David Beckham’s Toe

Consternation has gripped the nation at news that David Beckham, captain of the England football team, has sustained an injury to his foot which may keep him out of the forthcoming World Cup.

Pictures of the foot have been plastered across the media, government ministers have expressed concern, and newspapers have asked readers to trasmit healing energy to the broken bone through communal prayer. In pubs and clubs throughout the country, fans who had not seen their own feet in years were conversant with intimate details of Beckham’s metatarsal. The general agreement seemed to be that as far as the World Cup was concerned, all hope was lost.

Like the body-parts of saints kept as sacred relics, Beckham’s toe has taken on an almost religious significance. Vilified after the last World Cup when he was sent off against Argentina, Beckham is now the chosen Saviour of English football. In this role he is the focus of innumerable projections and expectations. A talisman to ward off defeat, a source of potency and protection. In short, Beckham’s toe has become a communal fetish, and the same sort of panic has ensued as when the cry goes up on the battlefield that ‘The King has lost his head!’. Where are we now to turn for leadership?

This emotional response – we cannot function (as a team, as an individual) without X – is a common phenomenon. But it often relies on misremembering. Beckham’s reputation as a talisman was enhanced by a number of brilliant performances culminating in the spectacular goal against Greece which secured England’s place in the World Cup finals. The goal was voted ‘TV moment of the year’ in a national poll.

In the euphoric adulation (or should I say ‘relief’?) of the goal, scored in the second minute of extra time, few recall the previous 91 minutes of the game in question. It’s true that Beckham was outstanding. In fact he was the only one of the team playing football. The rest of the team seemed to be playing a game that they had invented on the spot, which consisted of running around like headless chickens and then kicking the ball to anyone with a different coloured shirt from them. Why did it take ninety minutes to EQUALISE against Greece? England should have won with ease, and the memory of Beckham’s goal only obscures an inadequate performance from his team mates.

Secondly, it ought to be remembered that after Beckham was injured in the game against Deportivo, the substitute scored with almost his first kick of the match and Manchester United went on to win comfortably without Beckham. They had previously lost to the same team.

The talisman-fetish gives an illusion of power that can sometimes be useful for a team. If you feel confident, even if based on an illusion, then real success often follows. At other times reliance on the fetish may undermine performance and team morale.

Mike Brearley, former England cricket captain and now a psychoanalyst, noticed a similar situation during the last World Cup in France. The day before the final between France and Brazil, the young Brazilian player Ronaldo suffered an epileptic fit. Brearley supposes that it may have been a panic attack, with Ronaldo’s body and mind collapsing under the weight of expectation that had been placed on him. He was discharged from hospital a short time before the game was about to begin, and against all logic and medical advice Ronaldo was included in the team. To nobody’s surprise Ronaldo played like a man who had just had an epileptic fit, constantly harried off the ball, unable to engage with the game. His ineffectual presence may have influenced the rest of the team, who seemed lacking in energy and desire. Brazil lost ignominiously.

Brearley blames the poor performance on an unacknowledged assumption that Ronaldo was essential to the team, and he offers an alternative strategy that the Brazilian manager Zagalo could have adopted. He wrote:

“Zagalo was paralysed in being unable to separate himself from the groupís deep-seated assumption that without Ronaldo they were nothing, an assumption which Ronaldo himself was also prey to. Ronaldo was the team’s unconsciously chosen leader.

The manager could neither bring himself to start without him nor replace him once he saw how ineffectual he was. He could not trust his own shrewd eyes. He was immersed in the collective delusion, which allowed all concerned to act as if they believed that a man who has just suffered a terrible trauma and was in shock could be fit to play, that without this one man Brazil were no good, that a football match is more important than life itself. Zagalo might have helped his players more had he been able to say, in effect, ‘Ronaldo cannot play for us; let us play for Ronaldo’.”

Given the attitude of the new England manager I do not expect the same mistake to happen over the saga of Beckham’s toe. Somewhere between despair and delusion lies a realistic response.

[Added 2010 – repeat the above and substitute ‘Rooney’ for ‘Beckham’; instead of ‘I do not expect’ in the last paragraph put ‘I do expect’]

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