The moment is etched clearly in the mind. Argentina versus England in the World Cup, Sapporo, Japan, June 7, 2002. An unremarkable first half was winding down when Michael Owen was fouled in the penalty area. Instantly, you knew this was no normal penalty. At stake was not merely England’s fortunes in the tournament — they desperately needed a win — but the career of their captain, their creative force and unarguably their biggest star; possibly, at that moment, the game’s biggest star. Other men might have quailed at the task.
Not David Beckham. Up he stepped, placed the ball on the spot, did his customary shuffle and knocked the ball past Pablo Cavallero. Then he turned to his left and had his moment of catharsis: Clenched fists, primal scream. All around, in the press box, grown men — self included — whose job demanded neutrality and objectivity, did the same; Japanese, Koreans, even the ever-correct English. Amid all the emotion, one thought was clear: This could only happen with Beckham.
Few sportsmen have so polarised opinion among fans and journalists alike, few have enjoyed as much professional success on such limited skills, fewer still have lived as many superlatives by age 35. He’s had songs and poems — one by Britain’s Poet Laureate — written about him, lent his name to a film, been the ambassador for a successful Olympics campaign, is now vice president of a World Cup bid, has inspired not one but two pop-culture phrases, secured an unprecedented spot in England’s 2010 World Cup squad as neither coach nor player. Rather like the Queen, as The Times put it, except even more famous.
It’s hard to say which has played a greater part in his success: his radar-like right foot or his chiselled face. The former has been hailed by fans, and by team-mates unerringly picked out from 30 yards or more, and its devastating effects spawned an eponymous cult film.
Critics have carped at the circus that surrounds him and drowns out the football; an effete, preening shirt-salesman who can’t run and can’t dribble. Without doubt, Beckham has been a product of the TV-celebrity-wannabe age. His career began only a couple of years after the Premier League was born; the league needed a star, he craved the stardom. Over the next decade, he pushed the league’s boundaries far beyond the British Isles, his face and brand taking it to Asia, Africa, North America. When the World Cup went to East Asia in 2002, football wasn’t the number one sport and many locals had problems identifying players; not so with Beckham, the sight of whom prompted squeals and cries and another session with the hair stylist.
It’s easy now to think of Beckham as a walking mannequin, but a decade ago he was a more than decent footballer. He had just one skill — that right foot — but several other characteristics that compensated. For one, he had stamina, the product of cross-country and 1,500-metre races as a young boy. He couldn’t run fast but he could run all day; at his peak he was measured at running 14 km in a game.
He had a phenomenal work ethic, and the humility to absorb and imbibe from those around him — a priceless virtue given that the Manchester United locker room included some of the best footballers of the day. And in Alex Ferguson he had a manager who was a father-figure — not for nothing were Beckham, Giggs, Scholes et al christened Fergie’s Fledglings — and who ensured his wards were groomed in skills other than football as well. At their peak, between 1996 and 2001, they were unstoppable, winning five league titles in six years, and Beckham, a fixture on the right wing, supplied many of the crosses as assists or converted free-kicks.
He was a star, but it took the worst moment of his career to turn him into a superstar. Against Argentina in the ’98 World Cup, Beckham responded to a foul by kicking his opponent. He was sent off, and a match that was going England’s way went to penalties, which they lost.
The press slaughtered him, England fans ranted; one even hung his effigy. The worst was yet to come. Two months later, when the new season started, opposing fans abandoned all sense and decency. They had attacked his girlfriend, Victoria; now they turned on his baby son. “I hope your kid dies of cancer” was just one chant he had to put up with. Few could know what he went through, but he did it with the dignity and poise that he has displayed throughout his rollercoaster life.
That season was United’s best ever; they won an unprecedented triple: Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. Beckham, protected by Ferguson and the fans, displayed the flinty character few had credited him with, but which surfaced every time he was in trouble. Later that year he was runner-up in FIFA’s World Player of the Year award.
When Beckham first started dating Victoria Adams in 1997 his club was top of the Premiership, her band top of the pops. Even Simon Fuller, creator of the Spice Girls, couldn’t have dreamt up this match. Their courtship played out on the front pages and two years later, OK! magazine paid 1 million pounds for exclusive picture rights for their wedding in an Irish castle.
The world was at his feet. Yet it could have all gone wrong so easily. Beckham pushed the envelope of fashion and often went out on a limb others would have fallen off from. Who else could have pulled off the sarong trick, or flirted so outrageously with camp yet been so obviously straight? It was entirely apposite that Mark Simpson who, in 1994, coined the word “metrosexual,” would eight years later identify Beckham as the concept’s poster boy. It wasn’t all hairstyles or make-up, though; his penchant for tattoos (and bling) signalled an eye for hip-hop long before he went stateside. And when a bunch of Liverpool footballers dressed up in cream Armani suits and called themselves the Spice Boys, Beckham and his mates showed them up to be mere poseurs.
