The new Beckham documentary on Netflix is particularly striking, for one reason.
It’s not the montages of legendary free kicks and crosses that reminded us of the incredible player
David Beckham was. Nor is it the throwback to Posh and Becks’ signature style… which really
makes me hope the resurgence of 90s fashion won’t extend as far as silk sarongs and purple
What is most compelling is the inside look at the aftermath of Beckham’s infamous 1998 World Cup red card. For the first time, Beckham discusses the emotional effect of the abuse he faced from fans. While the vitriol with which the country turned on the 23-year-old is upsetting to watch it is, unfortunately, all too familiar.
England fans won’t need a reminder of the infamous incident, in which Beckham’s kick of
retaliation against Argentina’s Diego Simeone saw him sent off from the round-of-16 match
which, after a penalty shoot-out, England lost. Beckham tells viewers how the mistake “killed [him],” saying “I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping. I was a mess.” His wife Victoria defines her husband as “clinically depressed” after the tournament.
Of course, fans blaming footballers for their mistakes on the field is a tale as old as time, and undoubtedly part of the job description. However the malice with which fans turned on this young man – in one instance hanging an effigy of him outside a London pub – went beyond mild heckling, shining a spotlight on the darker side of football often dismissed as enthusiastic fanaticism. Perhaps the attitude to the emotional wellbeing of players in the 1990s is best summarised by former England teammate Rio Ferdinand when he said “in that time, mental health, it wasn’t a thing.” But how far has that really changed?
Today, mental health appears to be a priority on the agenda of football clubs. Footballers from Jesse Lingard to Tyrone Mings have been open about their own struggles and sought to spread awareness of the need to talk about and destigmatise mental health. Over the years clubs have recognised the importance of a player’s emotional state in helping or hindering their form on the pitch. This was summarised by England captain Harry Kane when he said, “it’s just as important to look after our mental health and wellbeing, as it is to care for our physical health.”
This is why the readiness of fans to abuse their (formerly-beloved) players when they hit a poor spell always seems so counterproductive. Take players like Manchester United’s Jadon Sancho, who we’ve previously seen deliver at the highest level in Germany. Or Mason Mount, whom Chelsea fans once hailed as a future captain. Yet when they hit a rough spell these players are berated online as ‘flops’ or even pushed out of the club.
Of course, athletes are paid a vast amount of money to perform well – but perhaps the problem is the way in which now more than ever, players are seen as expendable robots that should be sold at the
first hint of underperformance, rather than as humans with feelings.
Awareness of mental health in football may have improved but the root of the problem remains: the prevalence of the mob mentality in football, which hasn’t disappeared and likely never will. You only have to look back to Euro 2020 for examples of wrathful England fans attacking young players for their mistakes in big games – in that instance, with the added element of racist abuse in the attacks on Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after their missed penalties at the final.
Where Beckham was taunted in cruel headlines and assailed by mobs of fans as his coach pulled up to stadiums, the players of today are faced with a different kind of monster – the rise of social media. In providing a veil of anonymity for fans to express their anger, hatred and abuse are given free rein, which only exacerbates the problem.
So, while there might be more consideration for the emotional welfare of players, fans have more power than ever regarding the mental health of footballers. It might be up to clubs to tend to players’ mental health in the same way they care for their physical health, but there’s only so much they can do to protect them.
If the Beckham documentary teaches us anything, it’s the extent to which fans acting as a group have a powerful capacity to effect player’s mental health. Elite, highly-paid players might seem dispensable, but they are human too.
Illustration by Lucy Keegan