Today, David Beckham will don the dark blue strip of Paris Saint-Germain and square up to Joey Barton, the former enfant terrible of English football, who will be wearing the light blue away kit of his current club, Marseille.
If Beckham makes an appearance, most likely as substitute, it will be the first time he has played for his new team. Meanwhile, the spiky Liverpudlian Barton, in Marseille since September on a season-long loan from Queens Park Rangers, has been charming French fans with what appears to have become a gallicised English accent and a general enthusiasm for all things French.
This is north versus south, a classic confrontation between France’s two biggest cities, which heartily loathe each other. It’s also first versus third in French football’s first divison. But above all, it’s David versus Joey, a head-to-head that prompted France Football magazine to illustrate this week’s cover with a crimson-faced Barton, complete with devil’s horns, next to a smiling Beckham sporting a halo. “Beckham and Barton,” runs the headline, “Ange et Démon.”
Barton, who once stubbed a lit cigar into a Manchester City teammate’s face, is renowned for a spirit of confrontation that has endeared him to the more combative sections of the volatile Marseille crowd. Before tonight’s match, he said that he was not intimidated by the prospect of meeting football’s premier fashion icon on the pitch.
“Beckham is a big star off the pitch, but realistically he’s not one of the players who puts the fear of God into you as he did,” Barton said. “PSG have a lot of stars, Beckham is the latest, but on the pitch he’s not our main concern. It would be naive of us to focus on him.”
Beckham and Barton are both British football players. But that is where the similarity begins and ends. Beckham, 37, has a mostly clean-cut reputation, a pretty boy from Leytonstone who became what the French TV BFMTV channel described as a “gentleman footballeur”.
Barton, 30, has a reputation as a brawler. Of late, the QPR midfielder, loaned to Marseille to serve out a 12-match ban in England for violent outbursts, has presented himself as a reformed character, but there are those who still consider him a thug rather than a thinker.
“As a person, I find Barton detestable,” one French football journalist told the Observer. “On the pitch he is a reasonably good midfielder, but there have been better. It will be an interesting match.” Beckham’s arrival at PSG has been greeted with mixed reactions. French football fans, like any others, love a star, and Beckham has generated headlines for PSG. However, they object to any hint of manipulation, and there are questions over whether Beckham is more than just a clothes horse for the club.
Former French international David Ginola, 46, saw only good in Beckham’s arrival at PSG. “By his simple presence, Beckham has created interest around the world in PSG. Strategically, it’s an excellent idea. His signing is a good Anglo-Saxon-style marketing coup. Right at the other side of the world people are talking about the club. Him announcing he is giving his [£700,000] salary to charity was a theatrical coup.”
Ginola, who faced Beckham when he played in Britain between 1995 and 2002, said the Englishman had a “fighting spirit”, a phrase that has also been applied to Barton, and that he could show “a much more aggressive side” than his image suggested.
Father-of-four Beckham, who with his pop-star-turned-fashion-designer wife, Victoria, is worth an estimated £125m, has taken the praise and even the criticism with good grace. But as has been the case for much of his career, Beckham has won over sceptics by combining extravagant ostentation with winning humility. As one PSG player said after a training session: “I was very surprised. You might think that a guy of his class, with such an incredible career behind him, would play the ‘big star’ or be arrogant … mais non. He’s a really cool guy.”
“He’s played for Manchester United and for Real Madrid, but he seems a really normal guy, not at all bigheaded,” said another colleague.
Barton, predictably has been more divisive. On Le Phocéen, a website dedicated to Marseille, blogger Yan Amarre wrote: “Joey Barton, shut up. You have all the characteristics to become a symbol, an icon at Marseille. Having said that, this status doesn’t come from the press but is won only on the pitch and in the changing room.”
Amarre added: “Even if I’m not a fan of ‘Spice Boy’ – he never speaks, and is almost virgin aseptic … too perfect … but he has clearly chosen to incarnate throughout his long career, absolute professionalism, seriousness and setting an example to be followed by teammates.”
Recently, Barton also lost his temper with several teammates during training, storming off at one point, while his characteristically outspoken criticism of fellow players, management, and the French sport in general has not gone down well.
He recently told L’Equipe: “In England, the coach wants you to mark … here I feel like I’m discovering a new sport.”
Unlike Beckham’s rather secluded and elite Parisian lifestyle, Barton has thrown himself into the rough and tumble of Marseille. Like his home town of Liverpool, Marseille can be warm and embracing, but has a hard, rough, unforgiving edge. Tailor-made for Barton.
Irish international Tony Cascarino, 50, a former Marseille player, toldFrance Football before today’s clash: “The image of beauty and the beast not only applies to those two, it could also apply to their clubs. Marseille has always had its ‘beast’ side, no? And PSG is the ‘beauty’. Its home is in a magnificent Paris district and it has a glamorous image. The two players correspond to the image of their club. That’s perhaps why the people of Marseille have adopted Barton. He corresponds to a certain idea of Marseille.”
Let the best Englishman win.