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Soccer Star to Get Kicks in Spain

Where England's David Beckham goes -- for $41 million -- spectacle follows.

June 18, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

David Beckham, the tattooed, sarong-wearing symbol of the global game of soccer, was traded from England's Manchester United to Spain's Real Madrid for a reported $41.3 million Tuesday, thus bringing to an end the sport's most widely followed soap opera.

Or at least this season's episodes.

Even those who know nothing about the sport have heard of Beckham. The captain of England's national team has become as famous for his lifestyle and hairstyle over the past few years as he is for his wickedly bending free kicks.

Beckham, 28, and his pop star wife, Victoria -- formerly known as Spice Girl Posh -- have inherited the celebrity status and attendant media circus that once tracked Britain's Princess Diana. Not a day goes by that the couple is not in the news. The trade was the lead story on British newscasts Tuesday night.

The Beckhams live in a plush Victorian pile on the outskirts of London, a home the English media have dubbed "Beckingham Palace." Just last week, Queen Elizabeth II bestowed the Order of the British Empire on Beckham in recognition of his service to the sport.

Just last month, he was swapping stories in Johannesburg with Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and avid sports fan, who was as much in awe of Beckham as Beckham was of him.

When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was in Israel this month for meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Beckham's future was one of the topics that came up.

Now, Beckham has become England's most famous export. He, along with Victoria and sons Brooklyn and Romeo, will move to Madrid next month -- into the sunlight but not out of the limelight.

Beckham, whose personal fortune has been estimated at more than $83 million, agreed to a four-year contract that will pay him $136,000 a week, or $7.08 million a year plus bonuses, according to Spain's Radio Marca.

His salary as a player is surpassed by his commercial endorsements, for everything from telephones and televisions to candy and soft drinks. They earn him an additional $11 million a year.

One measure of his commercial value was underlined Tuesday within hours of the trade being announced.

A Japanese candy company, the same one that in December unveiled a life-size statue of Beckham in Tokyo made entirely of chocolate, said its sponsorship agreement with the midfielder will follow him no matter which club he joins.

For a while, it seemed that Beckham might be going to Barcelona rather than rival Real Madrid. Manchester United -- the New York Yankees of English soccer and the world's richest team -- last week reached agreement with a Spanish lawyer, 40-year-old Joan Laporta, by which Beckham would join Barcelona for $49.5 million if Laporta won election Sunday as the Barcelona team's president.

He did, but the Beckhams preferred Madrid to Barcelona, and the deal fell through, much to Laporta's dismay.

"He is one of the few players in the world capable of earning the money back for you in commercial revenue alone," Laporta said in explaining why he would spend almost $50 million for a player.

Still, Beckham, who is as well known internationally as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, has said he wishes he were treated as well by the media in Britain as Jordan and Woods are in the United States.

"I think that sports stars in America are put on pedestals and kept there," he said in an interview with The Times this month. "And people sort of worship them. In England, it's slightly different, because once you get there it's good for the English people to knock you down. And if you come back from that they start respecting you a bit more."

Beckham was en route to Asia for a promotional tour of Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand when Tuesday's agreement was announced.

In a statement issued by his London-based agent, SFX, he said he was extremely pleased by the trade.

"I recognize that this is an amazing opportunity for me at this stage in my career and a unique and exciting experience for my family," he said. "I know that I will always regret it later in life if I had turned down the chance to play at another great club like Real Madrid.

"I will always hold precious memories of my time at Manchester United and Old Trafford" -- the club's stadium -- "as well as the players, who I regard as part of my family, and the brilliant fans."

Beckham signed with Manchester United when he was 14 and led it to half a dozen English Premier League titles and to the European Champions Cup in 1999. As his fame has increased, however, he has come into more frequent conflict with Manchester United Coach Sir Alex Ferguson.

Both will now be able to step back and breathe easier.

"I've known David since he was 11 years of age, and it's been a pleasure to see him grow and develop into the player he has become," Ferguson said in a prepared statement.

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