Lately, David Beckham has been in the news in the United States, perhaps the only major country in which he is not a household name. The New York Times, Slate, Sports Illustrated and others have all devoted lengthy articles to him, and he presided in spirit over a popular movie (Bend It Like Beckham). But if you missed these and have found yourself wondering, “Who is this person called David Beckham, and why should I care about him?,” a guide to the phenomenon is provided below.

Who is David Beckham?

David Beckham is a 28-year-old English soccer player who may be the most popular athlete on the planet. He has just been transferred for $41 million from a great soccer club, Manchester United, to the greatest one of all, Real Madrid. He is married to ex–Spice Girl Victoria (a.k.a. Posh), who is trying to revive her moribund career by cutting a record with producer Damon Dash. He is also one-fourth Jewish, which almost certainly makes him the greatest one-fourth Jewish sports star in the world.

Why is he so popular?

Well, he’s an excellent, though not great, player who is better than just about anyone at two things: crossing the ball and scoring from free kicks, which he does by putting spin on the ball — “bending” it — so that it goes around a wall of defenders and past the helpless goalie. He is also very good-looking, a natural-born dandy who likes shopping for clothes and posing in them just as much as his pop-star wife. When he changes his hairstyle (a frequent occurrence), it’s front-page news. He seems like a nice guy and works as hard as any player on the field.

Why is the American press interested in him?

Sometimes it’s just to poke fun at him because he doesn’t really matter here. But with the retirement of Michael Jordan, realization is slowly dawning that the world’s most famous athlete is no longer from the U.S. Some Americans may also feel that our national sports mentality is too insular. For instance, a recent Village Voice story about the influx of Europeans into the NBA came close to arguing for a Buchananesque, keep-the-foreigners-out approach to the game. To multiculti types who pride themselves on their globalism, this seems wrong. Knowing about Beckham provides a veneer of international sophistication, to go with a taste for Chinese movies, French vodka and Finnish cell phones. Anyway, how many times can one get excited about the New Jersey Nets playing the San Antonio Spurs?

What’s the significance of

his transfer?

Imagine if the Lakers paid an astronomical fee to purchase Yao Ming when they already have Shaq, simply to help sell Lakers memorabilia in China. Something of the kind appears to be going on here. Good as he is, it’s hard to see why Real Madrid needs him, since it already has a superb player in his position (Luis Figo, 2001 world player of the year). What seems to really interest the club’s management is the fact that Beckham is insanely popular in Asia, where Real Madrid lacks a strong commercial presence. And by selling him, Man U has rid itself of a player whose iconic status has become a distraction.

What makes him different from other athlete superstars?

Despite excelling in the macho world of soccer, Beckham has a feminine side and, off the field, is eager to flaunt it. He posed for a gay magazine before departing for the World Cup last year, and he has been known to wear pink nail polish, a sarong and his wife’s underwear, possibly all at the same time. He is also a dedicated family man (two children, Brooklyn and Romeo) and has a curiously submissive air that some women find very attractive. (He’s beautiful and you can boss him around.) Mark Simpson put it best last year in Salon, when he hailed Beckham as a new kind of urban male: the “metrosexual,” a trendy city slicker who has “taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.” Or, as Oscar Wilde said, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

Is he smart?

He’s smart enough not to say much. “People say I’m stupid,” he once told his wife. “Yes, and they’re all ugly,” she replied. So there.

Will we hear more or less about him in the future?

Once the current media frenzy dies down, probably less. Since Madrid already has four attacking players who are better than he is — Ronaldo, Raul, Figo and Zinedine Zidane — he may end up on the bench anyway. In which case he’ll be on his way to another team within a year. British players rarely succeed abroad. But will the media frenzy die down? Given that the three-hour medical exam he’ll receive at Real Madrid on July 1 will be broadcast live around the world on pay-per-view, one wonders. Should be fun to watch, though.

“Now, if you could just bend over, Mr. Beckham.”

“You want me to bend it?”

“No, I want you to bend over . . .

What would Tony Blair say if he died tomorrow?

“He was the people’s prince . . .”

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