The Real Superstar

David Beckham may not be a Messi or a Ronaldo but his recognition across cultures eclipses theirsc
Last Updated 18 May 2013, 15:54 IST

David Beckham, the player, may be about to retire, but Beckham, the global phenomenon, is simply in middle age. “Nothing will ever completely replace playing the game I love,” he stated in Paris on Thursday, announcing an end to his 22-year playing career. “However, I feel like I’m starting a new adventure and I’m genuinely excited about what lies ahead. Now is the right time to finish my career playing at the highest level.”

As with almost everything he has ever said or done, the man spoke on Thursday in a genuine and understated manner. He rose from a London working-class background to marry a pop singer, also a self-made success, and live the Beverly Hills celebrity lifestyle. Yet, true to his words, he remains in love with the simple game that gave him everything.If truth be told, Beckham was never a Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Messi, Ronaldo or Zidane. He was gifted; they were gods, in the sporting sense.

But his recognition, across every culture, eclipses theirs. This is no accident. The playing career, built on sheer effort, practice and desire, is his own. The fame has been packaged and painstakingly structured by the same agency that launched the Spice Girls, including Victoria Adams, now Mrs. Beckham.

Somehow, the boy who fell in love with his game has lived out a playing career that lasted more than two decades. Somehow, the modesty has remained genuine. Somehow, he has played through 718 matches for clubs in five countries, and represented England at three World Cups during a span of another 115 appearances, and never been less than a team player.

The Beckhams might have amassed a fortune in excess of $250 million. David Beckham may have been regarded by Forbes Magazine as No 15 in the world’s top 100 celebrities in 2007, but though the image builders around him have milked that fame for all it’s worth, the man at the center of it continued trying to be the best player he could be.A natural gift to strike a ball -- to bend it as the saying goes -- was honed by year after year, day after day on the training field.

A willingness to run until it hurt, and then try to run some more, was in his nature. That raw determination was drawn from him, and from the gifted apprentices Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and Gary and Phil Neville, by Alex Ferguson, helping to forge the manager’s illustrious career at Manchester United.Again, Beckham was not the most naturally talented of that bunch. Giggs was swifter and more graceful on the ball by far. Scholes had what is known as a soccer brain, a rare ability to make decisions for the whole team, as few in English sport ever could. Scholes also retired from playing and, as he would have wished, it passed almost secretively under the radar of public perception. But when Beckham retires the world’s cameras are turned upon him. 

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain was quick to thank Beckham for his service to his country, not simply as a player and a former captain of the national side, but as a man who lent his considerably persuasive brand of fame to help London to win the right to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

The knighthood will surely follow in the next royal honours list. 

What will change, instantly, is the compulsion he has known since childhood, the drive to get out of bed, to bolt down breakfast and get out with the ball.

“At school, whenever the teachers asked what I wanted to do when I got older,” he recollected, “I’d say I want to be a footballer. And they’d say 'No, what job do you want to do?' But football was the only thing I ever wanted to do.”

So from 16 to 38, he literally lived the dream. All the rest followed from that: the endorsement contracts with multinational companies, the ambassadorial roles with Unicef and the Chinese soccer federation, moves from Manchester United to Real Madrid and then to the Los Angeles Galaxy before spending a third of his time in California, a third in Europe with AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, and a third in midair as he jetted to and fro across the Atlantic.

The gap in his life will take time to hit him. He can fill it with more family time with his four children. The corporate demands will not dry up overnight, and the competition to fill television time with him as a personality and a pundit had already begun with Sky Sports making him one of the faces of its ongoing battle with rival channels projecting England’s Premier League and other leagues. Who better to put on screen that a man idolized for being himself?

The more that the athlete’s time clock was running against him, the more he was offered as a global one-man brand. He could touch down in any airport in Asia, and the fans, by no means all of them female, would reach out to touch or even to glimpse his blond hair.He could -- arguably much more difficult -- arrive at a top professional club like Real Madrid and Milan, and by dint of his sheer sincerity, and his determination to play, become an accepted, even loved, member of the inner domain, the locker room.

There is no hiding place in that room for a pretender, or for a man who simply deludes himself that he is still capable of adding to the team. An honest judgment is that Beckham was in decline as an athlete from the moment he left Madrid to join Major League Soccer with the Galaxy in 2007. He said then, and has said many times since, that he was not crossing the Atlantic to be a superstar in a lesser league. He became exactly that, selling his deteriorating self, to use a phrase that the aging Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn once used.

In sports, middle age can be the cruelest transition in life. Beckham’s enduring quality has been that he squeezed out the very last ounce of what ability he was given, and from apprenticeship to the end he never let all the trappings, all the wealth or all the distractions get in the way of being a player.

Looking back on Beckham’s career, Ferguson, his first and harshest mentor, may very well revise the withering judgment he made so public when he decided to release Beckham from Manchester United 10 years ago, selling him to Real Madrid. “David was never a problem until he got married,” Ferguson mused. 

“He used to go into work with the academy coaches at night time, he was fantastic young lad. Getting married into that entertainment scene was a difficult thing. From that moment his life was never going to be the same. He is such a big celebrity, football is only a small part.”

The celebrity part is not disputed. No player has ever had more fame and fortune thrown at his feet. Beckham’s enduring legacy is that it did not trip him up, that he took the money and kept on running. And bigger than both of those things, he is still an ordinary man about to feel the vacuum that comes with being a former professional sportsman.

* EARLY LIFE: Beckham was born on May 2, 1975 in London. He joined Manchester United as a 16-year-old trainee in 1991. By 1995 he became a regular during the club’s most successful era.

* They won the Premier League and FA Cup double during his first full season.  * In 1999 the team went one further, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble.

* ENGLAND CAREER: Beckham made his England debut on September 1, 1996 in a World Cup qualifier against Moldova. Two years later he scored in the finals against Colombia but went home from France in disgrace after being sent off for kicking out at Argentina midfielder Diego Simeone in a last-16 defeat.

* Beckham captained England on the first of 58 occasions against Italy in a friendly in November 2000 and the next year booked them a place in the 2002 World Cup finals with a stunning injury-time free kick, salvaging a 2-2 draw against Greece. 

* In 2006, he resigned as England captain after his side lost in the World Cup quarterfinals to Portugal.

* Beckham returned to the team a year later and earned 115 caps, an England outfield record. 

* Beckham missed playing for England at the 2010 World Cup after he ruptured his Achilles tendon while on loan at AC Milan in March.

* CLUB LIFE: Beckham signed for Real Madrid from United for 25 million pounds ($41 million) in 2003 and after the Spanish club went three seasons without a major trophy, the team won the league title in 2007.

* He joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in July 2007 in a mega-money deal in a bid to promote football in the United States. Beckham won a second successive Major League Football (MLS) Cup at the end of 2012 and went back to Europe where he trained with Arsenal, although club manager Arsene Wenger said they were not interested in signing him.

* After rumours in 2011 that Beckham was joining PSG, he finally joined the Parisian club in January 2013 on a five-month deal. Beckham also announces his salary at PSG will be donated to a children’s charity in Paris.

* He becomes first English player to win league titles in four different countries -- Manchester United (England), Real Madrid (Spain), LA Galaxy (U.S) and PSG (France).

* OFF THE PITCH: Beckham met Victoria Adams in the mid-1990s when she was a member of pop group the Spice Girls. The perfect media match-up, the couple were instantly catapulted into the limelight. Beckham and Adams married in July 1999, a few months after their first son Brooklyn was born. They have three other children.

(Published 18 May 2013, 15:54 IST)

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