Blend It Like Beckham
Chasing career highs, and the never-ending search for balance
Did you catch Beckham? If you haven’t been locked out of your parent’s Netflix account yet, get it on your holiday watch list. Even if you’re not a fan of football—or, given the ever-increasing number of US dads reading this, “soccer”1—it’s essential viewing.
But you can’t trust my opinion. This entire essay comes to you with an “unreliable narrator” caveat. The Manchester United team of the 1990s were an integral part of my childhood: the home of Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and the Class of ‘92. I went to Old Trafford to watch games with my old man, seeing the Red Army dominate English (and European) football for well over a decade. Watching this four-episode series stirred up the kind of emotions a Chicago Bulls fan will have felt watching 2020’s The Last Dance—a series that is a clear inspiration for this all-access exploration.
The series was directed by Fisher Stevens, who you may remember as Waystar Royco’s slimy communications executive Hugo Baker—a character who, like the Beckhams, has a morally wavering history of media manipulation. While the documentary dubiously claims to be free from bias, it is a story bigger than one man, one couple, or one team; it captures a pivotal moment in the cultural zeitgeist. Peter Hook, the New Order bassist and professional Mancunian, turns up for a heartbeat to remind viewers of the passing of the guard—this shift in the natural order when footballers overtook musicians as the rock stars of the UK. Anna Wintour also briefly appears, illuminating the chokehold that Posh and Becks had on popular culture at the time.
Themes of fatherhood are ever-present. (If they weren’t, it’d be odd for me to dedicate a whole newsletter to the series.) Beckham’s father Ted is portrayed as the driving force behind David’s career; memories are shared over footage of amateur games where you can see the early signs of the player Beckham will become, soundtracked by his father screaming at him from the touchline. There’s a fine line between a parent’s encouragement and admonishment; where that line appears for you will vary depending on personal experience. Beckham signed for Manchester United as a teenager, achieving a lifelong dream of donning the red shirt. We learn this future was foreshadowed from birth. His father anointed him the middle name Robert—his favourite footballer, United legend and recently deceased Sir Bobby Charlton. It is left to the viewer to decide whose dream this was: whether it genuinely came from the son, or whether the father imprinted it upon him from his earliest days.
Beckham grew up practising free kicks and corners in the backyard under the watchful eyes of his father. This trope will be familiar to any who read Andre Agassi’s phenomenal biography Open2, watched Will Smith’s Oscar-winning (and slap-preceding) turn as Serena and Venus’s father Richard, or have knowledge of the early days of Tiger Woods; the pushy parent is a necessary chapter in the origin story of the sports prodigy. Agassi once wrote of his childhood, “My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I’ll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I’ll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.” Tiger Woods once opened up about how often his father would not let him eat his dinner until he had driven hundreds of golf balls. Agassi’s father was giving his teenage son amphetamine pills to improve his performance, with the young athlete having no idea what he was taking. Where is the line between paternal motivation and parental abuse? Like many aspects of parenting, what was once acceptable is acceptable no more, if it ever was.
What if Beckham, Agassi, Woods, or any number of sporting superstars with stunted childhoods could roll back the clock? Would they play it any other way? Would they give up what they have today to have a happier time back then? There’s no way to know. But the way Beckham treats his children gives you some insight—he is hands-off in their career. He encourages them to find their own path, supporting them in whatever endeavour they take on. But the children are never as hungry as the parents. How can they be when you’ve been raised in the privileged shadow of history’s most famous footballer?
“I've internalized my father- his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage. I no longer need my father to torture me. From this day on, I can do it all by myself.”
— Open, Andre Agassi
Whilst conversations on the importance of family weave throughout the series, they play a supporting role. Everything plays second fiddle to Beckham’s career. His trajectory is the stuff of legend: signing for United at sixteen years old, Sir Alex Ferguson becoming both boss and father figure. A goal scored from the halfway line in 1996 puts what we’d now call Beckham’s “brand awareness” on a steep ascendancy, bringing him to heights no footballer had previously scaled. Beckham becomes, in the words of his gaffer, too big for the club, gets a boot kicked at his head from the man he loves, and is dumped on the transfer market. He is sold to Real Madrid and joins Los Galacticos: a team overloaded with the world’s greatest players, an embarrassment of riches, akin to letting the NBA All-Star squad play together every week. But his wife and family take over a year to join him in Spain—Victoria puts this down to searching for the right school, but it becomes clear that she doesn’t want to make the move. Beckham remains in Spain for four year before another huge career shift, moving his family to California and signing for LA Galaxy.
