"If you talk about David Beckham, all over the world they know who that it is. I don't think there is any other football player more popular than him." Sven Goran Eriksson
"He is a symbol of modern day stardom and...he is one of the best English players of all time." Florentino Perez
David Beckham is probably the most famous footballer on the planet. Granted, he does not play football any more. He is so much more than a man with a sweet right foot now he is a celebrity. He has the model wife and endorsements coming out of his ears while his children are all pretty talented. So in the grand scheme of things, Beckham has moved on from football, he left football behind. That makes it the perfect time to remember Beckham as a footballer. As everyone has, Beckham had points of his career when he was overrated and others when he was underrated. So was he a modern day great or a playboy with more style than substance on the pitch.
He grew up in East London with his working class parents and two sisters. Like his parents, he was a fanatical Manchester United fan so when they offered him a place, there was no doubt where he would sign. The first Premier League team he was actually on the books with was Tottenham, who have missed out on some very good players. He signed his schoolboy forms at 14 and in 1991 signed to be a trainee. It was here he became part of the famous 'Class of 1992,' along with the Neville Brothers, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs. The 1992 Youth Cup final would see them beat Crystal Palace 6-3 on aggregate. His Premier League debut would come later that year in September, when coming on for Andres Kanchelskis. He would sign his professional contract later that month.
A few sporadic appearances over the next few years would see him move on loan to Port Vale where he impressed, scoring from a corner kick. The following season he and his fellow class of 92 graduates would become immortalised by doing the double despite Alan Hansen claiming "you cannot win with kids." He impressed that season although it was the opening day of next scoring when scoring from inside his own half with an audacious lob that Beckham became a star. He would win PFA Young Player of the Year while United won the league. Arguably his best season for United came in 98/99 when they won a treble. His assists proved crucial in key games as well as a spell of goals late in the season. Beckham would have a similar spell to lead United to the title the following season. He remained a key player for several years and was enjoying a similar strong season in 01/02 before his metatarsal was broken and the United season fell apart. Injuries would cause him to lose his spot in the team the following season. The latter half of his time with United was spent embroiled in a feud with Sir Alex Ferguson. Strained points include when he missed training to look after Brooklyn while Victoria was on a catwalk and when after a FA Cup defeat he kicked a boot, hitting Beckham above the eye. This relationship led to his sale to Real Madrid in the summer with 152 assists and 85 goals in 394 appearances for United.
Off he went to Madrid to become a galactico under Florentino Perez alongside Ronaldo, Carlos, Figo and Zidane. He settled quite quickly into a three man midfield with some early goals but the team did not gel eventually finishing fourth. The team had a similar season in 05/06 but Beckham did lead the league in assists. The following season was his last one in Spain. Jose Antonio Reyes was picked instead of Beckham after losing seven of the nine games Beckham started. He would sign a contract with LA Galaxy in January for that summer and Fabio Capello declared that he had played his last game for Madrid. His form would change that as he played excellently, playing a key role in Madrid winning the league. With that Beckham jetted off to Los Angeles. His first two seasons were plagued with injuries and a lack of playing to his ability. His time at Galaxy saw him make forays back into Europe through loan spells with A.C Milan where he proved he could still play at the highest level. These did turn the fans against him but after he returned for the final time he enjoyed his most succesful time with Galaxy. His final two seasons would see the club win two MLS Cups. Beckham was shifted centrally at the beginning of the season and it unleashed him. The season ended with Beckham finishing second in assists as he formed a strong trio with Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan. They would repeat the following year which Beckham would chooses to be his final year with the Galaxy. His career would finally finish with PSG. He was mainly a substitute, brought on with 20 minutes to slow the tempo and maintain possession. His biggest performance came against Barcelona when he proved capable of breaking up the play of the Catalan giants. When the season ended, Beckham would retire.
David Beckham was also synonymous with the England shirt. He ended his career as the most capped outfield player ever for England - since passed by Wayne Rooney - with many of those as captain. His debut came against Moldova in 1996 and he would play in all of the qualifying matches for the 1998 World Cup. A row with Glenn Hoddle saw him left out the first two games. He responded when picked with a stunning free kick against Colombia. In the second round he kicked out at Diego Simeone which led him to be sent off and England eventually losing on penalties. Beckham became a national hate figure with effigies burnt. He was often booed by opposing fans and at Euro 2000 even England fans. This came to a head when despite a great performance with two assists against Portugal, he was still booed. Beckham responded by raising his middle finger. When Keegan resigned at the end of 2000. Peter Taylor and then Sven-Goran Eriksson made him captain. Perhaps his greatest moment came in that qualification campgain. Needing to draw against Greece, England trailed heading into stoppage time. Beckham would bend a free kick into the top corner and send England fans wild. He was injured in the build up to the 2002 World Cup but gained a measure of revenge over Argentina when scoring the winning penalty in a group stage game. In 2006 he was perhaps the best English player and scored in his third World Cup with a free kick against Ecuador. He injured himself in the quarter final that England went on to lose. He would resign his England captaincy after that tournament but still play on for the national team after a short exodus. He finished with 17 goals and 36 goals in his 115 appearances.
