David Beckham's achilles tendon injury has ruled him out of the 2010 World Cup and speculation suggests it could be a career ending injury. Another focus of speculation, however, is on what impact this will have on brand Beckham and his attractiveness to sponsors.
The South African World Cup was supposed to be the swansong of a great career. It would have the public, media and sponsors captivated by the denouement of undoubtedly the most glamorous footballing saga ever.
But what now? Is brand Beckham as ruptured as the tendon? Or will the gravy train roll into Cape Town?
It's perhaps worth considering what the likely outcome of a fit Beckham would have been at the World Cup. First, there is no guarantee that he would be selected to play. Players such as Walcott, Wright-Philips and Milner are young, in form and potentially more valuable to England given that they can last a full 90 minutes. Beckham, on the other hand, would probably have had the odd 10-20 minute cameo role as a substitute.
We need to face it, Beckham isn't the footballer that he was – it's arguable, to coin a phrase, that he never was the footballer he was. Beckham is not a footballing giant like Pele, Cruyff, Maradona or Zidane and it’s debatable whether he should even figure in a list of England's all time greats. The hype and the myth have somehow distorted the reality. Beckham was a good Premiership player who, for a decade, was one of the better players in an average England team. This is very important to understanding the allure of brand Beckham.
To a significant extent that ‘brand’ stopped relying on footballing ability around the time that he married Victoria. Celebrity culture and the Beckhams' absolute embracing of it, ensured that the cameras would follow him wherever he went regardless of whether a football was remotely within sight. His moves to Madrid, Los Angeles and Milan appeared to be as much about brand positioning for both player and clubs, as about football. Quite simply on-pitch performance, whether good or not, became less relevant to his profile than his looks, lifestyle and location.
This is probably best exemplified by the media reaction to Manchester United's 4-0 defeat of AC Milan on 10th March. Despite one of Europe's most successful teams with stars such as Pirlo and Ronaldinho, being humiliated, the next day's newspapers featured David Beckham wearing a green and yellow scarf, a symbol of Man Utd fans' opposition to the Glazer family ownership of the club as the main story. The headlines barely mentioned the actual game, nor Beckham's lack of footballing impact on it.
His form for Milan this season has been good, but footballing history tells us that players of his quality, at the end of their careers and playing a substitute role rarely make major contributions in the big events. South Africa could have been an anti-climax.
So not playing in the World Cup might actually pay dividends for the Beckham brand. There is no danger of criticism for ineffective performances, no prospect of a PR disaster such as a sending off or a missed penalty. He has already been invited to appear in the opening ceremony and to be part of England's back room team. Accepting either or both will give him a presence with more freedom for media appearances than would be possible as part of the tightly controlled playing squad.
He can't lose. If the team does badly it's not his fault, but if they do well, his influence as an avuncular figure offering support and advice to the youngsters will be highlighted.
If Beckham travels to South Africa in any capacity, the media, with dead time between matches and a need to file stories, will be drawn like moths to a candle.
Personally Beckham will surely be rueing the fact that he will never have another shot at the biggest prize of all. For brand Beckham, however, the show goes on with the mystique of a story cruelly denied its fairytale ending. For although the prospect of Beckham actually leading England to glory is now finally over, the chance to imagine ‘what if he was there’ is very much alive. And if we can’t summon that imagination ourselves, there are plenty of sponsors, PR and media operators perfectly willing to create it for us.