|NEW BALL GAME: (From top) David Beckham and his wife, Victoria; the star footballer in a contemplative mood; children practise their soccer skills at Beckham’s new football academy; England’s captain with his sons
The last time I saw David Beckham up close, he was asleep on a hotel bed. So finding him fully conscious, given his tendency to talk as if his batteries are running down, raises expectations to an absurd degree.
Then, he was the subject of a 107-minute video by Sam Taylor-Wood at the National Portrait Gallery, and crowds of besotted teenage girls ' along with the odd embarrassed-looking male ' had gathered in the darkened shrine to pay homage to his sleeping beauty.
Today, conditions are not so reverential, though meeting Beckham in the flesh, even briefly on an industrial estate outside Madrid, is not without suspense, if only because the build-up is so protracted and the people around him so fussy.
We have been travelling since dawn, and have finally arrived in the ante-room to the Beckham presence: a Portakabin canteen for staff organising his latest photo-shoot. It is our holding position until the bestubbled England captain has finished modelling for Volkswagen Touran, the company providing free transport for children to and from his new sports academy in East London.
We are led to another building, where Beckham has a dressing-room. A man with a stopwatch remains stationed outside the door, timing the interview to 30 minutes. His agent sits in.
He has the courtesy to seem pleased at being interrupted and offers a proper handshake, but the World’s Most Beautiful Sports Icon (People magazine) looks as if he could do with a good night’s sleep. His highlights are lank and, apart from his white woven-fronted shoes, he’s gone for a style best described as homeless-chic, wearing shreds rather than jeans and a greyish jumper with a hole on the right shoulder. Except for his platinum and diamond wedding ring, he is disappointingly sans bling.
“I must admit I find it harder to get up in the morning. It could be because I’m getting older, or it could be because I’ve got three sons,” he says. “For a woman, I think 30 is one of the best ages. For a man, they say it’s all downhill from there. You start putting on weight and getting lumps and bumps in places you didn’t have them when you were 20. You start getting a few aches and pains. But, you know, I’m quite enjoying 30. Every day is an experience for me. Something different always happens in my life.”
Beckham’s reputation as a sluggish conversationalist is so persistent that even simple reflections like this put him up there with the philosophers.
That morning, Sven-Goran Ericksson had described the England captain as “unhappy in Madrid” and desperate to return to the Premiership before he retires. Like the state of the Beckhams’ marriage, his boss’s indiscretions are off limits, but Beckham uses the moment to emphasise his utter contentment and loyalty.
“I am happy at Real Madrid. I’ve moved on to new pastures, different country, different team ' and I’m enjoying it. I never spoke to Chelsea or to any other club while I’ve been here.” He says he’ll soon be negotiating a new contract with the Spanish side ' “maybe another two years on top of this one, so another three years here and I’ll probably finish. I don’t think I’ll be playing beyond the age of 35.”
Beckham may be playing good football at Real ' his performance against a triumphant Arsenal in the Champions League match on Tuesday was the only distinguished one on his side ' but his Spanish adventure has been a personal minefield. Loose-tongued former female employees have done their best to topple him from his pedestal as a devoted family man. The Spanish paparazzi are endlessly inventive. Victoria Beckham and their three sons are never without bodyguards.
“That’s the one thing we don’t like,” he says. “Of course we don’t. But I feel safer when they’ve got people with them all the time. Unfortunately, we live in a world like that. And it has to be like that. We always make it very low-key. It’s not big guys with black suits and black glasses. They are in the background; the boys never see them, even at school.”
For a week after a kidnap threat to his family, a police car was stationed in their front garden, a necessity Beckham says they pretended was for the boys’ entertainment. “We always make it a fun element, so they’re not feeling as if there’s someone watching them all the time.”
Watching and being watched: he likes to think it is a penalty of what he calls “being us as a family”, rather than the consequence of any marketing strategy to keep Brand Beckham in the public eye.
“Whether people believe it or not, we are a normal family and we are normal with our kids. We don’t spoil them. We make sure they are brought up the way we were brought up, and the way kids should be brought up ' with respect for people. They never get anything without saying please and thank you.
“Being in the position we are in, when you are out having dinner, people look at you more and see how your kids are behaving, and they judge you. That’s part of our lives and we have accepted it. I would never moan at the position we are in. We’ve worked hard to create what we’ve got ' but some of the things we haven’t asked for.
“We’re not going to stop doing things just because there are some people that don’t agree with some of the things that go on around us. We live our lives, we look after our sons. That’s our number one priority.”
Beckham is a master of the unspecific. His people make much of his new ease and fluency in interviews, and it’s true that on certain subjects he is like the Andrex puppy, trotting ahead with a stream of soft tissue in his wake, trying to be helpful.
He is friendly ' quite animated when talking about his sons, Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz ' but generally his conversation rolls out like a thick-pile carpet with a repeating pattern (“I always had that work ethic in me, and it always will be in me”) and soon it is possible to predict what’s coming next, as in: “That’s the way we have brought them up ' and that’s the way we will carry on bringing them up.” Politicians do it all the time.
