For those amongst us in our early forties, it’s a disconcerting thought. We have reached an age at which there is a generation gap between us and adults younger than us. A forty-five year-old in 2013 may not feel middle-aged but there is no question that he is, and perhaps there are young adults who now view David Beckham in the same way as the young football supporter of the early 1960s may have regarded the dotage years of the career of Stanley Matthews at that time, as one of the last surviving relics of a bygone and musty age that will not be seen again. In some respects, though, it is tempting to regard Beckham as the end of an era. His may well have been the last generation that grew up believing that international football was somewhere near to the pinnacle of a professional footballer’s career, something to aspire towards rather than merely a pain in the backside which had the handy compensation of increasing the value of one’s endorsement contracts. It was almost touching to see him, into his late thirties, still eager to play and prove himself for the England national team or even the British Olympic team, and it’s difficult to imagine that, say, Wayne Rooney will share such enthusiasm for it ten years from now.
Before we get too tangled up with the notion of Beckham as some sort of arch-patriot or as some sort of defender of traditional values, though, it is worth considering the extent to which he was utterly atypical for a British professional footballer in the twenty-first century. When his time came at Manchester United, he left for Madrid rather than, say, London or Newcastle, and saw out the end of his career in Los Angeles and Paris, a sort of cosmopolitanism wholly at odds with the former team-mates from Old Trafford who never strayed that far from the comfort of the familiar that was Old Trafford and Alex Ferguson. His globe-trotting may not always have been spectacularly successful, and his move to Real Madrid in particular, coming as it did at the height of the club’s “Galacticos” era, which had something of the feel of the Weimar Republic about it, never quite came off, although he did win one Liga title there, to go with his two MLS Cup successes with LA Galaxy and, if we’re generous, considering the peripheral role he played there, a Ligue 1 medal, which came ten days after his thirty-eighth birthday. Along with six Premier League titles and a Champions League win with Manchester United, a career record of championship titles in three different countries, each with very different footballing cultures, is certainly worthy of note.
As a player, David Beckham the footballer was far from being a playboy footballer of any description. Prior to their grand falling out, Alex Ferguson frequently praised his dedication to working hard, and the fact that his playing career ended at the top, at the age of thirty-eight, is proof of the benefits of the work that he put in at the training ground. If he had limitations as a player and was capable of becoming anonymous in games when things weren’t going his way, he did as much as you could ask a professional footballer to do – he made the very best of what he had. Some would criticise him as “over-rated” (a word not only foisted upon on him, but also pretty meaningless as anything other than a soundbite or a short cut to actually having to explain your opinion on him), but while it would be difficult to build a case to argue that he was one of the greatest all-round players of his or any era, it is surely not overstatement to suggest that his right foot, both from crosses and from free-kicks, may well just about have been the best in the world for several years just before and after the turn of the century.
Then, of course, there is the small matter of the celebrity. It goes without saying that, while David Beckham was far from the first celebrity footballer (such claims have been made going back further than the aforementioned Stanley Matthews), his was a level of fame that eclipsed any that had preceded him. The modelling work, the footballer as clothes horse, the hair grooming products and the Spice Girl wife painted a picture of him, but to an extent this was a misleading one. This level of fame, however, led inevitably to a degree of vituperation thrown in his direction, most notably after his sending off for England against Argentina in St Etienne during the 1998 World Cup finals. Despite the fact that the “victim” of his kick, Diego Simeone, later admitting to trying to get Beckham sent off by overreacting to Beckham’s momentary rush of blood to the head, a moronic element, egged on by a tabloid press that we would describe similarly were it not for the fact that they knew exactly which buttons they were pushing, hung effigies of him woth a noose around his neck outside pubs in London. He could have been forgiven leaving this country altogether that season. Instead, he ended the season providing the two corner kicks from which Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored to win the 1999 Champions League Final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona.
Perhaps it is impossible to get any reasonable sense of perspective on David Beckham as a professional footballer. The sideshow created a fog that was almost impenetrable, and the “brand” that surrounded him was most likely a reflection of the times during which he played rather than of the player or the person himself. We may never know how much of the branding was orchestrated by his PR People, and how much of it was genuine, and the result of this is that his personality is a blank sheet onto which anybody can project anything. A great player? Some might think so. A beautiful clothes horse who could hit a decent dead ball? Others would certainly to agree with that. For those of us of a certain age, though, his retirement marks another step towards the passing of an era, an era during which we were all considerably younger than we are now, and this may inform the nature of the eulogies that have been written about him over the last few days… including this one.
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