Qatar, WAGs and United hate: The Beckham doco was great, but it skipped three of the biggest questions of his career
Beckham, the Netflix documentary on the England legend, global superstar and all-round cultural icon, dropped last week and the torrent of memes has been constant.
There’s the one of his wife, Victoria, trying to pretend that she’s working class, as David looks cheekily on from behind the door. (Hint: her nickname is Posh Spice.)
There’s Beckham the beekeeper, Posh and Becks dressed in leather suits on a night out, and, perhaps funniest of all for those of us who sat down to watch it with partners who were interested in the Spice Girl, the countless reaction videos.
The set-up is the same. Girl, on sofa, watching TV. Boy – they’re always boys, and all of a certain age – in moments of paroxysm as yet another great appears on screen to chat about David.
Sir Alex Ferguson, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, we expect. Then you get Eric Cantona, you get Diego Simeone on that kick, then into episodes three and four, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo and Ronaldo, original Ronaldo, the real Ronaldo.
Then it’s Fabio Capello, Florentino Perez and, perhaps the surprise star, a comedic turn from Michel Salgado.
OK, by this point my partner had long since left, angered by the lack of Posh content, and perhaps that speaks to both the documentary and the dualism of the career of David Beckham.
As a slice of sports-themed Netflix content, Beckham is really good, maybe not on the level of The Last Dance, but not far off it.
This is where the two sides of Beckham come in. By the end, he was a celebrity who had played football, but at the beginning, he was an unbelievably good footballers who became a celebrity.
This is seen as a fait accompli now, but it wasn’t then.
In 1995, if you’d have mentioned a young England midfielder who would define a generation and have a pop star for a wife, the chances are most people would have thought you were talking about Jamie Redknapp, who made his debut for the national team that year and whose partner, Louise, had been in a pre-Spice Girls girl group and had just realised her first solo album the month before Beckham scored from the halfway line on the opening day of the 1996/97 season.
The documentary goes into depth on Beckham’s tribulations post-1998 World Cup and his redemption arc towards the 1998/99 treble, but fails to touch on what were, to this Manchester-born and raised viewer at least, some fairly salient points.
First was that everyone, but everyone, who didn’t support Manchester United absolutely hated them. They were, and had been for the whole decade, the evil empire. If you met someone who didn’t really like football, they always said they were a United fan.
Secondly, Beckham, as a southerner who played for Man United, represented the worst type of football fan almost perfectly: flashy, shallow and non-traditional.
At a time when, since the advent of the Premier League, all the traditional ways of the game seemed to be evaporating, nothing said fake more than the raft of Londoners who suddenly supported United.
It’s both ironic and harsh, because further exposure to Beckham revealed him to be very much the opposite of that perception – and this documentary tells that story well, flaws and all – but nobody knew that in 1998.
The hate towards him back then was sparked by his red card against Argentina, but those two other aspects of brand Beckham fanned it. He was booed for what he did, yes, but also for what he represented.
Posh had this too. The documentary fails to mention the 2006 World Cup at all, a period that could have been a whole episode in and of itself.
Had they done that, there would have been far more for Victoria to do, as she was seen as the ringleader of the WAGs, when the wives and girlfriends of the England team were at least as interesting as the team.
The England squad assembled in 2006 was as strong as any that the nation has had, but descended into what Rio Ferdinand later described as ‘a circus’ given the partying and celebrity antics that took place in the German resort town of Baden Baden.
The dynamic around Posh’s relationship with Colleen Rooney (wife of Wayne) and Cheryl Cole (popstar wife of left back Ashley) plus the other 20 or so partners, was pure reality TV, played out daily in the tabloids across the early days of rolling sports news.
Plenty of the public backlash around that team ended up being aimed at Victoria, probably unfairly, and for better or worse, and David’s known preference for having his wife around was a major factor in keeping the WAGs close.
Nobody knows the effect it might have had on England in their penalty shootout against Portugal, but in the 16 years that have followed, the WAGs, and Posh, remain central to the memory of that team, that World Cup and what British culture was in the mid-2000s, when celebrity and football fused.
It’s to the credit of Beckham that it manages to capture his dual life as an elite footballer with elite clubs while also showing the toll that being just about the most famous man on the planet took on him.
The long passage on his relationship with his father, too, was something that added vital depth to an already well-known character.
The scenes in Japan, where Real Madrid toured, and of his day to day life in the Spanish capital, unable to so much as take his kids to school, are genuinely upsetting and intensely claustrophobic, especially in the context of Beckham’s role as a father himself.
The way it weaves that narrative in on top of a failing team with Real and then onto a redemption arc is a little reductive but understandable given the broad appeal needed for a Netflix doco.
The central criticism of the documentary would that we didn’t get enough of that dichotomy, and that the concision led to major omissions.
His England narrative ends in 2002, when he was 40% of the way through his career with the national team, without examination of where he stood in the public consciousness over another 60 games and two major tournaments.
The LA story is reduced to a personal conflict with Landon Donovan, rather than the transformative moment it was in MLS history for several years after that spat, without discussion of his cultural impact as the most famous thing about soccer in the US for a long, long time.
The whole Qatar issue goes without mention at all, despite it being the most famous thing Beckham has done in the decade since his retirement and the widespread criticism he received for his role in sportswashing the most recent men’s World Cup.
In particular, his lack of comment on Qatar’s rampant homophobia, given his status as a gay icon and his wife’s band’s legion of gay fans, is something that has hugely soured his public reputation.
He once said he was “honoured to have the tag of gay icon”, but sold that community down the river when a big enough offer came in.
The documentary was happy to talk about the rumours of an extramarital affair that were huge news 20 years ago, but afraid to pass comment on the much more recent controversies.
It’s rare that one reaches the end of a Netflix doco and wishes that it had been longer, not shorter, but that’s the case here.
There was plenty to keep the football fan involved, but the mere chance to reevaluate Beckham the player would have done that.
But this was an opportunity missed to go further into Beckham’s place in the 2000s, the culture of sport and the culture of celebrity, with a lot more Posh to boot.
The Last Dance had ten episodes and might have been better served by six or eight. Beckham could certainly have stretched that far, and would have been better for it.