To understand Britain's hysteria over Beckham is to realize how closely it's tied to the fanatical hatred of him in 1998. When Beckham was ejected from a second-round World Cup match for kicking Argentina's Diego Simeone, contributing to England's elimination, the public onslaught that followed went beyond your ordinary media lynching. Rallied by the tabloids, punters hanged Beckham in effigy outside a London pub. An Islington butcher put two pigs heads in his front window, one labeled DAVID and the other VICTORIA. For months Beckham was subjected to death threats, chants wishing cancer upon his son, even a piece of "fan mail" bearing a bullet with his name inscribed on it.
Though Beckham returned to Manchester United later that summer, ending speculation that he might have to join a team on the Continent, he kept his head down, his mouth shut. "It was hard concentrating on football," he recalls. "It was like, I'm a soccer star. Nobody was killed. This isn't right."
Truth be told, he wasn't just another gifted midfielder. From the moment Beckham began dating Victoria Adams, at the height of the Spice Girls craze in 1997, they had been daily gossip fodder. After the period of national grieving over Diana's death in August 1997, the royal family appeared drab next to the new pop couple. (The tabs dubbed their 24-acre spread outside London Beckingham Palace.) Introduced by Posh to the fashion world, Beckham embraced its trappings; he was photographed wearing a sarong while staying at Elton John's vacation house in France. "Kids love each change of hairstyle, and I think he has taste," says Hornby. "Maybe not your taste or my taste, but a real instinct for keeping himself looking cool in the eyes of five-to 20-year-olds. And he's actually pretty sweet and likable."
Beckham's detractors tried hard to spin the hype machine into reverse after the World Cup debacle, seizing on anything at hand: his wife, his fashion forays, his high-pitched Essex patois. "But they were flailing about a bit, to be honest," says Hornby. "That's why the hatred of him was so inflated. People wanted to loathe him, but they couldn't get a handle on anything. A brief moment of indiscipline against Argentina, and people are hanging effigies? If it had been any other English player, all the focus would have been on Simeone. Kicking Argentines is generally approved of, but not in this specific case."
Then something odd happened. Through a combination of p.r. savvy, quiet dignity and, above all, unimpeachable play, Beckham turned the media coverage on its head. Running tirelessly, serving exquisite crosses into the penalty box, scoring timely goals, he helped lead Man United to an unprecedented Treble in 1999, winning the English Premier League, FA Cup and European Champions League trophies. Within two years he'd be named captain of England-forcing fans to suspend all hostilities in the name of national pride—and would preside over a stunning 5-1 win against Germany in a World Cup qualifier. When Beckham buried a penalty kick to beat Argentina at last year's World Cup, his transformation from pariah to paragon was complete.
Redemption has proved lucrative. Beckham's annual income of close to $30 million ($8.8 million from his Man U salary and upwards of $20 million from such endorsers as Adidas, Pepsi and Brylcreem) makes him the world's highest-paid soccer player. The key to his popularity is his ability to function as a one-size-fits-all vessel for his fans' hopes and dreams. It's revealing that he doesn't say a word in the film Bend It Like Beckham, serving instead as a listening post—in the form of bedroom wall posters—for the deepest secrets of a teenaged Anglo-Indian girl.
"He's this phantom of the imagination," Cashmore explains. "Because he doesn't actually come out and say anything, he gives the people carte blanche to construct their own David Beckham." To claim that Beckham doesn't say anything is a bit uncharitable. Granted, like Woods and Michael Jordan, he's not Muhammad Ali refusing induction into the Army. "I try to stay away from as much politics as possible," says Beckham, who admits he doesn't vote in elections. Yet his open-mindedness often features a candor you'd never expect to hear from Tiger or Michael.
Consider his stance on homosexuality. Beckham happily speaks out against the raging taboo of male locker rooms worldwide. "Being a gay icon is a great honor for me," says Beckham, who posed suggestively for the cover of the British gay magazine Attitude last year. "I'm quite sure of my feminine side, and I've not got a problem with that at all. These days it's the norm, and it should be. Everyone's different, everyone's got their thing."
And Beckham's thing is, well, everyone. Race? One British TV show, citing his cornrows and chunky jewelry, recently dubbed him "an honorary black man." Religion? He's one-fourth Jewish. Women's soccer? "Someday I'd like to have soccer schools for girls and boys," Beckham says. "People always say to me, 'Why girls?' And I say it's important that girls get involved in sports."
The person who has the biggest influence on Beckham is his wife, whose own fallen star has caused U.K. pundits to suggest she's using her husband as a prop to boost her career. (Or, as The Guardian's Julie Burchill none-too-delicately put it last week, "Beckham has been grotesquely, massively p—whipped by his talentless ambition-hound of a wife.") Ask Victoria how she has changed David's life, and she steers clear of such trivial matters as love, family and maturity. "I've changed his dress sense," she says, munching on a strand of grapes. "Drastically." Her face is blank. Is she in on the joke? Or is that really all there is to it? It's impossible to tell.