Though Beckham and I have lived dramatically different lives, there were points where I could see my career narrative reflected in his; his move to California a premonition to my own. Life on the West Coast is filled with promise: a modern-day gold rush, perchance to dream the American Dream. But for both Beckham and I, things don’t always go according to plan. Beckham arrives in Los Angeles and realises this wasn’t the move he had hoped for (or had been promised). Picture this: you’re riding high, having won all the accolades and awards at the company you’d made your name. You’re offered something bigger and better—a move to a country, a diagonal step-up, and the chance to work with superstars in your field. You take it, move your family to a new country, and after an initial struggle, click with your new teammates and do some great work. It was a gamble, and it paid off. You get another offer—can lightning strike twice? You take a leap … and fall flat on your face. We realise that Beckham is, like so many of us, fallible. He has made a rare career misstep.
Beckham went from a life in Madrid, working alongside some of the best players of all time, to an LA Galaxy team where colleagues worked part-time as pool cleaners and gardeners. The quality of the football was, shall we say, no bueno. At this point in the documentary, Beckham makes a decision that was, for me, the biggest revelation and one that left a bad taste in my mouth. The England manager Fabio Capello tells Beckham if he wishes to continue playing for his country he’ll need to start playing top-tier football again. So he takes a half-year “secondment” to AC Milan, leaving his family in Los Angeles, who let him know how happily settled they are with their life there. After six months in Milan, he tells his wife and kids that he wants to stay in Europe. His family are an afterthought. Beckham’s career, even in those twilight years, was the only thing on his mind.
I can’t imagine how it feels to score a match-winning goal in front of 100,000 fans, or lift a Champions League trophy for the team you grew up supporting. But I know how that feeling of chasing the previous highs of your career, the decisions you make when it feels like ambition and ego are at the wheel, when you’re doing the career equivalent of thinking with your dick. What Got You Here Won't Get You There, boasted Marshall Goldsmith’s best-seller. Implicit in that book was the promise of ascendency—a how-to guide to acquire and perfect the skills needed to move from middle management to the upper echelons of the C-Suite. But today, for more and more of us, ascendancy is no longer the goal—it’s equilibrium. What got you here might have done you well so far. But it won’t take you further up the ladder. And perhaps it serves you no longer and is instead working against you.
Because maybe climbing the ladder isn’t the game anymore. It’s exhausting, unpredictable, and I’m tired of all the snakes. Becoming a father means taking on a new role—something that means more than your LinkedIn profile, or how many trophies you’ve won. Our parents may have dedicated their lives to career advancement, equipping us with the tools and work ethic to help us do the same. It’s clear Beckham’s dad drilled this into him, and his desire to stay in Milan—against his family's wishes, and even as he ended up returning to LA with his tail between his legs—means the conditioning runs deep.
If I’ve learned anything from the dads I’ve been coaching over the last year, an increasing number of us yearn to cast off those old notions of career ascendancy and step off the hamster for something different: a world where the disparate elements of our lives—career, family, personal growth, passion projects, physical and mental health—can peacefully co-exist. It is, for my money, tougher work than climbing the ladder ever was. But it’s a decision few will regret.
3 things to read this week
“How Millenials Learned to Dread Motherhood” by Rachel M. Cohen in Vox. The biggest conversation driver this week in our Geneva community, Cohen explores the changing depiction of motherhood in popular culture, and how it contributes to a “mom rage” and decreasing desire to become a parent. This spurred a discussion on feelings of fatherhood before we became dads and what the plan is for the future. In a little under a week, the most popular emoji in the community is now the ✂️, with an increasing number of dads there now identifying as “snip-curious.”
“How Paternity Leave Helps Dads’ Brains Adapt to Parenting” by Molly Dickens and Kate Mangino in Harvard Business Review. Paternity leave is great—if HBR said it, it must be true. They go deep into the research, noting that “dedicated time during the transition into fatherhood can be viewed as a neural workout to build muscle memory for the challenges ahead; think of it like boot camp for developing your parenting instinct.”
“Spouse Out of Town? It’s Time For ‘Husband Meal’” by Gabriella Paiella in GQ. One of the “blink and you’ll miss it” viral trends of 2023 was “Girl Dinner,” a yassified glow-up of putting random things from the fridge onto a plate or what you might have called “picky tea” if you grew up in the UK. This GQ essay from earlier in the year looks at the “Husband Meal,” and is best summed up by this classic Tweet from Scott Hines.
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“Soccer” will always remain firmly in air quotes.