Beckham provides needed spark in Paris Saint-Germain debut
PARIS -- The snow fell in soft flakes Sunday on Paris. It felt like Christmas. If you were looking for a late present for a loved one, Paris Saint-Germain soccer club had one, and only one, suggestion for you.
The outside of the club's store on the Champs Élysées is decorated with a huge picture of David Beckham, a tourist who is in the City of Light on a five-month visit. Inside, every other shirt hanging on the racks seemed to carry Beckham's name and his number, 32. That was nothing compared to the club's two stores outside its arena, the Parc des Princes, both crammed with fans Sunday before the start of the annual showdown with PSG's most detested French rival, Olympique Marseille. Every single shirt, it seemed, said "Beckham, 32."
Those fans then saw Beckham himself "baptising" his PSG shirt as he played the last 15 minutes. He even helped set up the second goal in a 2-0 victory. The result kept PSG three points ahead of Lyon atop Ligue 1. Marseille remains third, but now trails PSG by eight points.
Carlo Ancelotti, the PSG manager was asked if the fact he had given Beckham just 15 minutes suggested the player had been signed for commercial, not football reasons.
"For me, he's a PSG player," Ancelotti answered.
"He gave a quality of pass, experience, a good positional sense, after 20 just minutes of play it's difficult to judge," was Ancelotti's verdict on Beckham, the player.
There has long been a whiff of showbiz about PSG. It is the only top-division soccer club in Europe's largest city. The fear Parisians don't really care about soccer has long shaped the club's marketing policy. When PSG was owned by Canal+, a cable broadcaster and feature film producer, from 1991 to 2006, it often seemed that players were signed principally because of what they would add at the box office.
The French media have dubbed the showdown with Marseille "Le Classique," or even, abandoning all pretence at modesty or originality, "El Classico."
Modern arenas are noisy places. Parc des Princes is particularly loud. Even before a match that should needed no amping up, PSG strains to do just that. The stadium reverberated to jolly videos and an in-house deejay. There was a relentless parade of entrances and exits, each accompanied by thunderous announcements and blasting rock.
Some 10 minutes before kick off, PSG ran out to the tune of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana which contains the rather apt line "We are here now, entertain us," it probably means nothing that Kurt Cobain then adds "It's fun to lose."
In continental Europe, the PA reads out a player's first name, then the crowd chants the surname. Even though Beckham was a mere sub, the fans bellowed his name louder than Zlatan's, but then the five angular syllables of "Ibrahimovic" challenge even the most determined shouter. Jérémy Ménez, a Paris boy, who was also on the bench, matched Beckham in volume.
Beckham drew a bigger roar when he reappeared on his own for his official introduction to the crowd. This time he fan out to the sound of "Hey, Jude!" It's difficult to see much literary significance in the repetition of "Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Na, Hey Jude," although it is, of course, the fadeout.
There was still time for the original Ronaldo to trot out to take the field for the "fictive" kick off. The crowd, well warmed up by now, gave him a huge roar as well.
"El Fenomino" returned to celebrity filled the sidelines. Samuel Eto'o was there in a full-length fur coat. Victoria Beckham wore an expression that suggested she was trying to look interested even though she wasn't, while her husband, who the French call the "Spice Boy," was sitting on the bench rubbing his hands together for warmth.
"My feet had turned to ice on the bench," Beckham said.
PSG took the lead after 11 minutes when a shot from Lucas deflected off first Joey Barton, then Julio N'Koulou to leave goalie Steve Mandanda bamboozled.
PSG lived dangerously but still led, 1-0 after 76 minutes. Then Beckham came on. A tentative chant of "Beckham! Beckham! Beckham!" fluttered briefly round the stands as he trotted into the center of midfield. Evidently confident they had mastered the pronunciation, the PSG fans gave a more robust rendition a few minutes later.
Meanwhile, with PSG protecting a lead, Beckham rarely strayed from his post in front of the defense. The big question about Beckham's career is why he never developed into a great central midfielder. He could hit every pass, but he couldn't always see where to hit them. In his youth, his ball-striking skills could be deployed on the wing. Even though he is an elegant mover, he was never quick and at 38, though he looks as fit and lithe as ever, playing wide is no longer an option.
On Sunday, one of his opponents was Barton, a less-talented and less-disciplined player who has shown even the slowest player can thrive in central midfield if he uses his brain. A direct sprint between Beckham and the lumbering Barton, who is 31, would have provided a revealing form line. Barton had largely stopped running by then. Beckham was in a holding pattern.
Beckham had not been brought on to do anything dramatic. He played it safe. He did hit a couple of accurate but low-risk passes forward to Ibrahimovic, a good way to win the friendship of the prima donna who might feel his star billing threatened.
Beckham did venture as far as the edge of the Marseille penalty area as PSG's final attack unrolled slowly in the dying seconds. When the ball came to him, Beckham lofted a first-time pass off the outside of his boot over the defence for Ménéz whose low ball across goal, seemed to deflect in off a defender. Ibrahimovic claimed it. At last, Beckham broke into a sprint, racing across the penalty area to leap onto the big Swede.
The two men have something in common, other than celebrity, which PSG needs. The club has been the biggest spender in France for most of the last two decades, yet it has not won a league title since 1994. Ibrahimovic and Beckham have both won titles everywhere they have been: Zlatan in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain; Beckham in England, Spain and the United States.
On Sunday, Beckham went for a 15-minute jog and still helped secure victory. It's a priceless knack.