Manchester United May Regret Selling David Beckham: Sorry Sir Alex

nigel smithCorrespondent IFebruary 4, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 16:  Soccer player David Beckham and wife Victoria Beckham arrive at the 2008 ESPY Awards held at NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE on July 16, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.  The 2008 ESPYs will air on Sunday, July 20 at 9PM ET on ESPN.  (Photo by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images)
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images

Is Sir Alex’s cool reaction to the “circus” surrounding David Beckham’s return to Old Trafford "on message" with the likely wishes of the Glazer family?

Whilst it does not quite have the Biblical story arc of the prodigal son, Golden Balls first competitive club match at Old Trafford for seven years has an unrivalled showbiz glamour. This surely explains why next month's United against AC Milan Champions League clash is so keenly anticipated.

Ferguson, however, refuses to be distracted by the razzmatazz surrounding his former player.

"No regrets. We move on," Ferguson informed Inside United magazine, dusting off a sound bite used last January to dismiss reporters’ interest in his feelings for the erstwhile United forward Carlos Tevez.

"The only difference with David's return to Manchester United compared with other players is that there will be a big media circus surrounding him when Milan arrive. He's such a high-profile celebrity—not just a high-profile footballer—and we haven't really seen anybody else return to the club in that situation.

Ferguson continued, "But our job is to concentrate on the football match and let the David Beckham media circus carry on—we know we're not going to stop it anyway."

If pressed, the manager can point to the run of success enjoyed by his team since Beckham’s departure.

Three domestic league titles, a European Cup, and the rise to global stardom of Beckham’s direct replacement, Cristiano Ronaldo, is ample evidence of how the club has prospered since England’s most-capped player moved to Real Madrid.

Were he to be really mischievous, Sir Alex could also direct attention to the southwards trajectory of Beckham’s post-United career: a fate suffered by many a player ushered through the Old Trafford exit by Britain’s greatest-ever manager.

Instead, eschewing the craving for sugar-coated sentiment, Sir Alex concentrates on his team’s preparation for a match against a side which defeated United when they last met in the competition three years ago. Ferguson has every reason so to do.

United needs to beat their Italian adversary to show that they remain a European heavyweight despite the loss of the dazzling Ronaldo and the workhorse Tevez.

Milan are a dangerous opponent. Rookie manager Leonardo is no longer the out-of-his-depth laughing stock he appeared to be just a few months ago.

Sir Alex will recognise too that for all the focus on Beckham, the 34-year-old midfielder is far from being Milan’s best player.

The likes of Pirlo, Pato, and Ronaldhino pose greater dangers to a United team seeking a third successive appearance in the Champions League final. Perhaps galled by the pre-match 'Beckham mania," these players might consider the game a perfect opportunity to stop deferring to their on-loan Major League Soccer team mate and have their own names writ large on the back pages.

Yet, away from the nitty gritty of football reality, the immense power of celebrity does hold sway, a phenomenon surely not lost on the Glazer family which owns United.

The family played no part in the £25 million sale of United’s former glamour kid to Real Madrid, but unlike Ferguson, may have powerful reasons to regret it.

For a start, Beckham’s celebrity guarantees attention. Even now, with his best years long gone and the end of his football career within sight, Beckham remains one of the world’s most marketable athletes.

Beckham—the Michael Jordan of world football—carries an allure that is intoxicating to a celebrity-obsessed global audience. His wife, their children, the meaning of his tattoos, his American adventure, and even his myriad hairstyles are media events followed closely on both sides of the Atlantic.

The eruption of Sir Alex’s volcanic anger, the hurled boot across a crowded dressing room, Beckham’s bloodied brow, and the looped photographic evidence of the telegenic star’s blemished good looks, lent added pathos to the Beckham soap opera.

The player’s exploits for England, his moves to Europe’s most iconic clubs, and his breakthrough in the world’s fame epi-centre give Beckham’s career a to-die-for sense of pre-destination. Indeed his is a story so compelling, it could have been scripted in Hollywood.

From the Glazer family’s point of view, United, a near £720 million in debt, have never been more in need of a marketing icon with a touch of Beckham’s stardust. He is the perfect fit for these debt-ridden times.

On an previous trawl for debt relief in December 2006, the Glazer family admitted its interest in finding a superstar icon for the first team.

The Times newspaper reported that in two 60-page presentations outlining their business plan for the refinancing of the club, the Glazers declared that an “extra £25 million” would be “set aside for a superstar, seemingly a headline act who would raise the club’s profile off the pitch as well as on it.”

This was interpreted as the Glazers' reaction to United's post-Beckham era. Deprived of Cristiano Ronaldo's international marketability, Old Trafford's Beckham-sized void remains unfilled.

As such, the Glazers' hearts must have raced lasted month when Beckham announced rather fancifully that he would love to end his career at United.

“I don’t think it would ever happen but if I could finish my career at Old Trafford it would be amazing,” Beckham said.

It was a typical saccharine-fuelled homily gobbled up by the world’s press. “It would be kind of perfection,” he added.

“I always dreamt of playing for Manchester United and staying there and never leaving. "Obviously, circumstances dictated that didn’t happen. But if ever a chance came up to go back and I doubt it ever will, then of course I’d take it. You always look at ending your career on a high and the majority of times it doesn’t happen.”

The probable stubbornness of Sir Alex and his likely insistence on the primacy of football considerations would thwart such a reunion. Nevertheless, Beckham's return to United is a Red bean counter's wet dream groaning with rich promise.

As shown throughout its five year stewardship of the club, the Glazer family does not always give the impression of seeing United as a football-first concern.

The constant hiking of ticket prices and the club’s persistence with the laughably inept Dong Fang Zhou, seemingly in the hope that the “Chinese Beckham” would help to crack the lucrative Asian market, is proof enough of the club’s commitment to the commercial bottom line.

It is common knowledge that Beckham was worth millions to Real Madrid in ticket and merchandising sales. The midfielder accounted for more than 50 percent of Madrid’s shirt sales during his four year stint at the club.

Indeed, the University of Catalonia estimated that Beckham’s decision to move to LA Galaxy in 2007 cost the Spanish giant between £24m and £30m.

It is the stuff of fantasy of course, but with Beckham back in the United fold, the Glazers could look forward to a Far East shirt-selling bonanza.

It would be a master-stroke too in the chase for endorsements as Beckham’s appeal stretches far and wide.

He was the first Westerner to be used for advertising in Iran. Beckham was the subject of a life-size chocolate replica in Japan and is also said to have prompted a surge in the learning of Spanish when he moved to Real Madrid.

So lucrative is the Beckham brand that his eye-watering £128 million Major League Soccer deal with LA Galaxy was seen as making good business sense.

The Glazer family must surely covet a player with such global recognition, as it seeks ever more ingenious ways of lifting the burdens imposed by United’s astonishing debt levels. At the very least, a global icon would raise confidence in the Glazer family's administration of the club and its refinancing wheezes and give United some financial breathing space.

United received £80 million when it cashed in on Ronaldo, a top marketing attraction since 2006. The club now boasts a squad with a clutch of excellent footballers, none of whom could reasonably claim to possess the global X factor that would demand attention from the cultural opinion-formers of the Fourth Estate.

Certainly, the stocky, balding Wayne Rooney has little mass-market cross-over appeal.

Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra are probably unsuited to the global sale of underwear.

The prodigy Macheda might soon become a household name, but even he is not a heart throb to rank alongside the mighty Beckham.

Sir Alex might believe that United have moved on from David Beckham.

But perhaps for the Glazer family, the player is an example of the type of football marketing good fortune upon which the club’s very survival might soon depend.