by Jack Heaney
Perhaps it is just too easy to align oneself with the glossy beautification of David Beckham led by certain corners of the English media, or perhaps I’m just going soft in my old age (I’ll be a pipe and slippers man by the time I turn 19 in June, it’s all downhill from here).
Or perhaps, just perhaps, the really easy attitude towards Beckham’s recent retirement is to label it just that; a drab, eternal beautification, pampering a player whose talent was meagre according to some, in stark contrast to the not-so-meagre and decidedly ruthless capacity for media manipulation, self-promotion and pie-fingering. It is easy to disregard Beckham as a football floozy who flirted with the culture of celebrity. It is easy to patronise his accent, or to pass comment on the ubiquity of brand Beckham, or even on his wife.
It is easy to crop out the fact that some of the most respected managers in world football – Fabio Capello and Carlo Ancelotti amongst those respected managers – have deemed Beckham’s contribution worthy.
Because of course, David only sells shirts.
The football world has heard every opinion under the sun – and over it – in response to Beckham’s retirement. I have heard the ludicrous – with regards to my ‘pie-fingering’ statement, I’ve seen one budding scribe denounce Beckham as ‘symptomatic of the decline of British culture’ and having ‘his fingers in all the pies’, as though the former England captain is some lovable yet illicit street urchin, a leader of the criminal hoi polloi who is involved in shady business and underground trading. And admittedly, I have also unfortunately heard the simpering and the sycophantic.
And I say unfortunately because David Beckham’s career does not need to be viewed with bias. A fair assessment is all is needed. It is a career woven with success yet simultaneously patterned with atonement and redemption. His career is remarkable because of its imperfections; because of his brushes with what seemed at times to be public shame, transforming to public acceptance and then rising to public stardom and affection. The man they call Goldenballs cut a very different figure to the one he cuts now, and it is vitally important that this fact is etched into the career eulogies coming his way, rather than made out to be a mere footnote. For they pay testament to his attitude.
Football fans are indeed fickle, but can also be fearsome. The hatred aimed Beckham’s way after the petulant kick which earned a red card in the World Cup quarter final ’98 was repellent. It was dog’s abuse. Effigies, chants, sick abuse concerning his wife and children – to his credit and completely unlike his childishness in being sent off, he handled the situation perfectly. As so many have said recently, it was Beckham’s attitude which swayed public opinion; he got his head down and played some remarkable football in United’s treble winning season.
His input was just as valuable as any other member of that squad’s. It’s why he went onto be England captain, won over a hundred caps, has lifted four league titles in four different countries (the Premiership 6 times) and is an asset to English football as an ambassador and example of how endeavour will reward you. I do not necessarily buy into the idea that footballers HAVE to be role models, but to many Beckham is – and that is no bad thing. He is certainly more of a role mdel than any Liverpool spice boy of the mid nineties, anyway.
But then, Beckham was always on the cusp of greatness and became great not through fortune or media-make up, but through being a member of Ferguson’s school of hard graft. He realised his greatness through the mill, and it was anything but easy. What else could we make of his performance against Greece, where every ball was chased and every blade of grass covered, as if he was a mad Mohican-sporting Broadmoor escapee hell-bent on seeing his country through to the World Cup finals? What else to make of, upon being exiled by Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello for England and Real Madrid respectively, his indomitable spirit in forcing his way back to the first team? For Real Madrid Beckham trained and trained and trained until Capello could ignore him no longer, and thank God for Madrid’s sake he changed tact; Beckham proved a vital component in their seizure of the La Liga crown.
Though no Lionel Messi or Zinedine Zidane, and perhaps the media have not helped in that regard, Beckham zoned in on his strengths and maximised them until his dead ball and passing enterprise could change a game in seconds. It so often did.
Even in his mid-thirties, Beckham was always available for England. He always tried to succeed and, though he was part of a ‘golden’ generation who failed to shine, at least hung on to the “if at first you don’t succeed” mantra. At least he didn’t run and hide after failure. Behind the carapace of gloss and media showbiz opulence, lies somebody whose attitude was supreme. He is where he is because of that focus, not because of chiselled cheek bones or a marketable lifestyle – all of which he of course possesses.
It is easy to forget the role Beckham played in helping us bring the Olympics to London; it is easy to forget the moments he has given us as England fans and even football fans. Brand Beckham sure as hell has its positives. Many scoffed at his decision to play in America – but his impact has been huge. Ask any American. His impact is so often huge. It seems as though the Englishman’s final farewell was yesterday at the Parc des Princes. Visibly emotional, his wish of being remembered as a ‘hard working footballer’ is a fair one.
David Beckham’s sporting career and footballing talent was glittering way before the showbiz lights of some hedonistically lit function he attended as a famous face and celebrity. It will glitter long after, too.