Final whistle for career,but it’s just half-time for brand Beckham

David Beckham,the player,may be about to retire,but Beckham,the global phenomenon,is simply in middle age.

Written by New York Times | London | Published: May 18, 2013 3:24 am

Retirement: Midfielder played 718 matches for clubs in five countries,and played three world cups

David Beckham,the player,may be about to retire,but Beckham,the global phenomenon,is simply in middle age.

“Nothing will ever completely replace playing the game I love,” he stated in Paris on Thursday,announcing an end to his 22-year playing career. “However,I feel like I’m starting a new adventure and I’m genuinely excited about what lies ahead. Now is the right time to finish my career playing at the highest level.”

As with almost everything he has ever said or done,the man spoke Thursday in a genuine and understated manner. He rose from a London working-class background to marry a pop singer,also a self-made success,and live the Beverly Hills celebrity lifestyle. Yet,true to his words,he remains in love with the simple game that gave him everything.

If truth be told,Beckham was never a Pelé,Maradona,Cruyff,Messi,Ronaldo or Zidane. He was gifted; they were gods,in the sporting sense. But his recognition,across every culture,eclipses theirs. This is no accident. The playing career,built on sheer effort,practice and desire,is his own. The fame has been packaged and painstakingly structured by the same agency that launched the Spice Girls,including Victoria Adams,now Mrs. Beckham.

Somehow,the boy who fell in love with his game has lived out a playing career that lasted more than two decades. Somehow,the modesty has remained. Somehow,he has played through 718 matches for clubs in five countries,and represented England at three World Cups during a span of another 115 appearances,and never been less than a team player.

The Beckhams might have amassed a fortune in excess of $250 million. David Beckham may have been regarded by Forbes Magazine as No.15 in the world’s top 100 celebrities in 2007,the man at the center of it continued trying to be the best player he could be.

A natural gift to strike a ball — to bend it as the saying goes — was honed by year after year,day after day on the training field. A willingness to run until it hurt,and then try to run some more,was in his nature. That raw determination was drawn from him,and from the gifted apprentices Ryan Giggs,Paul Scholes,Nicky Butt,and Gary and Phil Neville,by Alex Ferguson,helping to forge the manager’s illustrious career at Manchester United.

Again,Beckham was not the most naturally talented of that bunch. Giggs was swifter and more graceful by far. Scholes had what is known as a soccer brain,a rare ability to make decisions,as few in English sport ever could.

Scholes also retired from playing and,as he would have wished,it passed almost secretively under the radar of public perception. But when Beckham retires the world’s cameras are turned upon him.

What will change,instantly,is the compulsion he has known since childhood,the drive to get out of bed,to bolt down breakfast and get out with the ball.

So from 16 to 38,he literally lived the dream. All the rest followed from that: the endorsement contracts,the ambassadorial roles with Unicef and the Chinese soccer federation,moves from Manchester United to Real Madrid and then to the Los Angeles Galaxy before spending a third of his time in California,a third in Europe with AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain,and a third in midair as he jetted to and fro across the Atlantic.

The gap in his life will take time to hit him. He can fill it with more family time with his four children. The corporate demands will not dry up overnight,and the competition to fill television time with him as a pundit had already begun with Sky Sports making him one of the faces of its ongoing battle with rival channels projecting England’s Premier League and other leagues. Who better to put on screen that a man idolised for being himself?

The more that the athlete’s time clock was running against him,the more he was offered as a global one-man brand. He could touch down in any airport in Asia,and the fans,would reach out to touch or even to glimpse his blond hair.

He could — arguably much more difficult — arrive at a top professional club like Real Madrid and Milan,and by dint of his sheer sincerity,and his determination to play,become an accepted,even loved,member of the inner domain,the locker room. There is no hiding place in that room for a pretender,or for a man who simply deludes himself that he is still capable of adding to the team. An honest judgment is that Beckham was in decline as an athlete from the moment he left Madrid to join Major League Soccer with the Galaxy in 2007.

He said then that he was not crossing the Atlantic to be a superstar in a lesser league. He became exactly that,selling his deteriorating self,to use a phrase that the aging Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn once used. In sports,middle age can be the cruelest transition in life. Beckham’s enduring quality has been that he squeezed out the very last ounce of what ability he was given,and from apprenticeship to the end he never let all the trappings,all the wealth or all the distractions get in the way of being a player.

ROB HUGHES

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