FEW ATHLETES CAN rile up the non-Manchester United-supporting part of the Irish sporting public quite like David Beckham.
Invariably, if you step into any pub full of football fans in this country (and certainly in many areas of Britain too), the majority will effectively tell you that, more than anything, David Beckham was a symbol for all the worst excesses of the British media – a player whose good looks and celebrity profile led many to believe he was a far better footballer than his on-field performances suggested.
And there’s no doubting that, owing to the hype, many people were prone to grossly exaggerating his sporting talents. Whether it was American actor Samuel L Jackson asserting that David Beckham was the second best player in the world after Ronaldo in an interview, or when the Englishman was awarded the UEFA Footballer of the Year award in the 1998/99 season (even though the likes of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were far more instrumental in United’s treble success), both experts and casual fans alike often seemed overly eager to proclaim his greatness.
Yet that is not to suggest he was ever a bad player. Beckham will never be regarded as one of the all-time greats by most football fans and critics, but at his peak, he was just a tier or two below the likes of Zidane, Keane and Figo, owing to his voracious work-rate and incomparable dead-ball prowess. Thus, George Best’s famous assessment of the English winger – in which he said “he cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn’t score many goals [but] apart from that he’s all right” – was perhaps a little harsh, if somewhat truthful.
However, like so many both before and after him, he never really developed or improved as a player after he left Manchester United. In what should serve as a cautionary tale to present day want-away United star Wayne Rooney, Beckham’s career has gradually petered out since departing Old Trafford permanently. Despite the astronomical wages the star was undoubtedly being paid, he was rarely more than a bit-part player in a perpetually troubled Real Madrid side.
Moreover, his subsequent decision to move to LA Galaxy was not the smartest choice from a footballing perspective, when other far superior sides were eager to secure his signature. Even his loan spells at Milan could hardly be described as anything more than a partial success. Of course, he has just helped PSG win Ligue 1, but again, he was more of a Djimi Traore-type figure than a Steven Gerrard-esque hero in this instance, with his influence relatively peripheral.
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So aside from a short but nonetheless memorable period in which he was an important part of one of the greatest Manchester United sides ever, what will his legacy be? At the very least, his uncanny knack for involving himself in moments of pure footballing theatre will surely live long in the memory. Beckham’s controversial sending off in England’s World Cup 98 last 16 game with Argentina ultimately helped raise his profile even further, despite it turning him into one of the most loathed men in Britain in the short term (The Daily Mail’s front-page headline the next day famously read: “10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy”). He was given a shot at redemption thereafter though, which he consequently took full advantage of, and the wheel came full circle in 2001, when Beckham’s spectacular free-kick against Greece ensured England’s World Cup qualification and transformed the midfielder into something approaching a national hero, however ludicrous the idea may sound.
Yet why Beckham continues to be much-loved not just in the eyes of the British public, but all around the world, has little to do with his footballing skills. What will cause him to endure is his natural charm and dignified persona. Lest we forget, he was, for a long time, the most intensively scrutinised athlete on this planet. Lesser individuals would have cracked under the pressure and gone off the rails. Beckham, however, has rarely floundered in dealing with these constant intrusions into his private life. Though his bid for stardom away from the football field has been consciously undertaken, he would hardly have been so successful with this endeavour if it truly was as vacuous and cynical a pursuit as his sternest critics have suggested.
Accordingly, it seems odd to think of Beckham as old-fashioned, given that he was universally regarded as the epitome of cool not so long ago. Nevertheless, in a world in which athletes now seem relentlessly obsessed with a level of self-promotion that invariably comes across as cloying, Beckham’s inherent grace and soft-spoken nature is starkly anomalous to this current trend. While people may not exactly yearn for the days when football was primarily represented by a sarong-wearing metrosexual, it seems preferable to Mario Balotelli, Joey Barton and many of the current coteries of arrogant, loud-mouthed, Twitter-abusing narcissists.