Springtime in Paris for global brand David Beckham
On Tuesday, David Beckham was jogging around a field in Hertfordshire chatting to Nico Yennaris and Andre Santos. On Thursday he was presented as the latest luxury acquisition of a Middle East oil dynasty in possession of a football club in one of the famous cities of the western world in which Beckham has not yet lived.
If, at 37, Beckham the footballer has faded, his capacity to capture the news agenda has not. In fact, of all his transfers, his arrival at Paris Saint-Germain was probably the least well-trailed. It is this sleight of hand, the ability to make the conversation all about him, that keeps the Beckham flame burning.
When he joined Real Madrid, 10 years ago this summer, there was trepidation about that first training session with the original galactico crew of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the first), Luis Figo and Raul "I was still pretty nervous when the balls came out for training," he later recalled in his autobiography, describing his breath getting "a little shorter" as, one by one, all the stars turned up in the dressing room.
Now, it matters much less what happens with the football. Of course, Beckham will maintain it is always his priority. And naturally, he does not want it to be a humiliation out there in the relative mediocrity of Ligue 1. But the Beckham story post-Manchester United is significantly well-established now, via Madrid, Los Angeles and Milan, for him to do himself lasting damage in Paris.
Why have PSG signed Beckham? The unthinking answer is something fatuous about increasing shirt sales, which is part of it but increasingly a much smaller element. Beckham is status. Beckham is a guarantee that your club will be, if nothing else, of interest. A fossils fuels fortune can buy you much of Knightsbridge, but it can only buy one of these.
As ever, in the modern generation, Beckham is ahead of the curve. There has never been a football career like his. He may not have won as much as some; or as be as gifted as others – although he has won much and he is gifted – but he is pioneering a new way to manage a modern sports career. As the performance side declines, so something else takes its place.
Once, as a younger man, Beckham was a part of Manchester United and England and as a result subsumed within their structure. Now he is football's most famous pan-global freelance, alighting at different clubs around the world to offer a piece of himself – often referred to, rather meagrely, as "the Beckham brand".
Rather it is Beckhamism: celebrity, modernity, all wrapped up in old- fashioned English politeness and an old-school enthusiasm for football. There appears to be an extraordinary demand for it, which only one man can fulfil. He may be back in Europe, but really it is the petrodollars of the new Gulf wealth that Beckham is tapping into in earnest for the first time.
The donation of his five-month-long PSG salary to a children's charity is an intriguing twist. Although laudable, it suggests that, similar to his deal with LA Galaxy, his financial rewards will come from a more long-term stake in the club's earnings. In the meantime he avoids the punitive French income tax rates and cashes in a ton of PR gold. Just a theory, of course. After the playing finishes expect what the marketing men call "ambassadorial roles".
Consider who PSG could have signed this month. If they wanted a famous name, at a much younger vintage, they could have got Didier Drogba or Wesley Sneijder, who both went to Galatasaray. They might have made Barcelona an offer they could not refuse for David Villa. But they chose something else.
For a club that has aspirations for competitive success, and is in the last 16 of the Champions League, that might be seen from a more traditionalist point of view as a betrayal of the values of the game. Beckham is by no means the best right-sided/central midfielder available. But that would be to misunderstand fundamentally, the way in which the game has changed, or the views of the people who now run it.
On a more practical note, it is expected that PSG will seek to play Beckham more often in the significantly slower-paced domestic league, which they lead on goal difference, than in the Champions League, where they face Valencia in the last 16.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the few players who gets close to Beckham in terms of fame, is the undoubted star. Behind him in midfield, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta tend to play in the centre, although Motta's injuries mean that he misses a lot of games. The new signing Lucas Moura has played on the right, and there are also Ezequiel Lavezzi and Jérémy Ménez.
But really, what does any of this matter? A place was found for Beckham at Real Madrid among much bigger stars. It will be the same at PSG.
It is notable that when Beckham went to Madrid a decade ago there were lots of snooty comments about his unsuitability to live in a sophisticated European city or how unlikely it would be that he could master the language. Ten years on, after he has played in LA and Milan, no one is saying that any longer, even though this is Paris, where a superiority complex feels like a civic entitlement.
Beckham is now comfortably established as one of Britain's foremost modern cultural exports. As a consequence, it is anticipated that the city of Paris will reach out to embrace him, rather than him having to dance to its tune. After all, this is what PSG have bought into – the sole proponent of Beckhamism. They might not know exactly what that is, but they know they want it.
A life less ordinary: Beckham's career
1975 Born in Leytonstone.
1993 Signs professional contract with Manchester United.
1995 Loan spell at Preston.
1996 Wins Premier League and Cup Double with Alex Ferguson's side. Makes England debut in Moldova.
1997 Second league title.
1998 Sent off in England's World Cup defeat against Argentina.
1999 Helps United win the treble. Runner-up in World Player of Year.
2000 Named England captain.
2001 Fifth league title. Leads England to World Cup qualification.
2003 Moves to Real Madrid for £25m.
2004 Misses penalty as England lose to Portugal in Euro 2004 quarter-finals.
2006 Quits as England captain after World Cup quarter-final exit.
2007 Joins MLS club LA Galaxy after winning La Liga with Real.
2008 Wins 100th England cap.
2009 Loan spell with Milan.
2010 Misses World Cup with injury.
2011 Wins MLS Cup with Galaxy.
2012 Takes second MLS title.