When the world's biggest sport's most beloved, most important player is finally gone, we'll all agree that David Beckham is far and away one of the most successful players to ever touch a soccer ball. Shortly after, we'll argue: was Beckham truly one of the greatest players of his generation, or just a guy lucky enough to play balls to those who were?
On Sunday night, the final whistle will blow to mark the end of Paris Saint-Germain's season, and with it, Beckham's career. PSG has already wrapped up the Ligue 1 trophy. It's his 10th league title with four different teams in four different countries, not to mention a Champions League title in 1999, a couple FA Cups, 115 appearances for England, 58 as team captain, and countless other minor trophies and awards and honors. But how do you separate the man from his team successes?
Beckham was the last traditional English winger: industrious, dogged, calculating. A tireless runner who wasn't particularly fast, or strong, or elusive, but worked up and down the sidelines, again and again, until he found an opportunity to strike the ball. And it's when he had time to strike the ball—usually peering through a sliver of daylight on the flank to whip in a gorgeous, guided cross to central players, or worse, when he faced down a wall 20, or 30, or even 40 yards from goal—that for a grand total of a few minutes over his 21-year career, Beckham was the most dangerous player on the planet.
Beckham was best known as a player for dead ball situations. He revolutionized how people attacked a dead ball, and he changed how people defended it. When he lined up for a kick, opposing goalkeepers would call for an extra man in walls to disrupt his accuracy, and often it didn't matter. He still bent free kicks around, over, and sometimes under walls, through traffic, and into the back of the net or onto the path of streaking teammates. What's insane about all this is that Beckham may not have even been the absolute best free kick taker of his era; others like Zinedine Zidane, Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero, Juan Román Riquelme, and Ronaldinho were probably every bit as good, and all better players besides. But there is no one else who embodied a singular aspect of the sport as David Beckham embodied his.
One of "Fergie's Fledglings," Beckham was the breakout star of the legendary Manchester United youth mob that included Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers, and Nicky Butt, and dominated the Premier League in the mid- and late-90s. Legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said of the midfielder, "David Beckham is Britain's finest striker of a football not because of God-given talent but because he practises with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn't contemplate."
Beckham became famous on August 17, 1996, a year after his Premier League debut with Manchester United. They were playing Wimbledon in the first game of the season. Beckham received the ball in his own half, looked up, and saw the opposing keeper off his line. So he had a go:
He got his first call up to the national team the next month. United clinched their second-straight league title the following spring.
United won again in 1999, when they became the first team to win the English Treble: Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League. And that summer, Beckham became a worldwide, household name when he finished as runner-up to Rivaldo for the FIFA World Player of the Year award and, perhaps more importantly, married Spice Girl Victoria Adams on July 4. He was Mr. Posh Spice, and teen girls the world over took notice. His hard-ass manager was less impressed. Ferguson was upset that Beckham had developed "this fashion thing."
Beckham was already a national hero for his success at United, but being appointed England's captain in 2000 took him global. In 2001, he sent England through to the 2002 World Cup in stoppage time of the final game with his trademark: a free kick from 30 yards out that he lifted over the four-man wall and bent with so much power and accuracy that the Greek keeper could only watch, frozen, as the ball struck the back of the net.
So by the time Real Madrid came calling in 2003, he was exactly what they were searching for. Madrid president Florentino Pérez wanted galácticos, the biggest names in soccer. Along with Beckham, Madrid signed Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and Ronaldo, who joined Madridistas Roberto Carlos and Raúl. These men were some of the best players of all time, and Beckham didn't quite fit. He couldn't match the talent or genius these players brought to the pitch. But David Beckham was the third most-valuable sports figure in the world behind Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. And David Beckham was sexy as fuck.
He was beautiful. He always won. He had a pop star wife. He had a great body and a great butt and a great face that was somehow chiseled and masculine yet really, really pretty. He had tattoos. He had magical hair that grew faster than human hair was supposed to grow, and looked good draped over his face in curtains or cropped short or dyed blonde or tied back in a ponytail, and somehow didn't sweat out when in cornrows or fall limp when gelled up. To be a galáctico, you had to be more than a great player. You had to be a brand. He was Adidas and Pepsi and Vodafone. He was the sport's biggest star and a walking goldmine for Madrid.
As a player, Beckham probably didn't belong at Real Madrid. He made a name for himself in England on the flanks, but this squad played a 5-3-2, with three central midfielders. Beckham had to adapt to life in the middle, next to Zidane, arguably the best central midfielder of all time. He struggled. The thing about soccer, though, is that there are 11 men on a team who defend and attack in tandem. There's often enough room to hide players, particularly if that player brings a specific skillset to the side. A player who can reach the goalmouth from the sideline with a throw-in will often play on past the point of their holistic usefulness. Some of history's greatest strikers were decent, or even poor, technical players, but had a preternatural, predatory knack for scoring goals. Beckham had one strength, ball placement, and when you can strike a ball with ethereal accuracy, you'll always be able to play somewhere.
