Jim White

Image-conscious Beckham melting French hearts

Jim White

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There is one thing we have long known: David Beckham knows how to make an entrance. And the king of upstaging, the man who managed to seize the limelight at the BBC Sports Personality awards in Olympic year, was at it again in Paris on Sunday night.

A 15-minute cameo at the end of PSG’s win over Marseille culminated in his involvement in the build-up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s last-second goal. The moment the Swede had stabbed the ball home, Beckham was first to congratulate him, leaping into his arms like an over-excited six-year-old.

As he did so, he gave every paper in France their back page image. There it was on every news stand, him grinningly embracing the striker, almost obscuring his face with his arms. It may have been Ibrahimovic’s moment, but it was Beckham’s picture.

And after he had made his way from a snow-blasted Parc des Princes pitch, Beckham looked as if he had just stepped from the catwalk. With no hint of fatigue following his first game of football for more than two months, and no appearance of frostbite, as he walked through the media scrum he was turned out in a navy blue suit of such magnificent tailoring it probably cost more than the cars of those hanging on his every word.

Plus, as is characteristic, he listened carefully, did his best to appear interested in the questions and was gracious, diplomatic, polite in his answers. The French media were astonished by his patience, his radiance, his immaculate turn-out. He was Le Gentleman Footballeur incarnate.

That is the thing about Beckham: nobody in sport makes a better first impression. His appeal may well be all superficial but it is some surface. In his answers he was modest, enthusiastic, generous. The French fell for him en masse.

And that is what counts with Beckham. Everyone knows his real point and purpose in being in Paris is to promote the brand. Both his own and that of PSG. Tonight he is likely to make his starting debut for the team in a cup tie. By coincidence this will again be against Marseille.

With the two biggest clubs in France meeting for the second time in a week, what Carlo Ancelotti, the PSG manager, calls “the media infatuation” with Beckham will once more be in full swing. Which would nicely tally with the hope of PSG’s Qatari owners: they did not sign the player in order to go under the radar. Whatever he might say about his pride at still be considered for top-flight service at his age, we all know he is not there for his football abilities.

The value that Beckham offers is such that he doesn’t have to do that much to be noticed. In his 15 minutes on Sunday he produced two or three moments of quality. A lovely 30-yard quarter-back pass and the stabbed one-two which opened up the Marseille defence for Ibrahimovic’s goal were the pick of his contribution. The rest of the time he sat on the bench. But even there he was the centre of attention, with the French broadcaster Canal Plus’s dedicated camera (the Beck-cam as it was immediately nicknamed) trained on his every swallow.

Importantly, even there Beckham produced the ideal image. There was no sulking, no solipsistic insistence that his celebrity was being challenged by a substitute’s role. This was no Carlos Tevez. When Lucas opened the scoring for PSG, he was up off his seat, clapping, cheering, smiling, giving the hundred telephoto lenses recording his arrival a few snaps of his embrace of collective achievement. But then has he ever delivered a bad photograph?

And already the fall out is working. PSG’s stock has risen, they have been noted, noticed and promoted. Today’s Times sports section led with a story about the owners looking to bring Wayne Rooney to Paris to play alongside Beckham. Every newspaper in Britain will now consider every game the club plays to be of interest to readers, in a way that Lille’s fixtures were not when Joe Cole was there last season.

Not even the arch self-publicist Joey Barton has been able to project his spell at Marseille to the same level. And his footballing contribution to their cause was much more significant on Sunday than Beckham’s was to PSG; Barton, holding in front of the back four, is clearly now integral to the way OM play. But then, frankly, who wants to look at a photo of Joey Barton? Beckham has made a lucrative career out of the shrewd understanding that the surface matters.

It is not rocket science. But watching him schmooze with such blissful ease – and seeing so obviously beneficial a result - it makes you wonder why so few of his peers have appreciated the value of adopting communication skills as acute as his.

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