Who is David Beckham?
Yes, I know he is a soccer player. And there was that movie, Bend It Like Beckham, and also that part in Love, Actually where Hugh Grant cites both of his feet as being among Britain’s top national treasures.
But as a millennial American woman, I must admit I have always been less familiar with Beckham as an athlete than as—how to put this?—a specimen.
The guy in that dramatically lit black-and-white photo, reclining topless—and bottomless, save for a pair of Armani briefs—on a bed, with his hair closely buzzed and his legs spread open.
But now, thanks to Beckham, the new Netflix documentary series about the star’s life and career, I now know this was something of a scandal at the time. This meaning his freelance fashion career, of course, but also his various haircuts, one of which apparently inspired a wave of copycatting among UK schoolboys in the ’90s. At the height of his fame, people didn’t just want to bend it like Beckham; they wanted to be him. He was a male model, literally.
Also: he still is, just in a different way.
Beckham, the four-part series, finds the athlete looking slightly weathered (albeit still in the 99th percentile for handsomeness) and sporting a sort of coastal grandfather aesthetic; the tiny tighty-whities have been replaced by cable-knit sweaters, and he’s got a stubbly salt-and-pepper beard. He also has a gifted and sympathetic interlocutor in director Fisher Stevens, who traces the evolution of Beckham’s 20-year career through four countries, six premier league titles, two MLS championships, and three World Cups—including the one in 1998 where he got red-carded for impetuously kicking at an Argentine player (who, in classic soccer style, went down like a sack of potatoes even though he’d barely been grazed). The trajectory of Beckham the footballer is also inextricably linked with his personal life, including his relationship with his wife, Victoria, with whom he has four children.
But while Victoria gets her share of screen time, this is ultimately a story about men, and manhood—and most fascinating, it’s about how to be a good guy in a world where the word masculinity is often preceded by the word toxic. Fisher sits down not just with Beckham but also with multiple other star athletes of the era, his teammates and rivals and friends.
The most compelling parts of the documentary are the moments where these men watch footage of their old games, which Fisher films in a fourth wall–breaking, intimate close-up: they are watching football, but it feels to the viewer as if they’re looking at you. The camera lingers on their faces, on the tiny ripples of emotion flickering there: joy and pride and longing. It’s strikingly, and disarmingly, vulnerable—to gaze into the eyes of a man who is gazing at the greatest love of his life.
These men were formative figures in David Beckham’s life: teammates who were more like brothers. There is also a series of fathers, with whom things were much more complicated. Whatever natural talent Beckham was born with, it was his father, David “Ted” Beckham, who honed it into something greater. Both men remember how Ted drilled his son with endless free kick exercises until he developed the uncanny accuracy that made him a superstar; his mother, Sandra, recalls how her husband refused to ever praise Beckham’s performance lest he get complacent and stop working as hard. In at least one sense, this was good preparation: by the time Beckham was old enough to play football professionally, the role of his father was now adopted by various coaches—most notably Sir Alex Ferguson, who recruited Beckham for Manchester United when he was just 14 years old.
The complexities of the relationship between coach and protégé, and its parallels to the one between parent and child, have always been ripe for dramatization. Ted Lasso is perhaps the most obvious and recent example, but the list goes on: Rudy, Rocky, Friday Night Lights. But these rosy narratives are fictional; Beckham reminds us that the truth is less feel-good and more fraught. The difference between a father and a coach is that a father wants his son to grow up, to become his own man, to find his own way. A coach wants things done his way, and every step toward independence is received as an affront.
Any decision Beckham made for himself, everything from cutting his hair to marrying a woman Ferguson didn’t approve of, created a new fracture in this relationship predicated on the most conditional sort of love. It was a relationship also mirrored by Beckham’s dynamic with the country at large: depending on his performance on the pitch, he was either England’s favorite son or its most loathed traitor.
In the first act of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the eponymous monarch moans: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child!”
But to spend years looking up to a father figure who in turn looks at you as an asset to be cultivated, guarded, and eventually sold off, having outlived its value: this is plenty sharp, too. As such, it’s remarkable—and inspiring—that the man who not only experienced this profoundly warped version of adolescence, but did so in public and under intense scrutiny, grew up to be the opposite of toxic.
Despite being nicknamed “Golden Balls,” the through line in Beckham’s life isn’t luck, but resilience. Instead of using money and fame to insulate himself from his mistakes, he learned from them. Instead of becoming embittered when a coach or manager misjudged him, he proved himself through hard work. Instead of falling into the celebrity lifestyle trap, he stuck with the loyal circle of friends and family who loved him before (or in spite of) his rise to mega-fame—including the woman he’s been married to for nearly 25 years.
This is not to say that it’s always been smooth sailing. By the time he was in his mid-20s, with little education and exactly one marketable skill, Beckham was an aspirational figure—the man who women want and men want to be—but his sex appeal was also something of an albatross. It’s hard to believe that a man who looked like this, and who posed like that, wasn’t catting around.
This came to a head in the early 2000s, when allegations surfaced that Beckham had had an affair, or perhaps multiple ones, which is also the one topic the documentary talks around rather than about. The result makes for an interesting Rorschach test: I read this part of the series, which features a lot of vague, cryptic language and long uncomfortable pauses, as such an obviously tacit admission of guilt that they might as well have tattooed a scarlet A on Beckham’s forehead. But when I said as much to my husband, his reaction was low-key horror: “I don’t think he would ever do that,” he said.
Of course, neither of us actually know what David Beckham did or didn’t do. But two things are true: first, that Beckham doesn’t seem like the kind of man who would cheat on his wife, and second, downstream of this, that he is the kind of guy you want to believe the best of. The older, wiser, less-polished Beckham isn’t just inspiring in his resilience; he’s like a one-man rejoinder to the categorical denunciation of men, in general, as trash.
And while his retirement from football was not so much an ending as a new chapter (he is currently the president and part owner of the Inter Miami professional soccer club in Florida), the overachieving celebrity version of Beckham makes only limited appearances in his namesake documentary. What we mostly see is a human man, puttering around his country estate in the Cotswolds: keeping bees, cooking in his outdoor kitchen, pointing out his favorite spot in the garden (it’s the one where he can sometimes catch a glimpse of his wife through the window, naked).
A king in his castle, at peace if not at rest.
Kat Rosenfield is a writer and columnist. Read her last Free Press piece “Naked Attraction, The Golden Bachelor, and the Novelty of Vulnerability” and follow her on Twitter (now X) @katrosenfield.
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