IN JUNE OF 2014, an anonymous Facebook user uploaded photographs of an astonishing collection of boots worn by global football and fashion icon David Beckham.
"Mr. Beckham Matchwornboots" revealed a pair of distinctive Adidas Predators worn by Beckham during Manchester United's historic Treble season in 1999. There were also a pair of boots decorated with Beckham's trademark shirt number, 7, and embroidered with the crests of England, AC Milan and LA Galaxy. Also on display were gold, pink and silver Predators, all hand-made for Beckham.
The online community of football boot collectors was stunned. It was the equivalent of not one undiscovered Picasso, but a whole exhibition.
Collectors from all over the world show off their match-worn boots on Facebook and Instagram. They include big-spenders from Asia's nouveau riche, and British speculators who buy and sell to feed their own collection. To "boot freaks," Beckham's Predators are the holy grail. Adidas customized each pair with his offspring's names, and so Beckham liked to keep them as souvenirs. The few pairs to have reached the open market have sold for outrageous prices; in 2006, British singer (and Manchester United fan) Mick Hucknall bought a pair at a charity auction for £29,000 (about $37,800).
Yet, there on Facebook were dozens of pairs stitched with the names Brooklyn and Romeo -- Beckham's sons. There were boots worn in World Cups, the Champions League and obscure friendlies. The collection was "incomprehensible," said Nick Herbert, a UK-based collector. Or, as someone wrote in the comments, "Holy f---." It was more than just grass-stained leather. It was an intimate biography of Becks.
When the collection moved to Instagram, the owner revealed his identity. Sattawat Sethakorn, 37, is a famous Thai pop singer and star of the Chinese movie industry. In a long and varied career, he has starred in martial arts blockbusters, a drama called "Dragon Love" and a comedy about a gay beauty contest called "Go Go G-Boys." One of his ballads, "Nobody Replaces You," has been viewed 1.5 million times on YouTube.
Earlier this month, Sethakorn invited ESPN into his home in Ladprao, a noisy Bangkok suburb, where he revealed his entire collection: 30 authentic pairs of Beckham's boots and a staggering 400 other pairs worn by stars of the modern game -- one of the most valuable private collection of football boots in the world.
"There was a time I didn't want to let people know what I have," said Sethakorn, who relaxes at home in an Audi-logo-embossed seat that once sat in Old Trafford's dugout. He's been privately curating boots and other soccer memorabilia since 2006, and this is the first time he's spoken about it to the Western media. "Back then, I didn't tell anybody I collected boots. ... But in recent years, I didn't feel the need to keep them secret. I felt that I should share them with other people.
"It's like when we have a girlfriend, and we are so protective of the girlfriend, we don't let anybody see them. But after a while, we want to show people that we have girlfriends. We don't show them to brag but to let people know that we are lucky that we have great girlfriends."
SETHAKORN WASN'T ALWAYS WELL OFF. He was born in 1982 to schoolteacher parents in Kanchanaburi, a small province (population: 30,000) 68 miles northwest of Bangkok. The railway line running through town was built by prisoners of war and immortalised by the movie adaptation of "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Like most children who grew up in rural Thailand, his only window to the world was television. Raised on a steady diet of Chinese war movies and Manchester United matches, he longed to be an actor or a football star. But finding a pair of boots like the players wore on TV was impossible. "Especially if you were a boy who lived outside Bangkok and did not have money," he said.
When he was 14, a scout from a modeling agency handed him a business card, and he decided that show business could be his route out of the village. "When I grow up and make my own money, I'll start buying football boots," he promised himself.
As a teenager, he taught himself to sing by listening to a CD copy of the "Titanic" soundtrack. Sethakorn transformed himself into a teen idol, with a new Beatles-style haircut and a new name, Tang Chenyu. When he joined a band called Teenage Grade A, his fans called him Tae.
He was just 16 when he released a solo album called "T-Speed" in 1998. Two years later, he packed his bags for Taiwan, home to a rich and diverse entertainment industry. "I was the first Thai singer to have the opportunity to work there," he said. After learning Chinese, he landed a role in "The Legendary Siblings," a popular TV series. Soon, movie directors came calling.
