What comes to mind when you hear the name ‘David Beckham’? Advertising demigod? Underwear model? Spice Girl wife? Celebrity? Brand? Chances are you did not think ‘one of England’s greatest players’ because few people do, but when you look at D-Becks’ history you only just begin to realise what an amazing footballer he was.
356 appearances for Manchester United (85 goals). 115 England caps (17 goals). 116 matches for Real Madrid (13). 29 games for AC Milan, and stints with Los Angeles Galaxy and most recently French champions Paris St Germain.
And yet, there are some that would have you believe he was nothing more than a one trick pony, an impressive right foot but that was about it. They talk more about what he could not do, what he did not win, how his red card in France 98 cost England, rather than his achievements.
Let’s look at those achievements – Six Premier League titles, two FA Cups, one Champions League, one La Liga, two MLS Cups, and the Ligue 1 title this season. Then there are the individual honours – PFA Young Player of the Year (196-97), England Player of the Year 2003, Uefa Club Footballer of the Year (1998-99), BBC Sports Personality of the Year (2001) and Goal of the Decade (his wonder strike from distance against Wimbledon in August 1996) just some of the awards the former midfielder has won.
After announcing his retirement from the game, Beckham told reporters: "If you had told me as a young boy I would have played for and won trophies with my boyhood club Manchester United, proudly captained and played for my country over 100 times and lined up for some of the biggest clubs in the world, I would have told you it was a fantasy.
"I'm fortunate to have realised those dreams."
He is the only Englishman to win championships in four countries. At a time when we lament the lack of British talent willing to test themselves outside the comforts of British football, here was a player who was not only willing to go abroad but succeeded. His move to Real Madrid might be viewed more as a route out of Old Trafford after clashing with Sir Alex Ferguson, but the truth is he moved to from one of the biggest teams in the world to one of the other biggest teams in the world, a side full of ‘Galaticos’.
There were doubts Beckham would get into a side resplendent with names like Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Raul, and despite his coaches having doubts, famously Fabio Capello, he proved everyone wrong. He adapted his game, increased his work rate, moved from the right wing to the centre, and impressed the likes of Capello, Carlo Ancelotti and Steve McLaren, the former England manager having initially called time on Beckham’s international career.
When others were thinking he should call an end to his career, the people in the know – Ancelloti, Harry Redknapp, Fabio Capello – were happy to have him.
Beckham further stated: "I want people to see me as a hardworking footballer - someone who, when he steps on the pitch, gives everything he's got. When I look back on my career that is how I look back on it and that is how I hope people have seen me."
Beckham’s own words understate his own ability. There was no better right foot in football – his crossing and set piece deliver was second to none – and while his left foot was average by comparison it was not the swinger people said it was. Leo Messi does not get savaged for having a poor weaker foot, and when your strong foot is as effective as theirs, you would be mad not to use it as much as possible.
Beckham had high and low points in his England career. He is second on the list of England’s most capped players, behind only Peter Shilton, but that red card for a petulant kick out at Diego Simeone lingers in the memory. But so does the last gasp free kick against Greece that took the Three Lions to the 2002 World Cup Finals.
If there is any disappointment about Beckham’s career it is that the Leytonstone-born number seven moved to America far too soon. He thought he would be pioneering a new era in Stateside soccer, and no doubt he brought a lot of media attention to the MLS, but he still had so much to give, as his spells at AC Milan and PSG have shown. To lose a player of that quality from the top leagues for so long should shame those who had a hand in the decision, including Beckham. Perhaps he was too caught up in having a lasting legacy somewhere, or of increasing brand Beckham.
While he impressed many with his professional and technique, like Arsene Wenger and Redknapp when he trained with the North London clubs in the off-season, it took a while for the US fans to warm to him as the England international looked to continue his career with his country. It was only in the final two years of his five year stay in LA that he finally devoted himself fully to his team, and it coincided with two MLS cup victories.
Beckham has done a lot for football, so it is regretful that people will remember the style icon before the footballer, the adverts before the goals. If he had his time again, would he have shunned the States until his mid-to-late thirties? Would he have thought more about his football, and less about his endorsements?
Who knows, but at a time when England’s Golden generation was struggling to make the most of their potential, this was one player who made the most of his, and that is what we should all remember.
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