Netflix's 'Beckham' Doc Shows Dangers Of Making Work Your Family

In the new documentary series about his career, footballer David Beckham's work and personal life are an entangled mess.
The David Beckham documentary series shows personal and professional lines blur.
The David Beckham documentary series shows personal and professional lines blur.

Nowadays, keeping stricter boundaries between your job and personal life is expected and even encouraged by many employers.

But if you were English footballer David Beckham in the ’90s, your work, love and family life were one entangled mess.

During that time, Beckham was living out his father’s lifelong dream and playing for Manchester United. The club was led by a manager who called him “son” but wanted to control things as specific as a buzzed haircut. He was also having a whirlwind romance with Victoria Adams, famous in her own right as a member of the Spice Girls. The singer, now known as Victoria Beckham after marrying the soccer star, is someone he would talk to late into the night before games — to the frustration of teammates who wondered if it was going to affect his performance.

It’s all of these murky relationships and blurred lines that make the four-part Netflix documentary “Beckham” a fascinating watch.

Even if you’re like Victoria Beckham, who states bluntly in the series that “I wasn’t into football then, I’m not into football now,” it is still compelling to see how the pair navigated their romance amid paparazzi and a manager who wanted David Beckham to leave his honeymoon early to get back into town and practice.

You may not be one of the most famous footballers of all time, but at some point in your career you may have to decide how much of your authentic self you should bring to work. Let the “Beckham” documentary be a case study of the pitfalls and benefits of making work a driving purpose of your life.

Research finds that thinking of work as your family can improve performance, but it comes with mental health costs.

One of the standouts of the whole documentary is the close but tumultuous relationship Beckham has with now-former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson — his “father figure” and “one of the most important people in my life,” as he puts it. Beckham started playing for the club when he was an impressionable 17 years old and stayed there until he was 27.

“He came to us as a small, skinny little boy,” recalled Ferguson. “But when you see potential, it sticks out at you. It’s your job then to bring that to fruition, to make them a man.”

Sir Alex Ferguson (left) and David Beckham after signing with Manchester United.
Sir Alex Ferguson (left) and David Beckham after signing with Manchester United.

In the early years of their relationship, Ferguson and Beckham advocated publicly for each other.

After an infamous 1998 World Cup match against Argentina in which Beckham got a red card and England lost, Beckham was bullied nationwide by fans who blamed his actions for the loss. Fans booed when he played, bullets were mailed to him at Manchester United’s offices, and an effigy wearing Beckham’s jersey was hung with a noose outside a pub.

Amid the hate, Beckham said a call from Ferguson telling him that Manchester United would look after him was a balm. He teared up in the documentary when he recalled the conversation: “‘How are you doing, son?’ And I said, ‘Not great, boss.’ ... He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, son.’” Ferguson promised that he and the club would take care of Beckham.

Repeatedly throughout the documentary, Beckham refers to teammates and Ferguson as his family, and credits their deep bonds with his success on the pitch. In the 1998-1999 season, Ferguson’s team with Beckham as a star player won the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League. His teammates showed up for him during games and gave speeches at his wedding.

Research backs up that considering work your family has some limited benefits — mostly for the employer. Findings suggest that when employees see colleagues as brothers or sisters and superiors as fathers or mothers, this increases the commitment and sense of belonging they have for the job, and it can reduce conflicts between employees.

But work families, by their very nature, are conditional upon job results. Good families do not care if you’re missing goals or spending time with your girlfriend, but performance-focused managers do.

Employees who become personally invested in a boss can have their loyalties manipulated, so that they prioritize the job over their well-being, as countless cases of toxic bosses have shown. Research also finds that employees who feel personally close to others are less likely to report them for any wrongdoing.

And it makes exits messy. Take the fallout of Ferguson and Beckham’s relationship as a cautionary tale of how a club transfer can feel personal when work is a family.

As the years passed, Ferguson disagreed with Beckham’s increasing celebrity and perceived lack of job focus. In one incident, Ferguson and Beckham got into a heated argument after a loss to the Arsenal club. Beckham swore at Ferguson, and Ferguson kicked a boot in frustration, accidentally clipping Beckham in the eye. The next day, Beckham was photographed with stitches — a move that was “stage-managed,” according to a club staffer in the documentary. It was one of the last straws for Ferguson. He orchestrated Beckham’s sale from Manchester United shortly after, despite Beckham’s protests.

“You’re never going to be in love with players all your life,” Ferguson said matter-of-factly in the documentary, referring to the “stalemate” he had reached with Beckham. “It’s never going to be that way, because you’re picking a player because of his performance on the football field.”

This is a reminder that, ultimately, manager-employee relationships are business relationships first and foremost. But it was a hard lesson for Beckham to learn.

Beckham remembered calling Manchester United to personally make his case to Ferguson and asking if “this is really what he wants.” He was rebuffed by the club. “I’d have pleaded to not go,” he said. “I couldn’t get in contact with the boss.”

Decades later, Beckham is still not entirely over how things ended with Ferguson. “I’m glad I didn’t speak to him, because I think it would have broken my heart,” Beckham said.

This shows how prioritizing your job can help improve your team’s performance, but too much personal investment will almost certainly guarantee personal heartbreak later on.

Then again, work feuds do not have to last forever. Ferguson’s extensive appearance in a positive documentary about Beckham’s life and career shows that it’s still possible for two stubborn colleagues to reconnect — once the game is over.

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