LONDON -- And so it has come to this: David Beckham, who was set to become the first England player to compete in four straight World Cups, will not participate in South Africa 2010 after rupturing his left Achilles tendon in a game with AC Milan on Sunday night.
It's a crushing blow for Beckham, who put himself through a punishing schedule over the past 15 months, shuttling between three teams (Milan, England and the Los Angeles Galaxy) in an attempt to satisfy his paymasters while fulfilling the mandate of England coach Fabio Capello that he play at the highest club level in order to be considered for the World Cup team.
Now that's gone, which is sad if you care about this sport. If you strip away the glitz of the Beckham Brand, Beckham himself is a player's player, and his dream of taking the field in South Africa was always genuine, so much so that he was willing to subject himself to weeks away from his family in Milan, to dip into his own pocket for his loan deal, to throw his 34-year-old body headlong into demands that, ultimately, it could not withstand.
Beckham probably would not have started for England at this World Cup. But he almost certainly would have been a regular late-game substitute, a wily veteran who could still change a game with a few well-placed crosses into the box or a swerving free kick still considered among the world's best. By all accounts, Beckham was also a useful presence in the England locker room, no small attribute on a team wracked of late by leadership issues. (If anything, the abortive captaincy of John Terry, stripped after his affair with a teammate's ex-partner, has made Beckham's five-year captaincy look even better.)
As I landed here Monday, it was impossible to escape the talk of Beckham's injury. THE END OF THE WORLD, blared one tabloid headline. A videoboard outside my hotel keeps showing blow-by-blow images of the injury as it happened.
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As Beckham readied to have surgery on his ankle in Finland, it became clear the impact of Beckham's injury won't be felt just in England. Beckham is a bona fide A-list celebrity in America, too, and his absence from the much-hyped U.S.-England World Cup game on June 12 puts a damper on one of the glamour matches of the tournament.
The Galaxy, too, will suffer as a result of the injury. Beckham was scheduled to rejoin the team after the World Cup, but now it looks as though he might miss all of the 2010 MLS season. Ruptured Achilles tendons are no joke, and one has to wonder now how much incentive Beckham will have to go through a long rehabilitation just so he can finish his Galaxy contract in 2011. Then again, I doubt Beckham will want to have our final image of his playing career be a scene in which he's stretchered off the field in tears.
While the Galaxy can't be happy Beckham hurt himself while on loan, you can be certain the team will give Beckham plenty of support. After an on-field fiasco in 2008, Beckham redeemed himself with the Galaxy's fans in 2009, helping L.A. reach the MLS Cup final. His relationship with teammate Landon Donovan -- himself now something of a star in England -- appears to be repaired. The question is how long it will take Beckham's Achilles to do the same.
Grant Wahl's book,The Beckham Experiment, was a New York Times best-seller.