately low. We expect them to lie and to cheat, and to synthesise moral outrage when caught at it. Tony Blair's flustered insistence that he acted in good faith is the direct equivalent of the Premiership hard man pleadingly telling the referee that he tried to play the ball, when 17 camera angles confirm he knew exactly what he was doing when he went in with the studs-up, leg-breaking lunge.

For the would-be Diana replacement, alas, the standards are more exacting. The moment he and Victoria sat on those wedding thrones, David Beckham set himself up for the sort of dementia that attends him now. Of course, he had no more conception of the consequences then than when having nothing to declare but his genius on Saturday. But how much punishment must a chap be asked to endure for not being quite as clever as he thinks he is?