Beckham-mania grips globe as Spain gets new star

MADRID, June 18 (Reuters) – Beckham-mania spread across the globe on Wednesday as the England soccer captain’s move to Real Madrid from Manchester United gripped fans from Spain to Japan, where the player arrived on a promotional tour.
David Beckham was welcomed in Tokyo by hundreds of screaming fans trying to come to terms with his switch to the Spanish club, while Spain prepared to greet a new king of soccer and fans of the English champions mourned the loss of a hero.

“God save the new king!” enthused one excited television reporter as the Spanish media — in which football and celebrity gossip vie for prominence — erupted at the prospect of the arrival of “Becks” and his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria.

Real Madrid, nine-times European champions and a self-styled “galactic” team, beat off competition from arch-rivals Barcelona to sign the 28-year-old midfielder for a fee of 35 million euros, ending months of intense speculation about his future.

“For the team Real Madrid has now, the word galactic falls short,” boasted Real fan Francisco in Madrid’s upmarket Salamanca district — referring to a star-studded line up which includes Brazilian striker Ronaldo, Portuguese winger Luis Figo, French playmaker Zinedine Zidane and Spanish striker Raul.

Beckham and his wife posed for photographs after arriving at Narita airport near Tokyo, but gave reporters nothing more than a smile as a crowd of about 500 frantic fans jostled for a glimpse of the pin-up.

“I saw him! I saw him!” shouted Ayumi Hiwada, 39. “I’m really happy.”

Beckham, renowned for his ever-changing hairstyles and pop-star lifestyle, was setting foot in Japan for the first time since last year’s World Cup.

In an astute stroke of timing, news of his transfer came just before his tour of Asia, home to millions of his most free-spending fans and a potentially lucrative market for the already star-studded Real Madrid team.

The near god-like status Beckham commands in Japan and other Asian nations was a major reason for Real’s interest in him as the club looks to win over more fans in the soccer-mad region.

POP-STAR LIFESTYLE

In Spain, pictures of the couple, the darlings of the British tabloid press, were splashed over the front pages as local media dwelt on Beckham’s glittering pop-star lifestyle and merchandising power — almost ignoring his talents on the field.

British journalists mobbed Real’s training session in a taste of what is likely to be intense media coverage of Beckham’s every move in Spain amid rumors the high-profile signing had caused disquiet in the Madrid dressing room ahead of the decisive final game of the Spanish league this weekend.

While Beckham’s future team mates remained mute, Real’s sporting director Jorge Valdano stressed Beckham had not asked for special treatment and willingly gave up his famous number seven shirt and accepted the club’s existing salary structure.

“You can never have too many stars. Beckham is very versatile and we’re building a squad, not just a team,” Valdano said. “It’s a perfect signing because it keeps both the marketing and sporting departments at Real Madrid very happy.”

Beckham’s trip to Asia is less about his football skills than his bankability as a one-man marketing industry in commercials for products as diverse as chocolates and beauty treatments.

After three days in Japan, the Beckham bandwagon will move on to Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Beckham could be back in Japan on August 5 for a pre-season friendly between Real and J-League club FC Tokyo.

BEST PLAYERS

But not every Japanese fan was thrilled by Beckham’s move, with some worried that he will struggle to get a game in a team packed with the world’s best players.

“I’m against him going to Real, because he’s Beckham and Manchester United is best for him,” said 15-year-old Yu Nagaya, who was wearing a Manchester United shirt with Beckham’s name on the back.

Distraught Manchester United fans poured out their woes on the club’s official website, worried that they will not be able to compete with the Spaniards in the Champions League.

“Might as well hand Real Madrid the European Cup now. Real are the benchmark in European football and we sell them one of our best players. How are we meant to compete?” said Craig Hudson.

“I really hope United and Madrid meet in the Champions League,” said Alexander Alexeev. “I want Becks to feel his error on leaving United. When he comes back to Old Trafford with his white uniform, he’ll feel the pressure. I’m sure United will beat Real and win the Champions League next season.”

But as Beckham leaves Manchester United he might ponder the fate of others whose careers have turned sour after leaving the city’s Theatre of Dreams.

History suggests the path from Old Trafford, rather than being paved with gold, is strewn with potholes. There is a long list of players who have struggled after leaving the club.

By Alexander Smith