But try explaining why, say, Mommy and Daddy are constantly on the front page of the tabloids. What the word affair means. Or, more recently, why their former nanny Abbie Gibson described Beckham as a “cruel and coldhearted” husband who was verbally abusive to Victoria and threatened to leave her when she was pregnant with Cruz. Gibson painted a picture of a marriage that most definitely was floating belly-up.

Which is a problem, because Brand Beckham is about more than dollars and cents. It’s an aspirational lifestyle based on the dubious idea that these two beautiful people with their three beautiful children can, in fact, lead a normal, happy life. Never mind the millions and the mansions—we’re just like you. But after eight years, playing the perfect couple can become a job—a very well-paid job—and the lines begin to blur: What is real and what is fake? “Everything about the Beckhams is for show,” says Nicole Lampert, show-business editor of London’s Daily Mail. “The lifestyle, the extravagances, what they wear, what they buy, their marriage, the children. It’s all about making money.”

Cracks had surfaced in Brand Beckham before. In 2004, Rebecca Loos, Beckham’s former personal assistant, came forward with X-rated text messages; another woman disclosed code names (he was Peter Pan, she was Tinkerbell); a third suggested that Beckham’s obsession with personal grooming extended to his carefully waxed scrotum. Beckham swatted away these “ludicrous,” “absurd” tales. But nothing says “everything’s okay” like a happy picture. During the Loos scandal, the Beckhams were conveniently caught snuggling on a ski holiday in the South of France. To head off Nannygate, the Beckhams again resorted to cheery photo ops: Victoria shopping in Madrid to prepare for her husband’s $450,000 30th-birthday party; David pushing their youngest son in a stroller through a high-visibility area. But this time nobody was buying it. “People believe they’ve put their private life up for public sale,” says Lampert. “And now they’re paying the price.”

Beckham has heard it all before, of course. “A lot of things have been said about me in the past year and a half that have been lies,” he says. “The fact is, I’m happily married. I love my wife. We’ve got three amazing children. We’ve got an amazing life. And for people to try and ruin that? It’s pretty incredible.” His detractors, he insists, are just indulging in Britain’s other national sport. “They put you up there, and then they try and knock you down,” he explains. “Then when you’re down, if you get out of it, they like that. But once you’re out of it they try and knock you down again.

“It’s one thing I like about America—they respect the sportsman. They put them up on a pedestal. They don’t try to knock them down, you know? And that’s a great thing, to be respected by the whole country. It’s so patriotic.”