Unexpectedly, David Beckham materializes through the backdoor and catches everyone in the hotel by surprise. He’s dressed all in black – cashmere knit, slim-fit jeans, hi-top sneakers – with a Tudor watch dangling from his tattooed wrist. For a couple of seconds, the room stops.
Perhaps it’s the suddenness of his entrance that forces people to take a moment to regain their composure. But more likely it’s because meeting David Beckham is a bit weird. In person, the glare of his hyper-celebrity makes you blink. His face is so familiar – from the goal celebrations, the magazine covers, the skyscraper-sized billboards – that your brain instinctively registers him as an old mate. Then you realise, of course, you’ve never actually met before and you’re beaming at him in a slightly deranged way.
Those who’ve spent time with Beckham tend to say two things. The first is that he’s just as pleasant as he appears in public. This, it transpires, is boring but true. He’s in Sydney as the global ambassador for insurance company AIA and the photographer has already recounted how, at a soccer clinic that morning, Beckham happily stood in the hot sun for way longer than official duties required to make sure every single kid (and then all their parents too) got their precious selfies. Now there are yet more photos. But Beckham submits to the process with easy humour, flashing his bashful grin on cue.
The second truism about Beckham is that he’s even better looking in the flesh. Infuriatingly, I can vouch for this too. At 43, he’s still lean and athletic, while beneath the furrowed brow and facial scruff his features combine that sure-fire blend of cragginess and preposterous symmetry.
Those looks certainly haven’t hampered Beckham’s status as a style icon and fixture on the best-dressed man lists. But what he’s increasingly known for today is being the poster-boy for modern fatherhood. With four kids ranging in age from seven to 19, Beckham has become the paragon of the 21st century dad.
He’s not just a modern dad because of his hands-on involvement – although he loves doing the school runs and cooking their meals (smoothies are his secret nutritional weapon, he tells me, “because you can make a strawberry smoothie and then smuggle in vegetables without the kids even noticing”).
Beckham’s not only a modern dad because of the way he continues to look after himself, proving fatherhood needn’t mean a slide into physical disrepair and trousers with elasticated waistbands. Or because of the fashionably “creative” monikers he’s bestowed on Harper Seven, Cruz, Romeo and Brooklyn.
No, the reason Beckham is the standard-bearer for the contemporary dad is far more simple: it all stems from his giddy devotion to his kids. He refers to his children as “my motivation” and has been quoted as saying that leaving them can make him feel “physically ill”.
A cursory scroll through his Instagram feed (54 million followers) suggests that these are not empty words. Check the photo of him proudly posing by a newly assembled Lego castle (“1am done… Someone’s gonna have a nice surprise in the morning.”) Or in that heart-melting clip of Beckham reduced to tears on his birthday as he embraces Brooklyn, who’s unexpectedly returned from overseas to surprise his dad. (Being physically affectionate and in touch with his emotions wins him another big tick in the modern-dad stakes).
It’s not as if he’s in the goofy-grinned honeymoon period of dad-life either. After all, Beckham became a father almost two decades ago when he was 23-years-old. “Obviously, Victoria and I had Brooklyn at a very young age,” he says. “But I always wanted that, because I wanted my kids to live through my career with me – through the highs and obviously a couple of lows along the way. I always wanted that.
“And I think you mature quicker with kids. You have more important things in life to worry about than your everyday worries, and life becomes all about the kids. I think that’s what you learn as a father, you become less important and it’s all about your children.”
Beckham’s relationship with his own dad is also close. Ted Beckham was an Essex heating engineer who installed domestic boilers for a living. An avid Manchester United fan and frustrated player himself, Ted was determined to help David realise his own dreams and helped mastermind his son’s footballing career. By the time David was a toddler, Ted was already making him balls to kick out of rolled-up socks. That support paid off when Beckham signed for United as a schoolboy.
“’Never give up – no matter what.’ That was one of the things that my dad would always say to me,” Beckham says, when asked to recall his father’s best piece of advice. “If I got a kick in a game, I’d look over to him and he’d be like, ‘Get up! Get up! Don’t show people that you’re hurt!’ There was a steeliness that he kind of instilled into me on that side. It actually made me stronger as a person.”
