NUMBER 23 IS THE REAL THING

3 August 2003

Real Madrid beat the China Dragons 4-0 yesterday but the 72,000 people who witnessed the match were there for just one man

Our boy has got to get quicker than this. The opening presentations over, Ronaldo dropped his shoulder and jogged off into the clear. But Becks stood still, blonde ponytail tightly tied, virgin white in his new Real strip, and never saw them coming. A big posse of flower girls had broken ranks and were now mobbing him with their bouquets. That’s what happens when football becomes a pop concert. That was Beijing on Saturday night.

“Becks” had only just recovered when the nurses got him. Part of the proceedings for this whole, delirious, noisy, sweat-soaked, hero-worshipping performance was for Sars victims and the entry of the Gladiators was flanked by rows of prim looking, white starched nurses. Prim no more, a dozen of them saw Becks as a patient and did their best to take down his particulars. Well, it was supposed to be a friendly.

It was 20 minutes before the new No 23 had a chance to play his tricks. There had been a couple of sublime Zidane-Figo cameos and two howling Ronaldo misses before a free-kick was conveniently conceded 20 yards out plum in front of goal, perfect Beckham range. The great man teed up as the 72,000 sell-out crowd buzzed expectantly; the ball arced right but the goalkeeper punched clear. It didn’t matter. It never does in friendlies.

Ten minutes later it was Roberto Carlos from exactly the same spot. Or it seemed to be his turn. Just as Roberto was trotting up for one of his bald-headed net-busters, Becks slid in and whipped the ball over the wall, only for it to curl back round the side of the post. Another miss but that’s entertainment, that’s what stars are for.

Or they are when you are on a pre-season trip to open up the Asian market in general, and the 1.4-billion head, roaring day-and-night tiger that is the Chinese economy. Statistics will tell you about the nine per cent growth and the increases of 16 per cent in output and no less than 34 per cent in export. But to be in Beijing these last few days was to feel it.

This is a city like no other: a place in transition from monolithic past to a future without limit. It seethes with energy, dust, people, police and possibilities. And now it has football. And David Beckham.

Whether these are one and the same thing is a question that Beckham’s 60 minutes of pretty high quality sweat and achievement only put in clearer focus despite the star-blanketing haze. For Beckham’s whole career appears to be built on the twin ambitions of being the world’s most famous person as well as the globe’s best footballer. Yesterday showed he’s nearly made the first but, great though he is, can never crack the second.

On the pitch he was unselfishly committed and splendidly skilled albeit a shade one-dimensional by comparison with this stellar company before coming off after a beautiful curling corner out to Carlos’s volleying left foot 15 minutes before the end. Playing in his usual right-sided position with Figo on the left Becks looks a mouth-watering addition to this team of dreams but is still not a patch on Zidane who even at this intensity was absolutely mesmerising; the feet like hands, the mind like a conjuror. No coincidence that the only goal in the first half (three more came, two from Morientes, one from Portillo) came from a Zidane move to Ronaldo on to Figo to score. Not a sniff for Beckham.

That’s being a mite uncharitable, although on his eight figure turnover and in view of events of the rest of the week, charity is hardly what David begs for. What Beijing did clarify is why being with Real Madrid is the challenge he needs and also just why Beckham has become a marketing man’s dream.

The posters told the story. At the start of the week they showed the six “Galacticos” – Beckham, Zidane, Raul, Carlos, Ronaldo and Figo as an equal size sextet on the hoardings. Come Friday “Becks” was leader of the pack – a huge, iconic, hair scraped-back figure with the others as smaller mortals in his wake.

What’s undeniable is the effect Beckham has on his audience. Outside the hotel, where 30 slept overnight, and on all approaches to the now rather old-fashioned sounding Workers Stadium, there were quite a few “Raul” placards, plenty of Ronaldo, and one man with Figo’s face on his T-shirt, but it was Beckham pictures everywhere.

Then there was the screaming. This was much more a pop concert than a football sound and you realised just how perfect a fit Beckham is for his Chinese fans. He is a footballer who is famous for being famous, beautiful, foreign, exotically clothed but deeply conservative in industry and family values and, best of all, he doesn’t talk. It says all about his fame and not a thing about his football.

So it was a sell-out crowd at inordinate prices; pictures on TV networks of the Real Madrid bus getting mobbed by fans; football fever as the perfect opium of the masses. And yet you don’t have to be a clinical depressive to find something gloomy in this headlong rush to homogenous culture. Within walking distance of the team hotel you could wander down through the lake serenity of Belhai Park, past the walled magnificence of the Forbidden City, down through unlit streets with men in singlets squatting on their haunches. Then through the polluted night you could see the McDonald’s sign. Becks may be a jewel of an athlete, but in truth he is a bit of a burger too.

It’s a conundrum worthy of a Confucius quote, and right on cue my new Chinese friend “Henry” came up with one. “Henry” is one of the countless Beijing students around Tiananmen Square who come up asking to practise their English and end up flogging you their paintings. “Confucius say” promised Henry from a book he had for that very purpose, “that if you come from far away you will be loved.” Even with Beckham in Beijing, love remains the strangest thing.

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