After Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Scholes comes David Beckham. Three of the key figures in Manchester United's Treble-winning side of 1999 will retire at the weekend, age having at last caught up with them. While Ferguson and Scholes, still at United, will bid farewell at West Bromwich Albion, Beckham, at 38, will take his bow at Lorient in his tenth game for Paris St-Germain.
Beckham occupies an odd place in the English football consciousness, a player of clear gifts who, because his ability never quite matched his celebrity, seems doomed always to be underrated by a certain section of the soccer-following public. In a sense he became the symbol of the changing nature of soccer in England, from grubby game of the terraces to polished global spectacle.
Born in Leytonstone, East London, in 1975, he joined United as a 16 year old and made his debut for them in a League Cup tie against Brighton in 1993. By 1995-96, he was a regular in the young side that went on to win the double. He cemented his celebrity on the opening day of the following season with a goal from inside his own half against Wimbedon. That showcased the greatest aspect of his talent -- his ability to manipulate a football. From then until he left United in 2003, he was probably the best crosser of a ball in the English game and one of the best free-kick takers. But that goal was also misleading in that it suggested an inventiveness about him, a willingness to go beyond what was normal; in fact he was a strangely conventional figure. You gave him the ball and he crossed it. You won a free-kick and he bent it towards the top corner. He, perhaps, lacked the devilment of genius.
There was, though, a petulance to him, most clearly seen at the 1998 World Cup. Beckham had scored his first international goal with a typical free-kick against Colombia in the group stage and seemed likely to emerge as one of England's stars of the tournament. In the second round against Argentina, though, he flicked a boot at Diego Simeone and was sent off. England defended valiantly but lost on penalties and Beckham was blamed. In some places effigies of him were hung from lampposts.
He showed great mental strength to withstand that demonization and, the following year, he helped United to the Treble. In the Champions League final, he had played in a central role because of suspensions to Roy Keane and Scholes and had been poor, but it was his corners that led -- pretty indirectly in the first case -- to United's two goals in injury-time as it came from 1-0 down to win 2-1.
Two years later, he had his redemption in an England shirt, playing magnificently in the final World Cup qualifier, against Greece, and eventually scoring the injury-time equalizer that ensured England reached the finals with a superb free-kick. At that moment, he was at the absolute peak. He had salvaged that game almost single-handedly and it seemed conceivable he might drag England to World Cup glory in Japan.
Except that game seemed to convince him, for a while, he was something he was not. For a time he tried to win every England game on his own and the result was tactical anarchy. He was indulged in that by Sven-Goran Eriksson, a manager so in love with the celebrity culture Beckham brought that he was never able to leave out big names even when it was patently apparent that they couldn't all play together. Beckham, lacking pace, was essentially a crossing machine and, although he later reinvented himself, in those days he required a 4-4-2 (as did Michael Owen) and the result was England became stuck with a predictable tactical shape.
And then, shortly before the 2002 World Cup, Beckham was injured in a Champions League tie against Deportivo La Coruña, breaking a bone in his foot. Suddenly, the metatarsal came of age. Beckham recovered to play at the tournament, and scored a penalty against Argentina in the group stage, but was never quite at his best, and it was his missed challenge that led to Brazil's equalizer in the quarterfinal. Would he have made the tackle had he not subconsciously been protecting the bone? It was a harsh way to look at it but, for some, Beckham was responsible for England's exits from successive World Cups.
There was another issue: his relationship with the Spice Girl Victoria Adams, whom he married in 1999. It was widely reported that she had increasingly drawn him towards a celebrity lifestyle and his relationship with Ferguson changed over the 2002-03 season, something highlighted when a furious Ferguson kicked a boot at him during an FA Cup tie against Arsenal, leaving him with a cut just above his eye. He left United at the end of the season.
Arguably Beckham was never "the same" after that. It wasn't that he neglected soccer -- he was always an assiduous trainer, and there can be no doubting the real passion he felt about playing for England, but equally soccer no longer seemed quite the priority it had once been. His moves, to Real Madrid then LA Galaxy (with a loan spell at AC Milan) then Paris St-Germain always seemed to be made with half an eye on his image. Yet he continued to be successful, and it says much about his character that he fought his way back into both Steve McClaren's England side and Fabio Capello's Real Madrid side after having been omitted. The fire may have been slightly occluded, but it still burned within.
So he ends his career with six English league titles, a Spanish league title, two MLS Cups and a French league title, and as the fifth man to win over 100 caps for England. He was one of the greatest crossers and free-kick takers the game has known. And yet there remains a strange sense that he will be remembered less for his medals than for being England's first truly global football celebrity.
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