The star turn for the special 75th anniversary edition of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs does not disappoint. Speaking to Kirsty Young in the show broadcast on Sunday, David Beckham talks frankly about his most emotional moments in football, the scourge of child abuse in the game and how he and his wife Victoria keep their marriage on track.
Beckham, 41, chooses tracks including the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses and Ella Fitzgerald singing Every Time We Say Goodbye and tells Young he would look forward to the solitude of island life for a while. He selects his velvet England caps, awarded for captaining the team, as his one sanctioned luxury during the stay.
Asked about child abuse in football, in the wake of revelations that sexual predators have operated as coaches, he said: “It is disgraceful what has gone on and something has to be done about it. But nothing at Manchester United.”
The “closest” thing to it he saw, Beckham adds, “would have been with certain professionals, that, if we had gone out of line, would make us do a funny dance in front of the other professionals, who were our heroes at the time. It was humiliation, but that was all it was. It was to teach us a lesson and there was no wrongdoing.”
Beckham recalls Manchester United’s long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson asking him to sign for the club at the age of 14 and he fondly remembers the Manchester music scene of the 1990s. All the same, he confesses he went to the Hacienda nightclub only once. “I was allowed out, but the manager knew where we all were every minute of the day,” he said.
Beckham and the other players in the “class of ’92”, which included talents such as Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, had “never felt there was something so special going on”, he says. “We had a tough youth coach and we all had jobs.” Beckham had to regularly clean eight of the first-team players’ boots.
Memories of his mother taking him to play and of his father giving up his own weekend game to help him train were particularly sweet, he said, although his father would analyse every moment his seven-year-old son spent on the pitch on the way home.
“The only time he ever said I had done well was when I got my 100th cap for England,” said Beckham, admitting it had made him emotional. “Everybody wants to make their parents proud.”
His much chronicled relationship with Ferguson, he said, went wrong largely due to his own youth. “You make decisions at 21 I hope I would not make when you are 41,” he said. The incident in which Ferguson kicked a football boot at his face in the changing room was just a “freak accident”. “He could never do it again, because I have seen him in training,” Beckham joked. “We had lost to Arsenal and he thought that one or two of the goals were my fault. I just kept saying it was not my fault.”
His most difficult time in the game, he said, came after he was sent off in 1998 during the World Cup game against Argentina. He received death threats and fans burned effigies of him. Ferguson, he said, was the first to call him, reassuring him he would be fine when he got back to Manchester.
Beckham explains to Young that when he found out he was being sold to Real Madrid in 2003 he was so “shocked and devastated” that “I didn’t watch Manchester United for three years. I would never have left.”
The footballer reveals that part of his courtship of Victoria, then a bigger name than him as a member of the Spice Girls, was conducted in his new bright blue BMW in the car park of a Harvester pub. Her manager, Simon Fuller, wanted the relationship kept quiet. “We used to kiss, of course, and just spend time together.”
Nineteen years into their marriage he has few regrets, he says, apart from his choice of outfit at their showy wedding. “I even had a top hat in purple. What was I thinking?” he wonders.
He and Victoria have survived as a couple, he thinks, “because we are a strong family unit. We have got strong parents too and they taught us the right values. Of course you make mistakes and we all know that marriage is difficult at times. It is about working through it. We have come up against tough times. But we know each other better than anyone else knows us. And we talk. Do we stay together because it is a brand? Of course not. We stay together because we love each other and because we have four amazing children.”
Choosing the Michael Jackson track The Girl is Mine, the fond father recalls cradling his baby daughter Harper while listening to the song.
Beckham hopes to be remembered, he concludes, for his charity work as much as for his football. He values travelling as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, meeting and helping children around the world. “I am passionate about it,” he said. “It is not just about the money we raise. It is meeting these children and knowing we are changing their lives.”