Yesterday saw the curtains begin to close on one of the most outstanding careers soccer has ever known, as David Beckham announced his plans to retire at the end of the season.
Soccer has been graced with many phenomenal players over the years, many of which were more talented and achieved more than David Beckham. But no player before has transcended the sport and become a world icon the way Beckham did—and all this from a little boy who only wanted to ‘play football’.
Beckham was born and grew up just a stones throw away from where I grew up in east London. Living next to the Hackney Marshes—a 136.01 hectare area of grassland with 88 full-size soccer fields, that is better known as ‘the spiritual home of grassroots football’—Beckham, like most of the local children, grew up eating, drinking, sleeping, and playing football.
If you pay a visit to the Marshes on any given Sunday, you will see over 100 matches being played by people of all ages who ‘only want to play football’, and it is here where Beckham’s work ethic and love of the game were carved out.
In a career spanning two decades Beckham played for Manchester United, Real Madrid, Los Angeles Galaxy, AC Milan and PSG, lifting 19 trophies, including 10 league titles and one Champions League. He captained England 58 times and made over 115 appearances for the ‘Three Lions’—which is a record for an outfield player.
Despite this, Beckham the brand has often surpassed and overshadowed Beckham the soccer player, which Beckham himself admits.
“I think sometimes that’s overshadowed what I’ve done on the pitch and what I’ve achieved on the pitch. As much as I say that doesn’t hurt me, of course it does. At the end of the day, I’m a footballer who has played at some of the biggest football clubs in the world.” Beckham told former teammate Gary Neville in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports News.
But no soccer player has profited more from the celebrity culture that engulfs today’s society than Beckham. Last year a study from France Football magazine declared him the world’s richest footballer, his estimated annual income of $43.2m more than that of Messi and Ronaldo, even as less than 5% was generated by his soccer salary—when you live by the sword you often die by it too.
The fact is a contradiction lies at the heart of who and what Beckham is—he is a kaleidoscope of juxtapositions, a hero in a traditionally macho and chauvinistic sport, yet the poster boy for metrosexuality at the same time. A one-man marketing phenomenon off the pitch, and a team player on it. He ironically epitomizes all that is wrong and right with modern soccer, being a super rich celebrity soccer player with an incredible work ethic and pure love for the game.
Cynics will say he was overpaid, overexposed, and overrated, but if anything Beckham has been underrated and misused within the soccer community.
He broke into the Manchester United team in 1995 replacing Andrei Kanchelskis, who was sold to Everton, on the right wing. But Beckham was not an orthodox right-winger, in fact, he was probably more suited to playing in the center midfield position he occupied later in career.
But Alex Ferguson recognized a quality in Beckham’s play—his unparalleled ability to deliver a ball at pace on a dime—and managed to get United playing in a way that would exploit those qualities to the maximum.
Professional athletes are often said to be gifted with talents that us other mere mortals lack, but the amount of practice, training, and effort they put into their work is often overlooked. Beckham is a shinning example of how far hard work and determination can take you.
“David Beckham is Britain’s finest striker of a football not because of God-given talent but because he practices with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn’t contemplate.” said Alex Ferguson back in 1999.
Despite captaining England and having the honor of being their most capped outfield player, it is true Beckham never really enjoyed the same success he did at club level collectively or individually.
But his shortcomings on the internationally stage were due to coaches failing to utilize his talents in the same way Alex Ferguson did.
Beckham played on the right wing for Manchester United but he was not a winger in the true sense of the word, and was never expected to do a winger’s job for the Red Devils.
Traditionally wingers have been given the job at running down the flanks at getting crosses in, but at United Beckham did very little running with the ball, as United often gave him the ball high up the pitch in areas where he could hurt the opposition with his deadly crossing and passing.
With England Beckham seldom received the ball in such areas and was thus unable to influence the game in the same way he did at United.
Critics might say he was exposed at international level and that other players should not have to cover for his shortcomings. But soccer is a simple and pragmatic game, and a coach’s job is to utilize players and their skills for the benefit of the team.
Beckham may not have had fancy skills or electric pace, but he made goals—152 to be precise in 256 league matches for Manchester United—and goals win games.
England simply did not play of style soccer that would accommodate Beckham as a right-winger and would have been much better served playing him in the center midfield position that he carved out for himself when he left United for Real Madrid.
It just goes to show how England’s biggest player was actually undervalued and underrated in his home country. While foreign deep lying playmakers like Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo are adored by coaches and pundits in England, the same people failed to see Beckham had the same qualities to play in such a position.
When asked how he would like people to remember him as a football player, Beckham said: “I just want people to see me as a hard-working footballer. Someone that’s passionate about the game. Someone that, every time I stepped on the pitch, I’ve given everything that I have, because that’s how I feel. Going into games at the end of my career, that’s how I look back on it and hope people will see me.”
Which is fitting, as his hard work and determination have been the story of a career that has seen more comebacks than a Rocky movie.
He was portrayed as England’s most wanted villain in 1998 when he was sent off for kicking out at Argentina’s Diego Simeone in the World Cup in France as Glenn Hoddle’s England lost on penalties in the last 16. But he worked his way back into England’s affections, becoming the national team’s captain just two years later.
While other players sustained mysterious last minute injuries or donned flip-flops whenever England had training camps or friendly games, Beckham always turned up and gave it his all for his country.
He was not your pampered, lazy, pretty boy stereotypical modern day soccer player. He fought, scraped, and worked his butt off, and it was this childlike enthusiasm and love of the game that endeared him to fans all over the world. They could relate to him.
However, Beckham’s celebrity status meant it was often he who was benched whenever a coach wanted to make a name for themselves or prove a point. In 2007, he was dropped by both by England and Real Madrid’s new incoming managers.
But Beckham never moaned or criticized his coaches, instead he demonstrated his unique desire and determination by regaining his place in both sides—his recall to the Madrid side actually coincided with an astonishing comeback that ended with a league title for the Spanish giants.
Last year Beckham was also omitted from the final selection of the British Olympic soccer team. Once again there were no complaints, but secretly Beckham was devastated, because all he has ever wanted is to just play soccer. Representing his nation in east London where it all began would have been a fairytale ending to his career, but it was not to be.
Instead, Beckham will end his career on May 26 a league and Cup champion with PSG in France.
“To come to the end of my career now and look back and say, I’ve achieved everything with every club that I’ve played for … I played for my country 115 times, been runner-up twice as World Player of the Year to two amazing footballers. I’m very proud of that.”
Not bad for a small boy from east London who only wanted to play football.