Citing his versatility, Sethakorn compares himself to Leonardo DiCaprio. He has appeared in romantic comedies, and in a swashbuckling genre of historical action movies known as wuxia. "I believe that for many children who come from up-country like me ... it would feel like a dream come true, because you can fly and use powers," he once said.
Dozens of film and television roles followed, and off camera Sethakorn started to invest in the things he could never afford as a child. Inspired by the 2006 World Cup, he started shopping for boots, but he was disappointed to find that the products worn by professionals weren't the same as the ones in stores. "[The pros' boots had] flags, embroidered names and other identities," he said.
Turning to the internet, he located a pair of silver Adidas Predator Pulse boots worn by Real Madrid star striker Raul Gonzalez. They had "Raul" on the tongues and a No. 7 stitched to the heels. An obsession was born.
"At the beginning, I started getting the boots from collectors," he said. "When I started, I did not have contact with people who are directly involved with the football clubs." As his collection grew, Sethakorn rarely showed it off. He pored over his boots alone at home, wondering what his 8-year-old self would have made of them.
"I didn't let anybody touch the boots," he said.
The boots that most intrigued Sethakorn were Adidas Predators. Designed by former Liverpool player Craig Johnstone, with rubber fins to improve power and swerve, the Predator quickly became the world's top-selling boot. "I called it 'Das Supaboot,'" Johnstone told me by phone from Australia.
"I often think of an E-Type Jaguar, or Fender Stratocaster that maybe Jimi Hendrix had played. They stand the test of time. And I knew after the first design that the Predator was in that mold. ... I get approached all the time by these collectors, and it never fails to give me a buzz," he said.
Other football luminaries wore the Predators, including Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane and Xavi, but it was Beckham who took a personal interest in the design. Johnstone said he filmed Beckham with a camcorder while testing prototypes, sharing feedback and ideas. Johnstone said, "[Beckham] liked them because you could kick the ball further and with more control."
IT WAS IN A BORROWED PAIR OF PREDATORS that a 21-year-old Beckham became a household name, after embarrassing Wimbledon's goalkeeper with a 50-yard lob. It was his Adidas Accelerator that felled an over-dramatic Diego Simeone (now Atletico Madrid's manager) at the 1998 World Cup, leading to a red card that made Beckham a pariah. And it was in a silver pair of Predator Precisions that he found redemption, in 2001, thrashing home a stoppage-time free kick against Greece to send England to the 2002 World Cup. For 17 years, Beckham wore no other boot.
Few people know that many of Beckham's Predators are Frankenstein mash-ups of two, or even three, models. Sometimes he replaced the shark fin-shaped X-Traxion studs with old-school metal ones. "He's a craftsman," Johnstone said. "A craftsman never blames his tools. So what you do is you modify your tools, because at that level of intensity, your tools become a very, very sensitive and delicate part of your whole makeup."
In 2004, Adidas gave the Predator a new logo, depicting Beckham striking a ball. By then, Beckham was to the Predator what Michael Jordan is to Nike Air.
For Sethakorn, the boot was irresistible. Beckham was his favorite player, and he had longed to own Adidas boots as a teen. Now he had to own them all.
In the mid-2000s, Sethakorn was thrilled to acquire a pair of Beckham's 1999 Predator Accelerators, one of the most desirable boots on the planet. "They have the history connected to both Manchester United and David Beckham himself," he said. Embroidered with "Beckham" on their red leather tongues, they are a pièce unique. The boots conjure images of a floppy-haired Beckham swinging in the two corner kicks that helped to defeat Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. Sethakorn was hooked. He embarked on a mission to collect one boot from each chapter in Beckham's life.
Even after his retirement, the Beckham market is still red hot.
"Beckham is completely in a league of his own. You get bidding from all over the world," said Sotheby's sports auctioneer Graham Budd, who recently gaveled away a pair of Beckham's Predators for £16,000 ($20,800) -- three times their asking price. Budd said it's all about demand: "It's quite rare for them to come to market. I've been doing this for 20 years, and I reckon I've only had three of four pairs in my time. They're very difficult to source."
Sethakorn's collection is incredible, Budd said. "I have no idea what his connections are."
