If I’d been born ugly, no-one would have heard of Pele.
When David Beckham declared on Thursday that he was taking on a role with the Los Angeles Galaxy in the US Major Soccer League, he effectively announced his retirement from top-flight competitive football. It’s happened sooner than would have seemed possible only a year ago, yet Becks is coming to America—a place where no great soccer career has started, but where more than a few have ended.
I’ll leave it for others to disseminate what it all means for soccer in the States, or to discuss the horrifying wads of money being thrown about. The influence and sway of Posh, and the question of who wears the trousers in the relationship are of no interest here. For, in spite of all the merry image-making and the much-hyped glamorous lifestyle, to this point Beckham has remained—to a remarkable extent, all things considered—a footballer first and foremost. But not any more. He is now little more than an extravagantly rewarded ambassador for his sport, and the games he plays for the Galaxy will all be, to some extent, exhibitions. Should the Galaxy win the MLS title next year, you can expect Beckham’s medal to resonate for him just a little less than the FA Youth Cup he won at Manchester United as a teenager back in 1992. Certainly outside of his new club, fewer people are likely to care.
Although the move eventually transpired with surprising speed, it didn’t come entirely out of the blue. Certainly Sir Alex Ferguson, Beckham’s former manager at Manchester United, expressed no surprise at the news. Seldom one given to casting a backward glance over seasons or players past, Fergie probably failed to observe even a moment’s final vindication over his decision to sell Beckham to Real Madrid in 2003. As far as he was concerned, Beckham back then was already too far gone along the celebrity path, more commercial franchise than football player. Though it seems somewhat incongruous to admit it, Manchester United had already enjoyed the best football Beckham would ever play. He was only 27 when he departed Manchester, and should have been approaching his peak. In the Premiership today, several of his teammates from the legendary class of ‘92/‘93—Giggs, Neville, Scholes—remain at the top of their game, chasing three major trophies in United colors. Meanwhile Beckham, now 31 and with a largely undistinguished Spanish football experiment behind him, is walking away, cashing in his chips. And while I would never advocate feeling an ounce of sympathy for him—you doubt he’d want it and he certainly doesn’t need it—as a football fan, you can’t help feel that somewhere along the line it didn’t happen on the field in quite the way that it should have.
The finest of distinctions separate the great from the merely good. Whether Beckham would have developed into a better player without all the extra-curricular activity is open to question. By all accounts from both Manchester and Madrid, he was never anything but a first-rate professional, one who trained hard and practiced diligently. Supposedly, he never placed commercial concerns before football concerns—unless, of course, one counts photo-shoots and public appearances as coming at the expense of the rest. Beckham might argue that the majority of his commercial ventures took place in the off-season, but in modern football there’s scarcely such a thing as an off-season any more. Certainly Sir Alex Ferguson saw it that way, which is just one reason he jettisoned Beckham south.
It may seem odd to be speaking of Beckham in the past tense already, but this is the truth of his position in football now. David Beckham was never the best player in the world, though for a short time it looked like he might have a chance to become exactly that. He was the most technically gifted British player of his generation, yet famously his game was bedeviled by a fatal flaw—a much observed lack of pace. Nor was he ever the complete player, even allowing for that.
Ironically, it was thought that Beckham’s lack of pace would be less of a hindrance in the slower Prima Liga than in the frenetic Premiership. This didn’t turn out to be the case. In the Premiership, the game is played at a constantly high tempo, where Beckham’s constant movement and, over ninety minutes, sheer physical resilience had the ability to wear opponents down. In Spain the game is played at a mixed tempo, with a higher emphasis on pure technique. Beckham has the technique, but when the game calls for an explosive change of pace, he has usually been found wanting. Opposing coaches learned quickly that, by playing a defender directly on top of him, he could be trapped in a way he was seldom able to escape. In a further irony, Beckham’s teammate at Real Madrid, Roberto Carlos pioneered this method during international matches between England and Brazil. The slower pace of international games also goes some way to explaining why not only Beckham, but England as a national side, have consistently stuttered on the world stage.
