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Wednesday, 29 March, 2000, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Beckham is an icon. Discuss.

Trophies, medals, adulation, a true icon seeks not these things.

Many can boast making the newspaper frontpages, or the ability to kick a ball, but only an elite can say their lives are the subject of serious academic study.

Manchester United midfielder David Beckham has graduated to this premier league of celebrities, with the launch of a 12-week course at Staffordshire University on "football culture", in which his contribution will be discussed.

Wealthy, glamorous and marketable, the 24-year-old is often held up as the epitome of the modern game.

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Prof Ellis Cashmore, the lecturer behind the new course, says the male half of the Posh 'n' Becks tabloid-pleasing team, is an interesting cultural figure.

"He married very well, and he's a good-looking guy, and he's gifted with a fair degree of technical skills."

On the slate

The academic says the footballer, not known for his public speaking, is a "blank slate" on which people can play out their own superstar fantasies.

However, it is just this "blank slate" reputation which has caused outrage among commentators, angry that students should spend time taking a degree in "Beckology".

Kevin Mousley, co-author of Football Confidential and a producer on BBC Radio 5's On The Line show, defends serious research into football.

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"Whether you study Shakespeare or Manchester United is neither here nor there. The trouble with looking at contemporary players is that there can be a lack of perspective."

With many more playing years ahead of him, and both the European and World Cups coming up, it may be too soon to examine Beckham's contribution to the game or the national identity.

"If you'd studied George Best in 1966, you'd have drawn very different conclusions than if you'd looked at him when he retired or today," says Mr Mousley.

En vogue

There are even some doubts over "Becks's" abilities to stay in vogue with the tabloids, despite the help of wife Victoria and the Spice Girl publicity machine.

"Manchester United's Ryan Giggs was the David Beckham of five years ago, but interest has waned. He didn't get sent off in a World Cup or marry a Spice Girl," says Mr Mousley.

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Dr Rogan Taylor, head of Liverpool University's Football Research Unit, says snobbery may be to blame for the downplaying of football's importance to British life.

"Football has always been the game of the lower social classes. Until recently it was never the subject of quality writing, unlike cricket."

Dr Taylor feels no need to justify academic research into football, saying the game's national and global importance is "palpably obvious".

Kicking up a fuss

"Football is a very effective window through which you can study many things about a country and its political, social and cultural landscape."

Going back to its roots in the industrialising towns of northern England, professional football is an "urban rite" says Dr Taylor.

It has mirrored racial, gender and other social changes in Britain, touching the lives of almost everyone.

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Dr Taylor likens the study of football to that of religion or the trade union movement.

Staffordshire University is stressing David Beckham is only one component of its football culture course.

However, might not a man who is as famous for his activities off the field as on, warrant a more careful study?

When every missed training session, every night out with the wife, every haircut, makes it onto the frontpage of every tabloid and into the conversation of a nation, perhaps Beckham is just as much a cultural phenomenon as the game which has made him a star.

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