8 SEPTEMBER 2001, Page 63

Football's Osric

Simon Barnes

DOST know this water-fly? There was a time when, had you not known him, your state would have been more gracious, for 'twas a vice to know him. The fop, the dandy, the transcendentally silly David Beckham — I wonder when he will get a knighthood.

For Beckham has changed almost beyond recognition, and I don't mean the haircut that changes with the rising and the setting of the sun. We are all familiar with the cliché of the clown who wants to play Hamlet. Beckham was the Osric who wanted to play Hamlet.

Osric, teased mercilessly by Hamlet till all his golden words were spent, is a fellow of no account, a clodpoll, nincompoop and mooncalf. He is all affectation, gaudy in language and using his hat as a fan, so that it might be more readily admired.

Beckham was just such a footballer, there to decorate the big occasion rather than to shape it. Of his talent with a football there was no doubt, but there was no substance to the fellow, no bottom. He scored some pretty goals, but he was not the man you'd want beside you in a crisis.

His insubstantial personality saw him fall in love with fame, and he was a sucker for all that is most shallow of fame's offerings. Pictures of his wedding are still treasured: he and his pop-star wife side by side, on thrones, wearing crowns.

The classic moment of Beckham's selfregarding folly came in the World Cup match between England and Argentina in 1998, when he was sent off for a retaliatory hackette at an opponent who had fouled him. England lost the match and were out of the World Cup as a result.

And as for his public appearances; well, they were an embarrassment. He was so tongue-tied he couldn't string two clichés together. The sight of Beckham with a microphone was enough to have you squirming.

So what has happened to him? He has emerged as a captain, a leader. He has somehow alchemised his nonsense into gold, and become a person of substance: assured, calmly welcoming responsibility for himself and for others, and playing foot ball of a restrained power and purpose that expresses the measure of the man.

The transformation is extraordinary. His press conference before England's famous match against Germany last weekend had seen-it-all hacks wagging their heads in admiration: honest, upbeat, humorous, deeply self-confident, even wise.

That, at any rate, was how things looked after that incredible match in Munich on Saturday. That night it was a team that took its mood and its tempo from the captain, and transformed a lost game (1-0 down after six minutes) into a performance of astonishing self-certainty; players certain of themselves as individuals and as parts of the greater whole.

These transformations do not occur as often in sport as you might think. True, sport rewards the young and forces them to do their growing-up in public. But those who make the transition from talented youth to gifted grown-up generally do so seamlessly.

Not Beckham. His growing up has been both traumatic and hilarious, often simultaneously. But the search for achievement is about risk, and those who seek the greatest achievements risk looking the biggest fools. And fewer have looked a bigger twit than Beckham. I knew you must be edified by this margent ere we left.