LARRY RYAN: Make way, Joey, for ze real hero

Becks allows us believe in immortality.

It is possible to imagine him at 60, still taking free-kicks and whipping in the odd cross

We learned, last weekend, from French newspapers, that Joey Barton was ‘peut-etre trop intelligent’ to be a footballer. Or, as Joey probably told them; ‘maybee, ‘ow you say, zis leetle beet too intelleejant for ze football, oui?’

They may be no use to him on the pitch but at least Joey’s prodigious smarts are helping him make the most difficult transition of all, one that largely proved beyond De Niro; he has eased effortlessly from established tough guy into one of the great comic characters of our times.

The self-regard and ambition of Brent and Partridge combined, the pretensions of Hyacinth, the temperament of Vyvyan Basterd, George Constanza’s ranting capacity, and the linguistics of René Artois.

Hopefully, before someone brings an end to this elaborate, magnificent spoof, there will be another series or two. After all Joey has turned his hand to, surely a retirement stint at the helm of a calamitous hotel in Torquay is not beyond him.

It should have taken a lot this week for an Englishman abroad to outdo Joey’s trojan ambassadorial efforts in Marseilles, but then a week rarely goes by when David Beckham fails to overshadow someone more deserving of the spotlight.

Tonight, it is Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan’s turn to be overlooked — not to mention Houston Dynamo, who will sportingly supply a cast of extras — as the MLS Cup final is repurposed into the rather more marketable ‘David Beckham’s Final Match’. A Hollywood exit.

There is, of course, a rather more pressing narrative than the game itself. What Becks Does Next. Who is ‘set to swoop’? There’s talk of Monaco. He might buy an MLS franchise. He sent a ‘lovely text’ to Harry. He hasn’t ruled out a move to Australia. There has been interest from the Kaiser Chiefs — the football club, seemingly, though you never know.

Before any white smoke appears, a lot more possible destinations will present themselves and Becks will be kept busy not ruling things out. At times like this, he is at his most generous, affording legions of suitors and many pretend suitors a little glamour by association, a modest sprinkling of his magic dust.

In return, Becks gets nothing more than column inches for the brand. And the most precious thing of all — relevance. The one thing, you sense, that Joey Barton craves. Relevance, rather than notoriety. Respect and attention from serious football managers rather than discredited institutions like Newsnight and QPR.

There’s not room here, or in a whole newspaper, to fully unravel the cult of Becks. To make sense of why relevance comes so easily for him. But there remains something extraordinarily impressive about it.

Recently, US sportswriter Barry Petchesky considered who might be the world’s most recognisable sportsperson. “Which athlete, walking down the street in Bogota or Mombasa or Kolkata would be recognised by the most people?”

He narrowed it down to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, David Beckham, and Lionel Messi. “At gunpoint, I’d pick Beckham.”

Three of that quartet are at, or still close to, in Kobe’s case, the peak of their powers. It’s a trio who have bestrode their sports rather than taken a leg up from outstanding PR. But somehow, you suspect that Becks might outlast them all in hearts and minds.

After all, when you get past the joy, isn’t there, at times, an inescapable sadness in watching Messi play? To think, one day, he will attempt to glide, as he does so beautifully, into another slalom, and find, as he inevitably will, that turbo he needs is no longer there.

It will be too upsetting to look at him anymore, toiling, a frustrated reminder of human fragility.

But Becks allows us believe in immortality.

He has tweaked and refined and honed his talent and reduced his football to the few components that suit him best. He sensibly adjusted down the level he played at and ingeniously packaged it as a missionary job.

Maybe his legs will never fully go. It is possible to imagine him at 60, still taking free-kicks and whipping in the odd cross and not ruling out a shock return to Manchester United.

Nobody ever accused Becks of being too intelligent. There have been many laughs at his expense. But Becks, you can be sure, will never try to speak a language without using any of the words.

Why would he? He is a man entirely comfortable in his own skin and the world, in turn, will always make an effort to understand him. You sense Joey, however hard he tries, will forever be misunderstood.

And irrelevant.


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