'Goldenballs' may be losing his lustre in the West, but in the East they bow down before David Beckham. Ellis Cashmore tells how myth and market combined in a fairytale with a happy and lucrative ending.
A typhoon swept across East Asia over the summer, disrupting flights and closing businesses and schools, bringing chaos to the streets.
But despite its ferocity, there were no reported casualties. Now, the storm is reported to have slipped west of its earlier course. The typhoon is named Beckham.
The tumult that greeted David Beckham and his wife, Victoria, when they visited Japan and other East Asian territories earlier this year was staggering. An outsider who had never heard of them might be forgiven for thinking Beckham was the discoverer of the cure for cancer or the saviour of the environment. Japanese fans, in particular, hailed him as if he were all these things and perhaps more.
Even those of us who have witnessed the astonishing growth of the 21st century's first genuinely global icon, his reception in the East was surprising. But while we in the West remain enthralled by Beckham, our fascination is shifting away from an unquestioning acceptance of his status to a more reflective search for the reasons why we like him at all. We knew all along that Beckham was not one of the world's best footballers. And we now realise that his apparently desperate-for-fame wife was the architect of his ineffable rise. We even wonder whether the "will he go, or will he stay?" speculation that dominated headlines over spring was just flam and suspect the transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid had been in the works for many months. Even his recent memoirs have elicited knowing responses rather than the unconditional rapture we might have anticipated a couple of years ago. Our relationship with Beckham has reached the point where we are getting irritated by the way he leaves the top off the toothpaste and shuffles over to our side of the bed.
In East Asia, however, they are still too rapt gazing into his eyes to notice his pimples. In Japan in particular, a nation more fond of sumo and baseball than soccer, they have surrendered to Beckham; or, more specifically, the image of Beckham. He speaks no Japanese and, though his latest hairdo has something of the samurai warrior look about it, he makes few concessions to Japanese culture, save for a liking for sushi. Yet advertisers have flocked to him. His portfolio of endorsement contracts bulges with deals specifically for the East Asian markets. He lends his name to the kind of products he probably would not touch in the West.
His name adorns enough merchandise to fill an Argos catalogue. His book will probably command biblical reverence. It seems almost impertinent to ask why. But it is a legitimate question and one for which Beckham admits he has no answer. While he himself has transferred south, the phenomenon that bears his name and image has moved east and, in transition, acquired a force that takes even Beckham-idolising westerners aback. It is too trite to argue that he of the decorously pale good looks and the blond mane is a Prince Charming-type character who has wooed the Asian maidens.
Better-looking westerners have not registered. True, he may, like Elvis, be possessed of unique talents. But this alone would not be sufficient to warrant the exceptional reception. Not even Leonardo DiCaprio or the Turkish soccer star Ilhan Mansiz, both of whom have attracted huge followings, have generated fervour like Beckham.
Maybe it is the sight of the once-great Victoria returning, her days as a gamine Spice Girl over, now a contented mother-of-two, with a beau at her side. Doubtful: Asian fans are as unremitting as any others and, when they lose interest in celebrities, they drop them instantly. Victoria lent her husband recognisability, so to speak, but it is he rather than she who commands the focus. There is, of course, the Beckham Machine to consider.
Over the years, Beckham and his wife have assembled around them a commercial enterprise dedicated to the promotion of Beckham. It includes agents, publicists, public relations officers - personnel typically associated with a rock star or actor. The machine has the expertise and contacts to place Beckham's name and image anywhere in the world. When writers and broadcasters blithely refer to the "Beckham brand", they are alluding to the ability of Beckham to add value to practically any product.
Sportswear giant adidas, which has had Beckham under contract since 1998, must have been tormented by the images of the world's leading sport celebrity circulating around the world. Ninety per cent of those images featured him in a Manchester United shirt emblazoned with the logo of deadly rival Nike. Beckham's transfer to Real brought symmetry: adidas now has both the club and Beckham in its fold and will probably launch a new range of apparel and footwear along the lines of Nike's Air Jordan, which bore the imprimatur of Michael Jordan, and was worth $5.5 billion (£3.2 billion) in sales over the 1990s.
This was the popularly cited reason for Real Madrid's eagerness to sign Beckham. Already laden with players of proven excellence, Real had little technical need of a midfield player with a sweet right foot. What it may have wanted was a player who would affix status to a club that has for long been irked by its underachieving yet better-known and feted neighbours across the North Atlantic in Manchester. Whether Real wants to use Beckham as a marketing instrument in its quest for recognition in East Asia is not clear. This was the consensual view, though the payoff for Real is indistinct. More kudos? Better replica shirt sales? Advantageous television deals?
All these are, in some way, predicated on Beckham's ability to stay at the fore of the Asian markets, as well as elsewhere. The uniting of a myth and a marketing strategy is a potent combination and one that has hooked Asian consumers: part of being a fan involves buying all manner of product related to the object of adulation. Asia genuflects to Beckham not so much because of his colour or his wife, but because of the myth that precedes and envelopes him. The myth is bigger, appreciably bigger, than the man.
It involves a working-class nobody with no special gifts apart from a capacity for hard work and a willingness to persevere. Encouraged, though not pushed, by his father, he diligently goes through the ranks, outpacing his more able colleagues by dint of his work rate. His rise is exemplary: a virtual advertisement for the Margaret Thatcher-sponsored enterprise culture in which he grew up.
Persecuted and reviled after his red card at the 1998 World Cup, he redeems himself, not through magical recovery but, as always, through persistence, graft and exertion. Battling on while fans hurl vile abuse at him, his wife and even his child, he emerges triumphant, being nominated captain of the England team, a position from which he performs epic deeds. It gets even better: he fathers another child and luxuriates in a family life that could be a model for a "How to be everlastingly happy in a nuclear family" manual. A New Man to a fault, Beckham has adapted to a caring and nurturing role as effortlessly as he bends his signature free kicks around walls of defenders. Radical as his departure from the traditional macho, boozing, womanising, hell-raising image is, Beckham is part of a 2+2 family and functions as a standard bearer for honest-to-goodness values. Wholesome yet somehow enigmatic and always remote, Beckham as the family man is an image compatible with almost any demographic sector.
This is the Beckham that has been presented to Asia. Five years on from the red card, the West is still rapt but becoming sceptical. For Asian fans, the fairytale is still fresh. How long before it goes stale? Asian consumers are famously capricious. Japanese in particular value the other-worldliness Beckham conveys, but will become bored when the human being becomes visible.
But for the moment, Beckham seems to live in a fantastical landscape, in a world that resembles our own, but where the rules are different. In the Beckham landscape, our hero scores vital goals that compare with any dragon-slaying feat achieved by St George. He marries a pop star, an event that could have been stolen from Sleeping Beauty. His hairstyles, clothes and body ornamentation are emulated with the kind of obedience commanded by the Pied Piper. And, for the time being at least, the source of his power remains secure, as if in a magic lamp. Like Aladdin, he will discover that, once freed, the genie grants his wishes but never returns.
Ellis Cashmore is professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University. His book Beckham is published by Polity, £12.99.