Interviewing David Beckham is like being on the receiving end of the most polished political campaign you can possibly imagine. I once sat with a bunch of weary journalists who, furious at the fan-fest the screening of his Unicef7 footballing documentary had become and how often he'd used the word 'humble' in the Q&A, prepared to crack the shell. Despite his attention to detail - every hand shaken, every name repeated, every smile returned - we weren't to be put off. First question - "David, you're an ambassador for gay rights, yet you support the World Cup being played in notoriously homophobic Qatar - how do you square that?" And he did. Next question - "You're a dedicated family man, yet you're always away for work. How does that work?" Perfectly, it transpired.
You know you're old when... you can remember when the biggest running joke in football was exactly how thick David Beckham really was. This was at a time when very, very little was expected of our best players, when Graham Le Saux was widely reported to be gay, because of that damning evidence that he regularly read the Guardian, and Eric Cantona confused fans and critics alike by quoting Rimbaud - not Rambo, whose doll he duly received by the thousands.
Even in this sparse intellectual squad, Becks was the premier league's own Greta Garbo, beautiful, symmetrical, talismanic - until he opened his mouth and mentioned borrowing his wife's underpants in a squeaky hairdresser voice, and the myth burst like a bubble. Even his wife referred to it, admitting once she was aghast at finding herself "losing at Scrabble to David Beckham!" That is properly funny, and should have given us proper notice we were dealing with a far more self-aware pairing than their matching outfits would prepare us for.
Two decades later, and no one's making those jokes any more. Something far more shocking has occurred, the revelation that Beckham's not stupid, far from it, but actually extremely self-interested and strategic in placing his publicity pieces on the board, with the worst accusation that he's used his charity work as a means of promoting himself into gong-worthy status.
We shouldn't really be surprised that Becks is a man capable of sleight of hand when it comes to handling his public image. Just think what he's pulled off in the two decades since he became globally famous. It's stunning.
He's withstood temper tantrums and jaw-dropping pay packets to become a gracious ambassador of all that is good, down-to-earth and humble in an otherwise troubled sport. He's somehow managed to represent himself as both a family-adoring man, seen bowing to his wife and children's every whim, blushing at any mention of 'GoldenBalls' AND an enduring sex symbol with a glint in his eye for every admiring woman and man. For years, he's straddled the chasm between bashful, blushing interviewee AND a self-objectifier happy to grace global billboards wearing little more than his latest aftershave. For a massive poser with a hundred haircuts, politicians and royals lend him their ears. It's a conjuring trick of branding that very few would attempt, even fewer would pull off on his staggering, fortune-making scale.
It's also a sign of the extent to which Becks has pulled off this Jedi mind trick that these emails have come as such a, let's admit it, thrilling surprise, with his admitted expletives over a failed knighthood bid revealing a very different person to that public face.
He's said these are just the understandable complaints of "somebody disappointed not to get a knighthood" - which kind of sounds fair enough, and let's not be naïve, for every celebrity there's a mixture of generosity and vanity involved in every charitable act. It helps the star, it helps the charity, it helps those they're all trying to help, there are no losers. Here, is Beckham, like Lance Armstrong before him, simply being castigated in part because he's proved the best, most efficient, tireless crusader of an ethically compromising campaign waged by many?
In this commitment, Beckham, too, has form. This is the boy who, without the innate talent of a Messi or a Ronaldo, would spend three hours at practice after everyone had gone home, to ensure he could cross the ball with the best. His great heights were undoubtedly built on early foundations of grit, focus and dedication.
The real shocker isn't even his naked hunger for a gong, even as he's been seen begging for one of those things you're not meant to ask for, like a seat in the royal box at Wimbledon, a hug with the Queen. These nose-tapping campaigns must go on all the time. The real shocker is that the curtain on this slightly sordid engine room has been inadvertently lifted by such a master of his front-of-stage performance.
Despite his team's fears of what else is to come out, for me, the most scene-shifting moment isn't even one of the expletives from Becks' own refreshingly potty mouth. (Did we really think Beckham didn't swear?) It comes from his PR agent's suggestion that, faced with a rejected knighthood bid, they could be cutting, but it wouldn't be productive, that they should instead be gracious, and double down on the charity front.
This revelation will ring in our ears every time we see the humble, smiling Beckham with an African child in his arms, whenever he appears on stage for Unicef, whenever he posts an Instagram snap of his daughter Harper showing daddy who's boss.
Every photo will be more damning evidence against him. Beckham's great strength has, in the course of 48 hours, become his witness. We'll have to wait to see how this magus of media manipulation digs himself out of this one.
In the meantime, we should surely sit back and applaud the extent of toil and effort that has got him to his once-glorious plinth, the two-decade campaign of smiling when he's swearing inside, flexing muscles when he's secretly fuming, plotting while he's posing - all evidence that, that World Cup campaign-saving goal against Greece notwithstanding, Beckham's greatest performance has always been away from the pitch.Suggest a correction