He largely underwhelmed at Madrid. As a squad player he was hardworking and diligent, but never truly stood out. Madrid underwhelmed, too, for the same reason every team initially underwhelms when you round up the sport's biggest stars without regard to cohesion or style. But they finally got it right in the spring of 2007, when Real Madrid won La Liga. Call it a going-away present: Earlier that year, Beckham had announced he'd be joining the Los Angeles Galaxy on a five-year deal. Beckham was coming to America.
Beckham represented the third attempt to bring soccer to the country. Pelé was the first.
The greatest player to ever dribble a soccer ball came to the United States in 1975, in the twilight of his career, in an attempt to bring the world's game to our shores. He failed. He retired from the New York Cosmos in 1977, and the North American Soccer League folded in 1984.
Ten years later, the USA hosted the 1994 World Cup. Romário, Baggio, Bergkamp, Batistuta, Klinsmann, an old, drugged Maradona, and the fans that followed soccer's greatest players came to the country for a month. By the time they'd left, we'd had a taste of the fervor, the excitement, the money. Soccer in America would get another shot.
Major League Soccer began play in 1996. But the country was generations behind the world when it came to talent, development, infrastructure, and ultimately international relevance. Soccer was largely viewed as a niche sport, something inherently un-American. Among diehards, the MLS was laughable, a mockery of the European leagues. And outside of a few notable exceptions, the league's best players spoke Spanish.
Then: Beckham. And maybe his coming had the whiff of novelty, but for a while in the summer of 2007, millions of men and women and kids who didn't know grow up around soccer, didn't care about the game, and didn't give a damn about the MLS dropped what they were doing and, for the first time ever, watched. Sure, some were watching his butt, or his hair, or his pop star wife, but they were in front of the TV, or in the sold-out stadiums. They all tuned in to see the world's biggest sport's biggest star. His first goal came on August 15 against DC United, in the 27th minute. The day before the match, Donovan had given Beckham the captain's armband. The goal, of course, came off a free kick.
Beckham carried on in Los Angeles as he had in Madrid: an unspectacular player, but still capable of isolated brilliance none of his teammates or opponents could match. And yes, he was still a star. In addition to being beautiful and sexy and famous and married to Victoria Beckham, he was white. He had the underwear deal. He spoke English. More importantly, he spoke it in an English accent. He embraced life here. He named his oldest son Brooklyn, and we kind of liked that. He bought a mansion in L.A.. He was to be the face of the league, but a funny thing happened once Beckham came over: the league changed.
Until Beckham, MLS had a hard salary cap. The league then introduced the Designated Player Rule, nicknamed the Beckham Rule, which allowed teams to sign players that would normally be too expensive under the cap. Teams could go after the better players in the world, and pay them somewhat close to their international market value. MLS could, for the first time, aspire to being a league based around stars.
Juan Pablo Ángel, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Denílson and Freddie Ljungberg followed the Englishman. In 2010, the New York Red Bulls signed French striker Thierry Henry, one of the greatest players of all time. And after him came Irish legend Robbie Keane and Australian star Tim Cahill.
MLS was, and remains, seen as a retirement home for foreign stars past their prime to get one last payday. But while these players weren't as good as they were (and some aren't even much use at all), they, like Beckham, gave MLS clout. Since 2007, the league has expanded from 13 to 19 clubs, with a 20th announced just this morning. Match attendance now exceeds the NBA and NHL. MLS might still be an international cipher and a distant fifth in American sports, but it appears sustainable—something that was by no means clear when Beckham made the leap.
When Beckham retired from international play in 2010, he was replaced by a new breed of English winger, blindingly fast, wide goal scorers like Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott. Elsewhere, there was Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Hulk, and others. They're athletic freaks who can play anywhere across the front line. The was the wave of the future, and it's unlikely we'll see a player quite like Beckham ever again, an all-around average winger but for one outrageous skill who was still able to conquer the sport. But Beckham's legacy endures in the notion of soccer player-as-celebrity. The next generation are also brands unto themselves, pop stars and sex symbols. Everyone wants to be Beckham in his underwear.
Maybe fittingly for a citizen of the world, the Englishman played his last home game in Paris. He captained PSG, and wept as he left the field. He raised another league trophy the week before. Even though he's hanging up his boots, he'll still be involved in the game. He recently toured China promoting the sport, and is rumored to have interest in owning an MLS expansion franchise.
It's hard to think of America as a destination for "global ambassadors"—that's for third-world countries. But this country remains an international soccer backwater, with millions of potential fans (and customers) ripe for the converting. And that's exactly what David Beckham was in the later stages of his career: a missionary, bringing the good word of the set piece. If some of his contemporaries achieved more in the sport, it's hard to argue that anyone did more for it.