David Beckham was not the best soccer player of his generation. In fact, years from now when historians of the sport appraise his splendid career, they will be hard-pressed to find a place for him on a contemporary top 10 list.
However, in terms of his impact on the game through transcendent qualities, his global marketing thunder and the boost he delivered to soccer in the United States, Beckham will soar to rarified heights in almost every retrospective.
On Thursday, two weeks after celebrating his 38th birthday, a week after mentor Sir Alex Ferguson announced his departure as Manchester United boss and four days after lifting another trophy, Beckham announced he will close a sterling 21-year career.
Following two more matches with French champion Paris Saint-Germain, he will finally rest his famous right foot, one that bent free kicks and crosses with supernatural accuracy and aided the success of Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, the Los Angeles Galaxy and, for the past three months, PSG.
“If you had told me as a young boy I would have played for and won trophies with my boyhood club Manchester United, proudly captained and played for my country over 100 times and lined up for some of the biggest clubs in the world, I would have told you it was a fantasy,” said Beckham, a native of working-class east London. “I’m fortunate to have realized those dreams.”
Beckham was a fantasy and dream for soccer, although not exclusively because of his soccer. He was unquestionably a world-class player, but not on the level of many elite peers, such as France’s Zinedine Zidane and Brazil’s Ronaldinho, who mesmerized audiences with technical skill and authority of the game.
Beckham provided big moments for England’s national team, scoring in three consecutive World Cups and striking a free kick in the dying seconds against Greece in a vital and memorable 2002 qualifier. He was a crucial piece to Manchester United’s four Premier League titles over five years, as well as the 1999 “treble” — an unprecedented haul of league, FA Cup and Champions League trophies in the same season.
But Beckham was more than a player. He was — and will remain, even in retirement — a brand. The planet has enough replica Beckham jerseys — in England white, United red, Madrid blue and Galaxy gold — to clothe a small nation.
Not even the United States, where soccer does not resonate with the same intensity as in most places, could offer anonymity. His celebrity was not a Hollywood creation; he already had it when he arrived there in 2007 to play for the Galaxy.
Here, predictably, the public embraced his celebrity more than his skills, which were beginning to fade. With his glamorous wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, at his side, he was omnipresent — modeling underwear on billboards, selling soft drinks with Sofia Vergara, chatting with Jay Leno.
A celebrity was what Major League Soccer needed. MLS was doing just fine before Beckham arrived, but it was better off by the time he departed last winter. His charm and dash brought both mainstream media attention to the league and large crowds everywhere the Galaxy visited. The mere possibility of him making his regular season debut on a rainy August evening in 2007 attracted a sellout crowd of 46,686 to RFK Stadium — almost three times D.C. United’s average.
“Sometimes [celebrity status] has overshadowed what I have done on the pitch or what I have achieved on the pitch,” he told SkyNews on Thursday. “As much as I say it doesn’t hurt me, of course it does.”
It didn’t hurt his bank account. Last year, according to Forbes, all but $6.5 million of his $50.6 million in earnings came from endorsements. (He donated his PSG salary to charity.)
Beckham showed his value on the field, as well: He won a Spanish La Liga title in his last season with Real Madrid; the Galaxy won MLS Cup crowns in each of his last two seasons; and after joining PSG, he played a complementary role in the club’s Ligue 1 championship.
Although he is hanging up his boots, Beckham is not going away. Beckham might invest in an MLS expansion team — Miami has been suggested — and will continue to promote products. Red carpets remain very much in his future. Because after all, soccer was just a fragment of what he was about.