With David Beckham calling an end to his 20 year career, Greg Johnson looks at the player behind the hype, and asks whether more footballers should follow his example…
Over the past few years, David Beckham has toured the world like an aging rock band, determined to wring a final few golden years out of his former glory in emerging markets and foreign lands still seduced by the nostalgic allure of his status and shirt sales. Now his greatest hits tour is coming to an end, with the world’s most famous footballer turning down an extension to stay at his latest European cameo at Paris Saint-Germain in order to bow out of the game at “the highest level”.
While many may scoff at his reasoning, along with the self-indulgence of his later career moves, it is important to separate the past achievements of Beckham the footballer from Beckham the brand, especially since his reputation as a player is more often than not harmed by the association.
Ignoring his ubiquitous presence across billboards and TV, pushing everything from soft drinks to under pants while skirting the borders of ridicule with his outlandish fixation on fashion and hairstyles, David Beckham was a fine footballer and an upstanding professional athlete.
Throughout his career, detractors have focused upon what he lacked rather than what he was able to learn and gain through his attitude and efforts. George Best once quipped, prior to Beckham claiming second place in the FIFA World Player of the Year Awards 2000:
“He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn’t score many goals. Apart from that he’s all right.”
But Beckham also lacked pace, strength and flair, and rarely looked as effortless and graceful on the ball as more natural talents such as Ryan Giggs. Instead, his abilities came from a level of rehearsed technique won through dedicated training and focus that gifted Beckham a shimmering armory of weapons he could unleash on the field, most notably his dead ball delivery and crossing from the right flank.
Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked that “hard work is a talent too”, and through his commitment to making the most of his abilities by practising and mastering certain facets of the game, Beckham honed his game to a world-class standard, even if he himself as player didn’t fit in such a bracket.
While the celebrity circus that eventually subsumed him coloured his exit from Old Trafford, Manchester United fans should remember a player who not only provided trophies and glory through the consistency of his ability to supply an end-product down the right, but also tenacity and courage when games were in doubt. Not only did his corners deliver the payloads through which United won the 1999 Champions League final in extra-time, but the sweat and effect he poured into the last quarter of that game, harassing Bayern Munich’s defence and midfielders into errors, was instrumental to securing the victory and the treble.
Similarly, in his stint as one of Real Madrid’s first-era Galacticos, Beckham may not have amassed the silverware and title domination the club’s transfer policy suggested would come, but his attitude on the field and in training, even after being marginalised by Fabio Capello in his last year, was testament to how he approached his football.
A willing and obliging servant to both his clubs and country, although he provided many memorable moments for England, the nation’s football establishment should look forward rather than to the past. David Beckham is an ideal role model to England’s next generation of footballers, but his example also diagnoses one of the most serious issues with the national attitude to the game.
Having built his abilities himself, Beckham has always been viewed as a somehow unworthy or dishonest football star regardless of his achievements. The sickly stench of anti-intellectualism and distrust of learning, education and self-improvement hangs heavy over the misplaced criticisms that have lingered throughout his career. It is as if to the English mind-set, players are either born with limitless potential and should therefore be freed of the tyranny of tactics or training, or none at all, with only their deep-hearted desire and stamina to thrash about with.
Beckham’s legacy as a footballer will hopefully be to inspire those youngsters and coaches who do work to make the most of the talent available to them rather than believe in feted wonder kids and dejected destroyers. Whether he moves into coaching himself or retires to the world of fashion or brand ambassador roles, his record is secured as one of the most successful, hardworking and well-travelled English players of the modern game.
He may be golden balls, or a footballer for people who don’t like football, but those aren’t reasons to dismiss the player behind the fame. If more footballers took their own development as seriously as David Beckham then the game would be better off for it.