"I don't remember where exactly I got them," Sethakorn said coyly, speaking of his Treble boots. "But I think they're from England." He says most boots come to him from private sellers, people connected to United, and even the players. "The first thing I did was smell them. Normally, I try not to touch or do anything much with the match-worn pairs. But I tried on this pair. I didn't wear them anywhere -- just in my house. I wanted to know what the 'glory' in 1999 feels like."
Sethakorn was surprised at how beaten up they were. Beckham reportedly spent hours after training practising his long-range free kicks; the leather was scuffed, the soles worn down. "You aren't just born and instantly become a superstar," Sethakorn said. "You have to train very, very hard, and play in many matches."
This resonated with Sethakorn. In his mid-20s, Sethakorn began to struggle with the stunt work required on Chinese film sets. "I get hurt every time I act in wuxia films," he told an Asian website. While filming one battle sequence, he said, "My back muscles ripped." He had to perform his close-ups in a wheelchair, acting through the pain. At one stage he said he feared he would be paralyzed for life. In 2006, he appeared in two less-physical movies, romantic dramas titled "Angel Lover" and "Love Queen."
Over the next eight years, Sethakorn quietly built his collection. He filled custom-built shelves and display cabinets with a trio of white, gunmetal gray and black Adidas Predator Manias, each with "Romeo" stitched on the left boot and "Brooklyn" on the right. He purchased a pair of 1996 Adidas Predator Touch with "Beck's" embroidered on the tongue, complete with an errant apostrophe. When he uploaded a picture of Beckham's silver Predators from the 2004 European Championships, one Instagram user demanded: "Where and how do you get these?" The only photograph on Sethakorn's Instagram that received more likes was a picture with his wife on their wedding day.
Boots became a gateway drug for Sethakorn. "I have medals from World Cup 1998 and 2002 that were awarded to the Brazil national teams," he said. "There's grass from the pitches and the balls that were used in the matches. There are also gloves, name tags of the footballers from the stadiums, shin guards, and armbands, too." I asked if he ever felt guilty about a big purchase. "Every one," he said.
Yet, everywhere in his home are plastic boxes overflowing with treasures. Sethakorn has Mario Balotelli's shinpads printed with his infamous slogan 'Why always me?' There's an empty Barclays Man of the Match bottle that smells faintly of champagne and a signed pair of Lionel Messi's Adidas boots. And a pair of Gianluigi Buffon's Puma boots embossed with the Italian flag.
"These boots are the only thing that makes me feel close to the players," Sethakorn said. You can learn more about the players from their feet than from staid postmatch interviews -- "Ricardo Kaka has the word 'Jesus' on his boots," he said -- and collectors discover details about players that no one else can know. Gareth Bale wears a custom size 9¾, and plays with a secret rubber lift under one heel. Man City goalkeeper Claudio Bravo cuts the ankle support off his Predators. Tottenham's Dele Alli wears a left boot a half-size bigger than his right.
In Sethakorn's bedroom are more curiosities. Beside his bed are shelves full of prehistoric memorabilia. "Apart from loving football, I love dinosaurs, too," he said with a childish laugh. "When I was a kid, I had a chance to visit an exhibition about fossils, and it was very impressive. When I grew up, I started collecting dinosaur teeth, megalodon teeth and fossils, as well as dinosaurs' eggs."
Nearby sits a fossilized impression of Beckham's feet, set in concrete and purchased from Madame Tussauds. Other collectors might have a pair of Beckham's boots, he says, but only he has Beckham's feet. His thrill is owning one-off items: "It's just the feeling at that moment that I am the only one who owns it."
In March 2016, he posted an Instagram photo that showed a woman hiding behind a handwritten sign that read: "No more boots!" Soon afterward, the Thai press reported that Sethakorn was divorced.
"I am single now," Sethakorn told me. "But when I [was married], she didn't quite understand why I love something like this. These boots are stinky. Very stinky. She did not understand why I enjoy something like these. It's actually understandable. It's the same way I don't understand why women need to put mascara on."
Sethakorn will not talk about the money he's spent on boots, or what his collection is worth. Based on realized prices in recent Sotheby's and charity auctions, his collection could be worth over $1 million dollars. But he says he will never sell. Sharing his collection online was hard enough.