That, perhaps, is when things started to get out of hand. From sarongs to thongs was a short sartorial step, but in the testosterone-driven, deeply homophobic, almost misogynistic world of English football, it was a step too far. The chants went from sick to satirical — “Thong when you’re winning” for example — but Beckham appeared not to notice. In fact he simply upped the ante by setting up court at “Beckingham Palace”, their multimillion-pound manor in Hertfordshire. There, the Beckhams indulged in their weakness for super-expensive gifts to themselves, giving social commentators enough material for a library. This is also when the phenomenon of WAGs (wives and girlfriends) was born, with Posh the reigning deity. She had traded in her plummeting singing career for fashion, making frequent dashes to Milan and Paris, leaving the husband in charge of the kids.
Whether this was of Beckham’s own volition or a result of his accommodating nature, what’s not debated is that Ferguson — famously an advocate of players marrying early and settling down — looked with increasing distaste at the distractions in his star player’s life. Almighty rows soon ensued, one of them after Beckham missed a training session to take care of his kids while his wife was at a fashion show. Something had to snap.
Following an FA cup defeat to Arsenal in February 2003, Ferguson blamed Beckham, whose response was tart and spirited, prompting the manager to kick a boot lying on the ground. It struck Beckham above the eye, requiring stitches, and almost resulted in fisticuffs. The matter might have ended there but, the next day, Beckham was out shopping in full public view, his forehead not hidden by a woolly cap, as would have been usual, but exposed with his hair pulled back by an Alice band. As the United machine spun their story, the Becks machine trotted out theirs. Three months later, as United paraded the Premier League trophy around their Old Trafford stadium, Beckham, Brooklyn in his arms, took his final lap of honour in the red No 7 jersey. Within days he was off to Madrid.
You can say that that was the beginning of the end for Beckham the footballer. The brand would thrive, the money would keep rolling in, the face could still launch a thousand shops, but something in him seemed to have died when he left the stable, protective world of Old Trafford. There he was a footballer; for the rest of his career he would be a marketing tool.
The move to Real Madrid seemed perfectly logical, beginning with his unveiling at the Bernabeu. “Hola, Madrid!” he said with a smile and wave. In a squad that already boasted Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo, he was not the best footballer. But among those Galacticos — and in the context of that concept — he was clearly first among equals. The debate had already begun over whether he was brought in to score goals or sell shirts, but soon the argument itself proved irrelevant: Real were selling just too many of those white No 23 jerseys (the number picked as a tribute to Michael Jordan). Their Asia tours suddenly made more sense, and money, and within a couple of years they had replaced Manchester United as the highest revenue-earning club in world football.
In consonance with 21st Century sport, money made off the field didn’t always equal success on it. Real’s star was on the wane. They had won three Champions League titles in the five years before Beckham; they won one Spanish league title in the four years with him. It wasn’t all Beckham’s fault, of course — key players were aging, coaches were chopped and changed, the team had simply run its cycle of success — but his relative lack of footballing skills, and his advancing years, made him the first choice for the substitutes’ bench. It didn’t help that, for the first time, scandal – in the shape of Rebecca Loos, his personal assistant - broke through his carefully guarded private life. When Fabio Capello, then the Real coach, benched him in early 2007, his response was to dig yet again into those famous reserves of character; weeks later Capello was forced to call on him and he repaid him with a couple of crucial goals as Real went on to win the league title.Beckham had already plotted course for his next adventure: Los Angeles.
If Real Madrid was the logical next step from Manchester United in footballing terms, LA was the same to Madrid in the context of the glamour, celebrity and style that had become the Beckhams’ universe. There, he would hobnob with his buddies Tom and Katie and other Beautiful People, all the while resurrecting the Galaxy and breaking new ground for MLS, the American league. If it sounds a trifle superhero-ish, well, he’d have to go boldly forth where the combined might of Pele, Beckenbauer and Best had failed 30 years previously.
It was too good to be true. It began typically well, as Galaxy and their owners AEG saw massive spikes in revenues from shirt sales, ticket sales and merely by association. But Beckham’s body wasn’t what it used to be and, though his right foot could still swing a mean cross, the rest of him was struggling to keep up. More importantly, he was out of sight, out of mind for Capello, by now the England coach,.
Within months, Beckham had worked out a loan deal with AC Milan in the US off-season. That would keep him match-fit, and within sight of Capello. The location — Italy’s fashion capital — didn’t hurt.
These were patch-up jobs, though, on a career that was in clear decline. He was still playing the odd game for England and duly went on to break Bobby Moore’s record of 108 caps for an outfield player; but the critics had a point when they said many of the later caps were as a substitute. An Achilles tendon injury meant he wouldn’t play in his fourth World Cup but Capello, mindful of the respect he evoked in the dressing-room, took him along as a sort of mentor or go-between. A month later, from the debris of that disastrous outing, Capello pulled the plug on Beckham’s England career in a TV interview before informing the player.
The outcry this provoked sums up the public’s idea of Beckham: A decent man who worked hard for his money, cared for his family, won the respect of his mates and carried himself with dignity.
It suggests where his future lies: As an ambassador of good causes, whether the 2018 World Cup bid or his own football academy in London. Football chants are usually hype, but the song he’s heard for the past 15 years rings very true: There’s only one David Beckham. Jayaditya Gupta is Executive Editor of cricinfo.com
(This story appears in the 10 September, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)