November 9, 2023


David Beckham: A Man in Full: In his new Netflix show, the soccer star isn't just inspiring in his resilience--he's a one-man rejoinder to the entire concept of toxic masculinity. (Kat Rosenfield, November 4, 2023, Free Press)

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. 

It is pretty amazing how little teams used to do to prepare and protect such assets.

Posted by at November 9, 2023 12:00 AM


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