To a frenzy of camera flashes and a patchwork of sponsorship logos, as riot police corralled fans outside, the player French journalists know as “Le Spice Boy” stepped on to the Paris stage. With his blond highlights slicked back, tattoos poking out of his sharp suit, David Beckham flashed his trademark polite, white smile and, on demand, uttered the one word of French he said he knew: “Bonjour”.
This was the moment the French sports world had been waiting for for years. The 37-year-old former England captain arrived by private jet at the French league one team, Paris Saint Germain, after six years with Los Angeles Galaxy. The press conference in an airless, windowless underground conference room oozed money: it was the quintessence of football’s mega-rich. The Qatari-owned team, the highest spending club in Europe in the past year, was flashing its cash by bagging the biggest, living, breathing man-brand in sport, whether advertising too-tight white underwear, shifting football shirts or posing with fizzy drinks.
Beckham was not just returning to the Champions League, he was walking into a French crucible of rage and debate after the French league complained that François Hollande’s once trademark 75% tax on income over €1m would kill French football. With the French government currently rethinking the tax after it was rejected on constitutional grounds, and the actor Gérard Depardieu quitting for Russia for tax reasons, knives were sharpened for the speculation on Beckham’s extortionate pay cheque.
But at the Parc des Princes in wealthy west Paris, not far from the home of Carla Bruni and PSG’s biggest fan, Nicolas Sarkozy, Beckham wanted it another way. He took everyone by surprise when, with his Leytonstone accent – and not Joey Barton’s mock-French – he announced before anyone could ask how much cash he would be getting: “I won’t get any salary. My salary will go towards a children’s charity.”
Did this mean here at last was a stinking rich person France could warm to? It seemed a deft PR move both for him and the club’s owners, who have become synonymous with endless oil wealth and invested more than $300m in players since buying the club in 2011. Asked if the charity move was his own decision, Beckham said it was something he and the club decided together. “It’s one of the things we talked about at the start. I have been very fortunate through my career. I’m fortunate that I’m in the position I’m in. I thought it would be good to give it to a children’s charity.”
He would not say how much, adding “Obviously it’s a very good figure”. He added: “It’s never been about the biggest contract and the amount of money. That doesn’t interest me. I want to play for the biggest teams, with the best players.”
With lavish spending habits, foreign owners, and a history of hooliganism problems – several supporters’ groups were dismantled in 2010 after a supporter was killed in a clash between the team’s own fans – PSG is perhaps the most “English club” in France. With that came the irreverent questions from the press. Only one player currently under contract in Ligue 1 is older than Beckham: PSG fourth-choice goalkeeper Ronan Le Crom. Beckham, was asked how it felt to be the granddaddy of French sport. He smiled, gulped then composed himself. “If I’m the elder statesman, I’m very proud of that.” He said he could still play like he played at 21. “I haven’t lost pace because I never really had a lot of pace throughout my career, to be honest.”
As for the family roadshow, Beckham said Victoria and their four children would be living in London, “where the children are at school now”. He had already Facebooked a photo of himself sitting in a cream leather seat flying over on his private jet that morning, to head off anyone who worried about travel arrangements back and forth across the Channel. Asked where he would live in Paris, he said it would probably he “easier” for him to live in a hotel. This wasn’t that far-fetched, since the Brazilian midfielder Lucas Moura, is still reportedly “camping” at the Hotel Intercontinental in the centre of Paris, despite house-hunting for a mansion outside the city.
Beckham said he would chose whatever living arrangement was easiest for him and his family when they came to see him. His children, particularly the eldest, Brooklyn, with his own would-be junior football career, and Romeo’s child-modelling for Burberry, have not escaped the sight of the French celebrity press. His wife is known for staying at the Ritz when she comes for Paris fashion week, and has reportedly celebrated three birthday mini-breaks there with her husband. Once, while much of the world’s media was waiting outside the Ritz for the British jury in the inquest into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Victoria Beckham emerged for the cameras, as if by chance dressed in haute couture.
Even if the family roadshow stays at Beckingham Palace in England, personality politics will be hugely at play in the player’s Paris stint. All eyes are on his relationship with PSG’s Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, currently the highest paid player in French football, whose style on the pitch has already inspired a new French verb, “zlataner”. Nor was it clear how long Beckham would be staying with an initial contract that runs until the end of June, possibly his last active chance on the pitch. Beckham said he was interested “long-term” in “helping to build one of the biggest powerhouses in football”.
He said he hadn’t spoken French “for quite a few years. Since I was at school” but that he’d be brushing it up.
Then he squinted his tired-looking eyes one last time towards the flashbulbs, before an on-pitch kickabout for the cameras, smiling that “all this was decided at 1am this morning, and finalised when I was on the plane”.
David Beckham: ‘If I’m the elder statesman, I’m very proud of that’ – The Guardian
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