Yet Beckham’s true legacy from his parents wasn’t old-school grit but a boundless capacity for hard work. Today, at the age of 70, his father still beavers away as a self-employed gas fitter. “He still wants to work,” Beckham says.
“When we were kids he used to go out to work at six o’clock in the morning and often come home at nine o’clock at night. My mum was the same – she used to work during the day and then in the evenings, once my sisters and I were in bed, she’d do hairdressing until 12 o’clock at night.”
Therein lies the well-spring of Beckham’s success. This tends to get lost amid the hysterical glitz that surrounds him – the model looks, the pop-star-cum-fashion-designer wife, the showbiz hobbies (in his downtime Beckham rides motorbikes with Tom Cruise etc). But Beckham’s career as a footballer was always based on a formidable work ethic.
As a stick-thin youngster coming through the ranks, Beckham was never the most naturally gifted. So he ran harder instead. He consequently built up incredible stamina – he remains one of the few athletes to have completed every level of the notorious beep test. To make up for his lack of technical flair, Beckham practised like a loon. Every day after training, he’d stay behind to work on those curling free-kicks that would become his match-winning trademark. The upshot: Beckham transformed his right boot into one of world football’s most devastating weapons.
Sure, he was flamboyantly metrosexual and sported literally every haircut known to mankind (mohican? Tick. Cornrows? Tick…) As a player, however, he relied more on work-rate than razzle-dazzle, a true team-player who’d sweat buckets for his team. Luis Figo, the former World Player of the Year and Becks’ Real Madrid teammate summed things up. “The image he has is totally different to what he is really like as a player and a person.”
And here lies the dilemma for Beckham as a father. His playing career at United, Real Madid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan and Paris Saint Germain was phenomenally successful. At United alone he notched up six Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League. On the international stage, he played 115 times for England and captained his country 59 times. Since then, Beckham has become a walking super-brand, amassing a personal fortune estimated at around £300 million. Beckham is the working-class boy who slogged his way up to conquer the world.
His astounding success means that Beckham’s children enjoy an upbringing that’s very different from his own. Their lives can indeed often look like something out of a ‘90s hip-hop video. His eldest son Brooklyn, for example, boasts Elton John as a godfather, 11.5 million Instagram followers and, at the age of just 17, was hand-picked to photograph the ad campaign for the Burberry Brit fragrance.
All this raises a quandary that Beckham is acutely mindful of. How do you instill hunger and drive in kids who’ve had the keys to life handed to them on a gilt-edged plate? It’s a question that Beckham has pondered deeply and the answer, for him, lies in his role as a dad.
“I still learn from my parents, I still watch them, they still guide me,” he says. “And I’ve tried to do the same with my children. Because they do have a different upbringing to what I had. But the work-ethic still has to come from the parents.”
That’s why David Beckham continues to grind away, chasing down business interests with the same determination that he displayed on the pitch. He’s jumped on a merry-go-round of endorsements and sponsorship deals – fragrances, fashion lines, watches, whiskey – and continues to pursue new opportunities: he’s in Australia to help AIA promote its campaign for healthier living. His latest business venture involves heading the ownership group for the new MLS soccer team in Miami that’s due to make its debut in the 2020 season. As a philanthropist meanwhile, he’s started the David Beckham 7 Fund with UNICEF to help the world’s most vulnerable children.
Beckham does all this despite pocketing a reported £40,000-a-day over the past two years from the commercialisation of his brand. Why does he continue to hustle? It’s because he’s determined to send the right message to his kids.
“The reason I finished my (football) career at 38 years old and continued to work as hard as I do now is because I want to set the right example,” Beckham says. “I want to show my kids that now after dad’s main, first part of his life and the first part of his career, he still continues to work hard. That’s what I want them to learn.”
It’s a principle that doesn’t only apply to the ludicrously wealthy. You want to be a better dad? Beckham’s advice would be to take a good look in the mirror and work on trying to become a better man. Your kids are always watching (always watching) and your conduct defines their values. If you want to teach your kids that hard work breeds success then Beckham’s suggestion is you must step up to the plate yourself.
How then does the poster-boy for modern fatherhood want to be remembered as a dad? Beckham shrugs and gives that little half smile that makes every woman in the room inwardly swoon. “Just as a hard-working father that loved his kids and would do anything for them.”
Thanks to AIA Insurance