It isn't easy to feel sorry for a man being paid US$1 million ($1.27 million) a day to wander around shopping centres looking lost, but there were moments of real poignancy in David Beckham's post-retirement tour of China. Most of them involved his wife, Victoria, a singer-turned-fashion designer upon whom the presence of a microphone tends to have the effect of bleeding meat on a great white shark.
David may have been the main draw, but as usual, Victoria was doing most of the talking. "Being able to reach my Chinese customers is incredible," she yakked. "This visit is very important to me because women here understand what I do as a designer."
It has been like this from the start. Victoria, 39, may be the lesser name of the pair, but she remains the energy source, the ideas bank and the public voice of the whole operation. As un-shut-upable as her husband is taciturn, the ex-Spice Girl is never more in her element than when there's a crowd around and the opportunity to wow it with the news that she's opening a boutique in Beijing.
Last week marked the couple's 15th year together. From lowly beginnings, David, the shy, handsome son of an east London gas-fitter, and Victoria, the gobby, ambitious daughter of an Essex electronics salesman, have become Britain's foremost celebrity couple. Their coronation as the nation's alternative royalty was achieved in July 1999 when - on gilt-and-velvet thrones - they were married at an 18th-century castle with trumpeters and flags bearing their privately commissioned coat of arms flying overhead.
Since then, the reign of Posh and Becks has spread across the world - to Asia, Europe, Australia, with even the once soccer-phobic United States succumbing.
At the core of everything they do is the need to be seen and talked about; yet also to tease, to tantalise, to dazzle, and constantly to float the intriguing question of what really lies at the heart of their relationship. The crowds in China late last month appeared drawn less by any appreciation of what the Beckhams do than by the global fame that surrounds them. In this sense their ascendancy signals a new kind of celebrity, one that confounds the old assumption that we worship the qualities we aspire to - talent, glamour, accomplishment. The Beckham phenomenon speaks to the blurring of social boundaries in a world sold on the idea that everyone can be a somebody.
How did they pull this off? Even after 15 years and four children together, it is doubtful that David could really explain it. Or want to. The mystique of royalty relies on a controlled shortage of information, and Beckham, 38, is notorious for the brevity and inconsequentiality of his public statements. For this he has been mocked, although it is hard to believe he is any worse at sprinkling a room with witticisms than Gore Vidal would have been in front of goal.
It's best to let Posh explain. Back in soccer's poor-but-honest days, a player's wife was typically a childhood sweetheart who had been rescued from a hairdressing salon, and whose duties included buffing her husband's boots before the game and queuing for his fish and chips after it. It didn't matter if she left her teeth out on match days because no one was interested in her, and the money and glamour that later descended on the game were still a distant dream. Victoria changed everything, becoming not only the first celebrity WAG, but also the first to see the possibilities of success beyond the sport.
Pop and soccer may have given them their platforms, but the real roots of the Beckhams' appeal lies firstly in their ability to entertain on a stage so broad that it crosses all boundaries of class, age and gender; and secondly in their reluctance to take themselves too seriously. "There are enough people out there taking the p*** out of us, for us to have a sense of humour," Victoria has said. "There's this idea that Posh and Becks arrived on earth, fully formed, carrying armfuls of Gucci shopping bags down Bond Street, but really I'm a high-street girl who got lucky. We don't forget where we've come from, and we know who we are."
Beyond this is a shrewd acknowledgment of what they actually represent. He isn't the greatest footballer, and no one would mistake Posh for Streisand, let alone Miuccia Prada. Their strengths lie elsewhere, and they work prodigiously to exploit what they have. "They are essentially ordinary people who have escaped their ordinariness and become a template for the have-it-all society," said Dr Kevin Grold, a Los Angeles psychologist who has studied their appeal. "The fact that no one really knows who they are or what they are like in their private moments is all part of the fascination."
They fell in love, appropriately, through television. In November 1997, David was with Manchester United in Tbilisi, the dilapidated capital of Georgia, when the Spice Girls appeared on the hotel television. Posh, he noticed, was in black latex and spike heels, and he thought: "That's the one for me." She noticed him shortly afterwards, also on the box, during a tour of South Africa. "I didn't know anything about football," she remembered, "but I thought he was handsome and looked nice and sensitive." The next year they met at a post-match reception. Popular culture would never be the same again.
How much further can they go? David's retirement may slightly change the dynamic, but Posh will have new lines of work in mind for him. And while he still doesn't say much, he has learned to say the right things: "We've got this amazing relationship. Just literally being in love. We don't do it for the commercials. We are like it at home. That's us."
The chances are we'll be baffled, intrigued and affronted by them as long as there are balls to be kicked, songs to be sung and goods left unsold in shops.