Dramatic stage is set for David Beckham in his latest role with PSG
'What is David Beckham here for?' asked the magazine France Football, when the world's most-recognised footballer signed a five-month contract with Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last month.
It seemed a legitimate question, given that by the end of his stint, Beckham will be 38 years old, that PSG's existing resources are apparently carrying them toward a first Ligue 1 title in 19 years and have set them up reasonably well for a first appearance in the Uefa Champions League's last eight in this century.
He is not in France for the salary. Beckham has said he will donate that to charity. He is not in Ligue 1 to catch the attention of the England manager.
Beckham's last foray into European club football, with AC Milan, in 2010, had as a principal purpose the player's desire to represent his country in a fourth World Cup and he was making his case determinedly until an Achilles tendon injury ended that dream. But Brazil 2014 would, as even this Peter Pan of physical conditioning concedes, be too much for a 39 year old.
There is scarcely a veil over some of the purpose of Beckham's membership of a club in a hurry to establish itself at the summit of its sport, raise its profile in accordance with the heavy financial investment made since the Qatar Sports Authority took over the major shareholding in PSG in 2011.
Beckham brings limelight, and, to the club's ambitious owners, an endorsement of their seriousness. Employing Beckham is like taking on a globally respected former prime minister or business guru into your boardroom.
Real Madrid thought so when they signed him from Manchester United almost ten years ago, acknowledging his power to boost their merchandising operation and their appeal to sponsors had been a factor in hiring him.
Milan sought some of that add-on value. The Los Angeles Galaxy, where he finished a five-year spell in December, looked on Beckham as a figurehead for an entire league, America's MLS, seeking to enhance its status.
Beckham has become comfortable with this aspect of himself. It has helped make him one of the wealthiest athletes in the world, and where, a decade ago at Madrid, he would bridle at the suggestion his off-the-field aura weighed as significantly as his contributions on the pitch in the way he was regarded by presidents and the coaches those presidents chose to pick their teams, he now wears the role of ambassador well.
But he is still a professional sportsman, motivated by the adrenalin rush of a matchday. He is not a non-executive consultant, but a midfielder with some unique assets and a feisty competitive edge.
On Sunday night, in the French capital, he should have his chance to show an eager, but also a sceptical, audience how rusty or sleek those assets are.
The script is Beckhamesque. He has, by the account of Carlo Ancelotti, PSG's head coach, now reached the level of match fitness which means he can be named in the squad. His progress to that point coincides neatly with the biggest match of the domestic calendar: PSG versus Marseille, first against third in the table.
To the sense of theatre is added the presence of an English midfielder in the Marseille team, Joey Barton. The French media have relished the distinctions between the two men: One who carries the letters OBE after his name, honoured by the Queen of England for services to sport; the other who has served time at Her Majesty's pleasure, as prison sentences in Britain are known.
Barton should start for Marseille, Beckham come on as a substitute for PSG. Ancelotti, keen to stress there are genuine answers to do with tactics, leadership and the pursuit of points to the question, 'What is Beckham here for?' talks of Beckham's "passing from central midfield".
His famed delivery of free kicks and corners might be useful. Marseille have a frailty defending set pieces: 13 of the 29 Ligue 1 goals put past them this season have come from dead-ball situations.
Win on Sunday, and PSG's advantage over their fiercest rivals would stretch to eight points. And on Wednesday, also in Paris, the teams meet again in a domestic cup quarter-final.
Beckham may have barely three months to make an impression in France, but there is plenty of football to pack in if the body is willing.
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Published: February 23, 2013 04:00 AM