I did not want to write about David Beckham. His legacy was appraised when he left Real Madrid, when he left MLS and during his various England heights and pitfalls. He has been written about enough. That said, two narratives have emerged since the soccer icon set aside his boots. Both need correcting. Beckham was not an overrated product of hype. He was a great player. He did not make the most of marginal ability. He had talent. Ridiculous talent.
David Beckham was a star. He was glitzy. He was handsome. He could sell products without speaking (preferably without speaking). He wore underwear well. Confronted with that, whether it’s envy or a need for balance, the natural reaction is to puncture the balloon. Presume him frivolous. Look for flaws, any flaws. Past his prime when he moved to Real Madrid with fanfare? Overrated. MLS not quashing reports he would receive $50 million per year at LA Galaxy (actual amount: $6.25 million) and selling him as the second coming? Fraud. The truth, looking back to his prime, however, is the level of stardom made sense.
Beckham was never the world’s best player. He was only voted by peers and managers as the world’s second-best player, twice, before “Bend it Like Beckham” came out. He may never have been the best in his own midfield. Fine. But he played with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and Roy Keane at Manchester United. He joined a Real Madrid team with Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo.
Why was Beckham great? Well, he won. He won the Champions League. He won seven league titles at the world’s two biggest clubs (10 in four countries total). He didn’t lead England past the quarterfinals of a major tournament as captain. Considering England have missed a major tournament (seven times) far more often since 1970 than they have reached the semifinals (twice), that showing was not so bad. Though disappointing at the time, 2002-06 was probably England’s most consistent three-tournament run since 1966-70.
Throw into that the resilience. His 1998 World Cup red card and the acerbic, tabloid-fueled witch hunt following would have crushed just about anyone. Beckham returned and had his best season at Man United the year following. He was frozen out at Real Madrid. He fought his way back and played a lead role in the 2007 La Liga title run in. He was frozen out with England. He fought his way into the team, missing the 2010 World Cup with an Achilles injury. Labeled a bust in MLS. He closed his career with consecutive MLS Cups.
Beckham is credited for maximizing his limited ability. But that’s a point misunderstood. He was not an average player. He was an average natural athlete. Certainly, compared with the vast swath of humanity, he was on the “awesome at sports” end of the curve. But, in the elite professional world, he was neither quick nor agile.
He was, nonetheless, supremely talented. Beckham had extraordinary, off-the-commonly-used-charts technique. A soccer-inclined Frankenstein would have sawed off his right foot with glee. Beckham was spectacular at dead balls. He could hit a precise moving target on a cross from 40 yards out. Two tricks. Both exceptionally valuable. Beckham kept himself in impeccable shape. He had a strong work ethic on the field. He positioned himself well. That prolonged his career. But it was the talent that defined it.
David Beckham was a popular target. Being pretty was just his cross to bear. None of that should negate his soccer achievements or his profound penchant for coming through in key moments. Beckham wasn’t the greatest player of his generation, but great enough to play with him.
[Photo via Getty]