If you ask him about football, Beckham adopts the pose of England captain at a pre-match press conference. It’s his default mode. Chelsea' “Really strong squad, great manager, great players.” Arsene Wenger' “One of the best managers in football ' as well as being a nice person”. Thierry Henry' “One of the best goal scorers in the world” ' and how he must have winced at the truth of that when Henry engineered Real’s defeat on Tuesday. Sir Alex Ferguson' “One of the best managers in football. I don’t think anyone should ever doubt what he can do because all of a sudden it will turn round.”
And yet, for all the sports-luvvie waffle, he is capable of reactions that come straight from the gut. Real Madrid are battling it out with Arsenal in the hope of reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, but they were close to being pitted against Manchester United. Would he have preferred to be playing compatriots on the ground at Old Trafford where he spent 15 years'
“I would have loved that,” he says, emotionally. “To go back to Manchester as a Real Madrid player. I spent so many years at Manchester, and I never really said goodbye. I never really had the chance to go back to Old Trafford to say thank you to the fans.”
The reason was his colossal falling out with Sir Alex Ferguson, the Man U manager. Did he ever manage to patch up his differences with Sir Alex'
“No. I never spoke to him after I left.”
Does he regret that'
“I never understood it. But that’s the way it goes with football sometimes. I would have liked it to have ended differently because he brought me through. He was like a father figure to me all the way through my career, even when people were saying we argued.” Football is a sentimental game, but it’s peculiar to find him still so crushed.
“I’ll always have respect for him because of what he’s done for me in my career. But I’ve moved on. And I’m sure he’s moved on, too. He probably doesn’t give it a second thought.”
After two unsettled years, the Beckhams have finally moved out of their rented house into a house “that we actually own”, and he says the boys are happy in school. If they weren’t, he suggests darkly, “then it would be a different story”.
Like most expats, he has some endearingly lame excuses for failing to get to grips with the language. “It’s hard when you’ve got three children and you’re working. I work till maybe 2 pm and then I pick up the kids. They’re in bed at eight and then you don’t feel like having lessons. I am trying, but it’s difficult. I’m getting on slowly. Even if I could say things, I won’t go out and speak to people because I am quite shy. I want to be perfect.”
When the two older boys come home from school, he’s as keen as they are for a kickaround. “Romeo’s just obsessed, probably more obsessed by football than Brooklyn. He’s the first one to put his boots and kit on, and he’s up and away. He’s got the choice of the Real Madrid kit, in three different colours, and the two England kits, so it all depends what mood he’s in. Sometimes he’ll come home and say: ‘I’ll be Daddy at Real Madrid.’ Sometimes it’s: ‘I’ll be Daddy at England.’ I love to see them running around and having fun.
“At an early age, you can tell whether children have got something and if they can kick a ball properly. Romeo [three] has definitely got the technique, but strengthwise it’s not there because he’s only a little boy. But Brooklyn, who’s nearly seven, has definitely got the technique and the strength. If they go into football, great, but I’ll support them whatever they do. I’d rather my sons not be defenders.”
At Christmas, Brooklyn consumer-tested his father’s new soccer school, next to the Millennium Dome, at Greenwich, rewarding him with exactly the “wow factor” Beckham says he wants to give to the thousands of young people who will pass through. “He couldn’t believe it. I have never seen him work up such a sweat. He must have done all the circuits.” The David Beckham Academy, with a personal investment “running into millions”, is being promoted as his way of giving something back at the end of his career.
The idea, inspired by his own experiences at the Bobby Charlton Soccer School, is to give children of all abilities the opportunity to play sport after school ' and Volkswagen Touran’s three-year sponsorship, beginning this month, will ensure they have the means to get there. There is an element of philanthropy, but it is also a potentially lucrative retirement project ' the American Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) are partners ' and, to the cynics, an obvious ego trip.
“It’s not a money-making machine,” Beckham insists. “It’s not elitist. There are a lot of academies out there who want the best footballers, the best boys.
This is a place where kids, boys and girls of all ages, can come to a safe environment, have fun and stay off the streets. These days, there are so many distractions that can get kids into trouble and take them off the path of creating something in their lives. They all need something to set their minds on.
“My academy will give them the chance to see what they can do with their lives. They will learn the respect side of the game ' on and off the football pitch, to the fans, to the referees, to opponents. Of course, there are a lot more technically gifted footballers than me. But I say to my boys and to the kids at the academy: if you work hard, you can achieve a lot in football, and in life.”
Just talking about it seems to put Beckham back inside the skin of the skinny Chingford lad being coached by his dad in Chase Lane Park to earn a place with Ridgeway Rovers.
“It’s incredible. There are two full-sized indoor football pitches. It’s everything I would have loved to see when I was eight or nine years old. This will be my life after football.”
'The Daily Telegraph