His name is David Beckham, and in most of the world, his name is instantly recognizable.
To most people in the United States, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan are the world's biggest athletic superstars. But to countless soccer fans from Dublin to Cape Town, from Goteborg to Tokyo, Beckham, a star player for England's Manchester United, is a star of Beatlemania proportions, and his curved-trajectory kicks are the stuff of glorious instant replays.
During the 2002 World Cup tournament in South Korea and Japan, for instance, Asian teens mobbed him everywhere, sporting his hairstyle and wearing replicas of his England shirt. Indeed the Beckham No. 7 jersey, which he wears for club and country, is one of the most requested replica items around the globe, from Manchester United's merchandise store to Tehran bazaars.
Perhaps Beckham's worldwide popularity can be best understood by considering the movie "Bend It Like Beckham," an audience-pleaser about a Indian British girl obsessed with the soccer superstar:
It made $50 million before coming to America. (It opens tomorrow in Washington.)
It's the biggest British-financed moneymaker of all time ($17 million so far in the United Kingdom).
It topped the box office charts in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
It has won audience favorite awards at the U.S. Comedy Arts, Locarno, Sydney and Toronto film festivals.
"Bend It" director Gurinder Chadha, recently in town to promote the movie, readily acknowledged that Beckham mania has been the movie's most powerful ingredient, even though the 27-year-old soccer star appears only in TV footage and photographs. In a climactic scene, two people looking like Beckham and his wife, former pop singer Victoria "Posh Spice" Adams, are seen walking through Heathrow Airport. Is it really David and Posh? That's for viewers to figure out.
Chadha came up with the tale, about an Indian girl in South London who wants to be a soccer player even though her family is primarily interested in marrying her off.
While Chadha was working on the script with her collaborators (her husband, Paul Mayeda Berges, and Guljit Bindra) she chose Beckham as her fictional character's hero. There were several reasons.
Beckham's high recognition factor was certainly crucial. But Chadha also realized his bending shots fit the film's central theme. "I thought that was fantastic as a metaphor for girls bending the rules."
Chadha also credits Beckham for "single-handedly changing the image of [English] footballers," all too long associated with the likes of Paul Gascoigne, a former England star who lived a very public life of drunkenness, sophomoric behavior and womanizing.
Beckham, she says, is "a great footballer but he's such a good bloke. He's a devoted husband, a loving father. He's a family man. Cooks pasta at home."
And he is something more than another great soccer player. In England at least, he's practically royalty.
In the emotional vacuum left by the breakup of Charles and Diana, as well as the princess's tragic death, Beckham and his wife, the former Spice Girl, have become a sort of people's-choice royal couple. The mansion they share in northern England with children Brooklyn and Romeo is widely referred to as "Beckingham Palace."
(There is nary a drop of blue blood in either party. Beckham's is pure East London. And as for Adams, who hails from the Hertfordshire countryside, posh she ain't.)
Everything Beckham does seems to trigger public attention. His hairstyle changes (ranging from skinhead shorn to a David Bowie-like cockatoo) and clothing styles are instantly adopted by fans around the world. He gave his name to a line of boys' clothing for the British department store Marks & Spencer.
But it's on the field, of course, where Beckham earns the purest acclaim, particularly with his trademark bending of the ball. He achieves this effect by striking the ball with the inside of his foot, hitting the ball slightly off the center mark, much in the same way a tennis player puts spin into a powerful serve. The spinning ball streaks over and around the heads of the defenders standing in front of him, then continues its wicked curvature around the outstretched hands of the despairing goalkeeper. Just before the goalkeeper is engulfed by the exultant roar of the crowd, he hears the slithery impact of the ball hitting the back of the net behind him. Beckham either raises his arms triumphantly in the air or runs madly toward the fans in the stands, pumping his fists with celebratory glee.
Beckham's exploits on the pitch have become the stuff of national legend -- famous and infamous. As he has learned, even the blessed ones can fall from grace. Playing for England against arch-rival Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, he was sent off for petulantly retaliating against a player who had fouled him. England lost the game and was knocked out of the tournament.
For an entire season, Beckham was booed at every Manchester United away match whenever he touched the ball. Death threats were issued to him and his family.
Chadha sent Beckham a copy of the script in 1999, seeking permission to use his name. The word came back: Beckham approved. Chadha says he did so for a number of reasons, including his interest in girls' soccer. Says the filmmaker: "If more girls played soccer, then more families would come out to watch soccer. He's all about getting the hooligan element out and the families in."
Chadha invited the Beckhams to a private screening of the movie in Manchester. He came with his wife and teammates Gary and Philip Neville.
"I sat behind him and Victoria," says Chadha. "He wore glasses. I didn't know that he wore them. He was really serious for a bit and then he started laughing. And Victoria was laughing her head off."
At the end, the verdict was positive. She remembers Beckham saying it was "brilliant."
Meanwhile, Beckham was turning his luck around. As England's new captain, he led the team through qualifying games and into the 2002 World Cup. One of those games, against Greece, was won by a quintessential Beckham curved shot in the dying moments. A Beckham bender.
The movie was released last April, just in time for Beckham's soccer ascension. Barely healed from a foot fracture, in June he captained England against . . . Argentina. His popularity went into the stratosphere when he scored the game's winning goal. Since then, it seems, David Beckham can do no wrong. Nor can "Bend It Like Beckham."
There are indications that Beckham might be making inroads into the culturally impenetrable American attention span. Expatriate and American soccer fans here regularly tune in Saturday mornings to satellite broadcasts of Manchester United. And the team's exhibition games in Seattle, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Philadelphia this summer are almost sold out.
Meanwhile, "Bend It Like Beckham" made an explosive opening weekend in Los Angeles last week. According to the film's American distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures, the movie (which has no real stars or even much of Beckham in it) enjoyed a three-day take of $161,528 in Los Angeles. That's a per-screen average of $26,921, the highest of any independent film this year.
Of course paradise wouldn't be paradise without a hint of trouble. Victoria has long chafed at rain-swept, declasse Manchester as her nearest big city. British news reports have repeatedly suggested she wants to frolic in the more fashionable corners of the world. Milan, one of the world's fashion centers, reportedly tops her wish list. And one of the Italian city's teams, the money-laden Inter Milan, has made unequivocal overtures to the soccer player. Could the unthinkable happen? What's the word at Beckingham Palace? Stay tuned, America. This might matter to you sooner than you think.