The soccer world, still recovering from the news that the legendary Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is to retire at the end of the season, is suddenly dealing with another United icon calling it a day. At 38, David Beckham, who left Old Trafford back in 2003, confirmed on Thursday that he was hanging up his boots. “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,” he said in a statement. “I’m fortunate to have realized those dreams.”
Beckham is the only English player to have won championships in four countries – England, Spain, the U.S. and France – and helped raise the profile of the sport in America by playing for the LA Galaxy between 2007-2012. The tributes came pouring in, including from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who tweeted “Best wishes as David #BeckhamRetires His magical free kicks for @MUFC and England will live long in the memory of all football fans.” Beckham was also instrumental away from the soccer field, playing a significant part in the successful bid to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to London.
(PHOTOS: A Brief History of David Beckham)
Beckham made his name playing for Manchester United, and he represented his favorite team on 394 occasions. He wore the famous number 7 shirt for arguably the world’s best known soccer club, which was the same number worn by the iconic George Best for United in the 1960s and’70s. Best wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of Becks, once claiming, possibly with his tongue in his cheek, that “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.” There may have been a tiny bit of truth in Best’s pointed remark. But Beckham’s ability to accurately pass and cross the ball, over both short and long distances, was a sight to behold. Just as impressive were his set pieces, which often resulted in goals. Because of Beckham’s cultural impact, he arguably deserves his place among the modern greats of the game. After all, the popular 2002 film about women’s soccer was called Bend It Like Beckham: when Becks took a free kick, it wasn’t a surprise if the ball ended up in the net.
At United, he established himself as a first-choice midfielder during the mid-1990s and won many major honors for the club, including six English Premier League (EPL) titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League in 1999. His off-field stardom skyrocketed, thanks to his dashing looks and his 1999 marriage to Spice Girl Victoria Adams, which endures to this day. Brand It Like Beckham. His club manager, Ferguson, wasn’t keen on Beckham’s celebrity lifestyle. And by allegedly aiming a boot at Beckham in a dressing-room argument in 2003, Ferguson literally struck the first blow. Their relationship couldn’t really recover.
In 2003, Beckham was transferred to Spanish giant Real Madrid on a four-year deal. He didn’t enjoy anywhere near the same success as he managed at United but did win the domestic league title in his final season. His next move was somewhat stunning: in early 2007, Becks announced that he was coming to America and signed a five-year contract with Major League Soccer side Los Angeles Galaxy. In an instant, the profile of the sport was raised in a country where football means helmets, tackling and tailgates. It would be folly to suggest that it was an unmitigated success – not once but on two occasions, Beckham returned to Europe to play on loan for the Italian team AC Milan – but he surely left the MLS in a better state than he found it. In fact, after finally winning some silverware for the Galaxy in the shape of the MLS Cup in 2011, he signed a two-year contract to remain in Los Angeles, where he got to lift the trophy again. And he retains a contractual option to buy into an MLS team.
His final club move was back to Europe as he joined Paris Saint-Germain on a five-month deal at the start of this year. Sure enough, he went out a winner with the French side, winning the domestic league. It was PSG’s first title in 19 years and the 10th league title of Beckham’s career. He has two games to go, and he’ll lace his boots for the final time against Lorient on May 26.
(VIDEO: 5 of Beckham’s Trademark Free Kicks)
But as much as Beckham loved playing for club teams around the world, he seemed to save his biggest moments – both good and bad – for his national side of England. He made his debut in 1996 and played for his country 115 times, scoring 17 goals, and also captained the team, with his final game for England coming in 2009. The low-point was probably the red card he received against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup in France: England ended up losing on penalties and Beckham was vilified by the press and even some supporters. But three years later, redemption would prove to be sweet. In the final qualifying game for the 2002 World Cup, played at the home ground of Manchester United, Old Trafford, against Greece in October 2001, an inspired Beckham simply refused to lose. As England faced the prospect of a shocking defeat, which would have seriously damaged the team’s chances at qualifying for the Cup, Beckham stood over the ball and seemingly willed the ball into the net to tie the game 2-2. England went through to the World Cup where he would gain a measure of revenge over Argentina by scoring a cathartic penalty in a 1-0 win. Beckham would never lift a trophy of note when representing England. But he gave his country – and so many others – lasting memories.