The greatest skill David Beckham has was his ball striking. Be it a cross, a pass or a free kick! He had an ability to find his teammate from any distance. Roberto Carlos described Beckham as the 'best free kick taker of all time.' Beckham perhaps does not get enough credit for his passing. When Scholes and Pirlo are brought up, Beckham was on that level. Maybe because most fans did not watch Beckham grow old, whereas with Scholes and Pirlo fans enjoyed seeing their roles reduced to where their incredible passing became the highlight. Daniel Harris who wrote the book on Manchester United's treble described his crossing as "unparalleled." He suggested that the variations of crosses he could do to a high level were what made him so special. Beckham also had a fairly useful habit of performing well in big situations. The Greece game is an obvious example but he also outplayed teammates at major tournaments and tended to have mor goals and assists at the end of seasons. A handy habit! Critics often point to the lack of awards Beckham won for being the best player at his club. He once won for Manchester United and that was it. What is more likely suggests giving his success in terms of voting for world player of the year and similar is that he was so good he became underrated. Fans and teammates took his quality for granted. Perhaps the largest criticism of Beckham about his footballing ability came from Manchester United legend George Best. Best stated "He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle, and he does not score many goals. Apart from that, he's alright."
His career for a player who Best suggested topped out at 'alright' was very impressive. He won league titles in four countries, the first Englishman to do so. This is more to do with his celebrity as it is unusual for English players to leave England. Would Real Madrid have been interested in a player of his ability without the added benefit of his celebrity? It is a good question but the fact is, Beckham had that celebrity! Some will say it meant his career will be remembered more fondly than it deserves but I would believe that he would get more credit as a footballer if he was a less celebrated celebrity. The MLS for example was a move far more concerned with his celebrity than his football. It was a glorified retirement home for European footballers at this point. Five years later the move might have made sense but Beckham still had enough to give to a good European team as he would go on to prove. He did succeed in his aim to improve the MLS as a place for European players, paving the way for Jermain Defoe, Frank Lampard and Thierry Henry.
Comparing Beckham to him and peers is perhaps neccesarily to fully evaluate him. For the five years of his prime he was a continuous presence in award voting. In World Player of the Year between 1999 and 2003 he finished in the top ten every year. Twice he finished second. In the Ballon d'Or he finished in the top ten four times over the same five year period. Zidane and Figo were the only two who you could probably class as midfielders to finish above him consistently and both were of the typically more attacking mound that the award winner tends to come from. The results suggest Beckham had a five year period as one of the best midfielders in the world. Moving to Madrid into a system that did not suit his talents and had other stars needing the ball cannot have helped him. Even moving to Galaxy, Beckham was more than capable of fulfilling a big role at a European club. The roles Scholes and Pirlo excelled in late in their careers was one that I could also see Beckham performing. Add to that he was better defensively and a fitter player who tended to give more effort. I think it is unfortunate we never got to see Beckham play a role that would have suited him down to the ground and gave a notable ending for both Pirlo and Scholes. No British midfielder has managed to place top ten in five separate years.
Beckham was a superstar. His incredible abilities as a footballer were surpassed by his celebrity but we cannot forgot what made him famous. His right foot was sensational. His celebrity harmed a career that was very impressive and could have been a bit better dependent on circumstance. Comparing him to midfielders around the time you have to really favour him against the majority. Even compared to his United teammates, Giggs and Scholes, Beckham was the best of the lot! Achieving what he did in his career was not a fluke. Beckham was a grafter. Reports of how hard he worked are famous! Alex Ferguson talked of this suggesting he trained "with a discipline to achieve an accuracy that other players wouldn't care about." Even at Madrid Fabio Capello and Ramon Calderon praised Beckham for his professionalism and work ethic after being told he would never play for the club again. So when Beckham says he wants to be remembered as hard working and passionate you have to think he deserves that. His passion and will to win was often so impressive and gestures such as the middle finger to the England fans were expressions of that passion.