"Firstly, it was about security, because the boots have value. I was worried about the security because my dog (a white Pomeranian) is such a tiny dog and it wouldn't help me much with anything," he said. The other problem was trolls. "I had also met with some not very nice people, who always say that Asian people always produce fake stuff. I have seen a lot of comments that say my boots are fake. 'It's fake! It's fake!' I know they just verbally bully me and they know deep down that these are the authentic boots."
Going public was necessary to push his collection to the next level.
"After a while, when my collection grew bigger and people saw it, the people who have connections with the football clubs or the clubs themselves, or those having boots in possession, started contacting me on their own."
He's still an active collector, but times are harder.
Among Thailand's nouveau riche, a memorabilia arms race is underway and anything Beckham is a hot commodity, explained Kong Kiatkan, another Thai memorabilia collector: "His name can sell. When Thai people are mad about something, they will sell their kidneys for things they want, and the hype of social media pushes the purchases."
Even with movie-star money, Sethakorn finds himself outclassed. "People with money are starting to collect them and are chasing the boots," he said. "I cannot compete with them."
On Instagram, Sethakorn's rivals include @Boots_maniac_thailand, who likes to shrink-wrap his boots for protection, and @Photnunan, who recently delighted his 42,000 followers by revealing a gold pair of Zinedine Zidane's Predators housed in a matching gold suitcase. Asian buyers are "professionals, managers, executives," said Fabius Chen, a collector in Singapore. (Chen recently halted his wedding photoshoot to win a bidding war on eBay.) "After all, it's not a cheap hobby, and the exchange rate isn't in our favor."
Though Sethakorn's contemporaries might have deeper pockets and more pairs, none has his myopic Beckham collection, of which the sum is greater than the parts.
"I have yet to see anybody that has more Beckham boots than I do. But actually, the collection is incomplete," he said. "There's one pair that I really want to get, and I don't have them yet. It's the boots he wore during his PSG spell, because nobody has them."
Recently, Sethakorn took matters into his own hands. In 2018, Beckham flew to Thailand to attend an event held by life insurance conglomerate AIA. At Bangkok's airport, Sethakorn was waiting, wearing five pairs of Beckham's boots around his neck. When Beckham strolled past, in a lightning storm of paparazzi flashbulbs, Sethakorn shouted his name. "He walked past me without giving any glance," Sethakorn said. "It was actually funny."
He wants Beckham to know he's open to a swap deal.
BECKHAM IS AWARE OF SETHAKORN'S COLLECTION. In 2019, the actor sent several pairs of boots to China to be part of a television interview with Beckham. Sethakorn sent instructions for Beckham to sign each pair. He was crestfallen when the boots were returned unsigned. "I don't know if there's a rule saying that Beckham isn't allowed to sign any boots," he said. (Beckham did not respond to a request for comment.)
Psychologist Dr. Mark B. McKinley wrote that collectors seek to "fill a void in a sense of self" and that for some, a collection becomes a "life-long pursuit that is never complete." For Sethakorn, Beckham's PSG boots remain the missing piece of the puzzle. They're embroidered with the whole Beckham family: Victoria, Brooklyn, Romeo, Cruz and Harper. "I really loved it when I saw Beckham boots with his children's names on," Sethakorn said. "I feel that he might have some not good news about him or whatever, but I feel that this man is trying to be a good dad."
Like Beckham, Sethakorn has reached the twilight of a career dominated by younger men. He has grown out his pop-star haircut. Nowadays, he ties it back into a 2003-era Beckham ponytail. His sword-fighting days will soon be over.
"Thai actors are all about being good-looking and not much [about] skills," he said. "The older you are, the harder you get the parts." He has been working as a film producer and film director for the past two years, working on music videos and a drama for a Thai internet channel.
Sethakorn, also a volunteer paramedic, is currently preparing to auction a number of valuable boots from his collection, with the proceeds helping Thai hospitals on the front line of the COVID-19 virus. In the meantime, he's chilling at home, surrounded by cabinets of priceless boots, World Cup medals and dinosaur teeth, a picture of the man who has it all. Well, almost.
"I want to have a family. I don't have any children," Sethakorn said quietly. "My children are my boots."