For all his wonderful vision, his control, and his magnificent ball-striking ability, Beckham was just a decent two-footed player, rather than a great one (although more than most, the artistry of what he could accomplish with his right foot disguised the shortcomings of his left). He couldn’t head the ball for toffee. Yet in spite of possessing little in the way of a change of speed, he remains a remarkable athlete. Ferguson has said that Beckham was capable of expending as much energy as any player he ever coached. His work-ethic—that much prized asset, in England at least—as well as his commitment on the field of play, have never been questioned.
In Madrid, fans took him to their hearts both for the integrity of his effort and for his undoubted skill as a passer of the ball. This is a fact that isn’t always widely reported. The Madrid fans are as passionate and knowledgeable as any in the game, and they were forced to overcome the skepticism of Beckham’s purchase as a purely commercial enterprise and recognize his outstanding qualities as a player. That Madrid have won nothing in his time there can’t be seen as his fault, since any team that labors under three club presidents and four coaches in one four year period has more instability at its core than any single player can solve. It will be interesting, I think, to read of the fan reaction from Madrid over the coming days.
There is another element to Beckham’s decline as a player though, one which may go some way to explain his decision to head west. When you look at film clips from Beckham’s years at Manchester United, you see someone playing with a brilliant, unfettered joy. Here, you felt, was someone doing exactly what they wanted, and doing it with an infectious, unbridled enthusiasm. It was, in fact, key to his game. Yet despite regular proclamations as to how much he’s enjoyed the experience of playing in Spain, in recent years that joy seems to have been largely missing from Beckham’s play. It’s as though what he previously did for fun suddenly became an actual job. Football suddenly ceased to be this instinctive thing he did and became instead a cerebral endeavor. And as his critics are only too quick to point out, the cerebral aspect of anything is unlikely to be Beckham’s strongest suit.
I don’t mean to suggest some romantic Red view that Beckham was only truly happy as a Red. But I do believe his approach to football changed when he went south. For all that, he can still play more than a bit, and the Galaxy just brought the best player in their league into the squad. As recently as a month ago Phil Ball, one of the shrewdest observers of the Spanish scene as well as one of better writers on football today, described a game in which he saw Beckham “passing Sevilla to death” and urged that England coach Steve McLaren “really should think again, since it seems insane to deprive England of their best passer. So Beckham’s not quick. So he doesn’t take people on. So what? His use of the ball (against Sevilla), in the first half particularly, was a wonderful example of how technique and positioning are all that’s required.”
It may turn out that losing his place in the England side without any real hope of recall was the tipping point for Beckham. Dismissed by the England coach, struggling to find a place in the Real Madrid side, it can’t have looked like there were too many places worth going—not when so much life was on offer elsewhere. He has stated repeatedly that, given his love for Manchester United, he would be unable to ply his trade for any other club in England. Whether this stance would have held up if Chelsea or Arsenal had come in for him with a big offer is hard to say—though few in modern sport even bother paying lip-service to such sentiments as loyalty.
By now though it would be hard to picture Beckham toiling away in the midfield engine room of Bolton or Middlesboro. He’s grown too used to chasing the big fish, the league championships and the Champions League trophies, to want to hack away at it on a cold winter afternoon in the Reebok stadium. It’s a sharp descent indeed from Zidane and Ronaldo to Nicky Hunt and El-Hadji Diouf. It’s said that he could have gone to one of the big clubs in Italy, AC Milan perhaps, and you might have expected a man with far fewer opportunities to have done so. We can all sit back and disparage him for his lack of sporting pride or drive, ignoring how hard he’s worked as a footballer for fifteen years in spite of enormous temptation. Others have tossed away their careers far more easily, and for infinitely less reward.
And what Beckham has done, leaving Madrid for the sunny climes of California is simply this: he’s turned his back on competitive football and chosen Life. Becks has chosen a job, chosen a career, chosen a family. David Beckham has, in the words of Irvine Welsh, chosen the fucking big television. The likelihood is, if you were him you’d probably have done the same thing. You might not want to hang out with Tom Cruise and the glitterati of Hollywood, but then no-one ever claimed Beckham as the most interesting or complicated athlete on the planet—only the best looking. Fortunately, if you’re in it for the sport, there are highlights available on DVD. They illustrate what sort of player he was, back in the days when football was all that mattered.