Brand It Like Beckham

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Here's a tale for our times. Last week Ali Abbas, the 13-year-old Iraqi boy who lost his arms during an air raid on Baghdad, continued his recuperation in a hospital in Kuwait, wearing a T shirt emblazoned with a picture of his hero, an English soccer star who was about to start a promotional tour of Japan after having just been traded to a Spanish club in a deal — vital to the fortunes of a German shoe company — that merited an editorial in the New York Times and that was brokered by a sports agency owned by a company from San Antonio, Texas.

Talk about globalization. David Beckham, the soccer player in question, is almost certainly the best-known sports star in the world. He doesn't make the most money — in last week's SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, soccer guru Grant Wahl reckoned Beckham, 28, earns close to $30 million a year, which is way less than the earnings of golfer Tiger Woods and Formula One racing driver Michael Schumacher — but Beckham's agency, SFX, which is owned by Clear Channel, the radio and concert giant, hasn't done badly by the boy. It is Beckham's name that's on the title of one of the sleeper movie hits of the year, Beckham's face that sells everything from motor oil to cell phones to Japanese chocolates, and a likeness of Beckham's body to which monks in a Thai temple bow in veneration. In Britain, Beckham and his wife Victoria, the former Posh Spice of the Spice Girls, have replaced Princess Diana as the staple of celebrity culture, adored by young and old, men and women, straight and gay. Last week ace trend spotter Marian Salzman of the advertising agency Euro RCSG Worldwide identified Beckham — who likes to say how comfortable he is with his feminine side and who has been known to wear a sarong — as the epitome of "metrosexuality," which, since you ask, is the characteristic of heterosexual men who spend time and money on their appearance and enjoy shopping.

He's a pretty good soccer player too. But it isn't just for his skills that Real Madrid paid Manchester United, the club for which Beckham played since he was 14, a sum of $41 million for his services. Europe's leading soccer clubs are becoming true global brands. Measured by its value on the open market, United is the most successful sports franchise in the world; Rupert Murdoch tried and failed to buy the club for $1 billion in 1998. With a worldwide fan base — in August, it's scheduled to play exhibition games before sold-out crowds in the U.S. — and enormous brand recognition in soccer-mad Asia, United has leveraged its stars to sell merchandise from Berlin to Bangkok. But in strict sporting terms, United is a lesser club than Real. Since the European club championship was inaugurated in 1956, United has won just twice. Real has lifted the trophy a record nine times. With Beckham on board, Real hopes to be able to market itself all over the world. (Real's website already conveniently has English and Japanese versions.)

There's more to this story than global branding. Just like the NBA, in whose games players from 34 nations appeared last season, European soccer leagues now recruit their stars internationally. And the fact that they do sheds more light on European economics and society than you will ever get from reading the new draft of a constitution for the European Union. Until quite recently, soccer in Europe was organized mainly on national lines. There were strict limits to the number of non-nationals a club could field in a game. In 1995 a decision of the European Court of Justice invalidated those protectionist rules, and since then, the best clubs have snapped up talent from all over the world. At Real, Beckham will play alongside established stars from England, Portugal, France, Brazil and the Congo. The managers of two of England's leading soccer clubs, Liverpool and Arsenal, in London, are both French.

Just as Dallas Mavericks fans cheer for Dirk Nowitzki (German) and Steve Nash (Canadian), so Madrilenos and Mancunians don't give a hoot about the nationality of a star, so long as he is playing for Real or United. That's indicative of a larger trend. In social matters, Europeans every day are becoming more "European" and less hidebound by national traditions — they worship the same sports stars, they drink the same wines, they dance to the same electronic beats, they vacation on the same beaches. Things go wrong only when attempts are made to craft European institutions and a European identity from the top down; a recent poll in Spain found that only 1% of respondents had any idea what the convention on a European constitution was meant to be doing.

Somewhere, there's a lesson in that for Europe's leaders. Meanwhile, a note to Real's marketing department: Ali Abbas needs a new shirt.

—With reporting by Kristen Bolt