What David Beckham Meant To Soccer, And The World

Measuring the impact of a global icon

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John Berry / Getty Images

David Beckham of PSG warms up during the Ligue 1 match between Olympique Lyonnais, OL, and Paris Saint-Germain FC, PSG, at the Stade Gerland on May 12, 2013 in Lyon, France.

David Beckham may be the only athlete who can add glamour to Paris. But after helping to deliver recognition, and the French championship, to Paris St. Germain, soccer‘s most famous global brand is hanging up his boots. They are not leather boots, because Becks doesn’t do leather. But they are well-traveled and brimming with medals.

From Manchester United to Real Madrid to the Los Angeles Galaxy and A.C. Milan before landing finally in Paris, the 38-year old sprinkled his football fairy dust everywhere. He earned league titles at Man U, Real, the Galaxy and PSG.  His haul includes FA Cup and Champions League glory. He played 115 times for England, the most by any outfield player, singlehandedly getting that nation into—and out of, famously—the World Cup.  In a statement Beckham said: “I’m thankful to PSG for giving me the opportunity to continue but I feel now is the right time to finish my career, playing at the highest level.”

I can remember Beckham’s first game in New York in 2007 after he joined the Galaxy. The game was at Giants Stadium, where the Red Bulls typically drew 12,000 to 15,000 fans. Becks nearly filled the joint, attracting 66,237 fans, a record, and played superbly in a 5-4 LA loss. But the MLS was the big winner. His signing by MLS Commissioner Don Garber and now-Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis gave the league the kind of caché it sorely needed. And even though Beckham’s management team made a complete mess of his first year in LA, he would deliver to LA and the MLS everything they wanted: global recognition and an endorsement that the league could accommodate world class players. The value of MLS franchises is increasing rapidly, and more top-shelf players are arriving every year, and Beckham deserves some of that credit.

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Beckham’s star power, his brand equity, his style leadership, exceeded his playing ability.  His string of deals with the likes of adidas, Sainsbury’s, Samsung, Pepsi, Gillette, H&M and others made him wealthy beyond any soccer player, long before his skills declined. He may have had as many hairstyles as he did goals, and as many tattoos as endorsements. His ego and machismo was plainly visible in the underwear ads he did. But it all belied a sometimes benign personality: when you talked to him he often seemed like just a guy trying to get on it with it— and in that slightly squeaky voice that had none of the muscle of his body.

His quest for the limelight was not hurt by Mrs. Becks, Victoria Posh Spice Adams, the pop star turned fashion designer who brought her own megawattage into the marriage. It made them unavoidably photogenic, a royal celebrity couple. At the Olympic Games in London last summer, Becks wasn’t judged good enough to play for Team Great Britain (which proved to be an Team Inept without him), but he nevertheless was given a role in the opening ceremony—along with the Queen. It was fitting, because when England made its bid to host the Olympics, it sent Becks to make the pitch. And also the Prime Minister, some bloke named Blair.

As a pure football talent, Becks was pretty good, all right. A right-sided midfielder, he found stardom first at an early age at Manchester United, joining the team as a 16-year-old in 1991 and becoming a starter in the 1995 season alongside future greats such as Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Becks announced himself to the greater football world the following season with a chip over the goal keeper—from midfield. It didn’t end well at Man U, not after Sir Alex Ferguson, who announced his own retirement just last week, kicked a boot at Becks after a bad performance, cutting his player’s head. Although Beckham now calls him a father figure, the kid left the family, for more glory, at Real Madrid for a $38 million transfer fee. A team known as Los Galacticos would seem a perfect fit for brand like Beckham. But Spanish football didn’t necessarily mesh with his style, even though he won the league with them in his last year.

(MORE: End It Like Beckham: David Beckham Announces His Retirement)

Still, Beckham was great entertainer—and oh, that right foot. It could mesmerize the crowd and panic the opposition. The man could launch missiles with it, 70-yard daggers across the field that veered back viciously, seemingly against the laws of physics. They are the kind of passes that players call a heavy ball, hit with such tremendous pace that onrushing forwards merely have to get or a head or foot on to knock home. That foot could slit open defenses like they were overripe melons.

The beauty of the crosses could only be outdone by his free kicks, so incredible to watch. You remember the anticipation of the crowd and the anxiety behind the ball as opponents line up to try to defend a Beckham free kick. They were nasty, swerving balls that defied the four-man wall of defenders 10-yards away, climbing over them as if lifted by some magical force and then diving for the corner, bending, bending away from some despairing goal keeper. They were art forms. And they were England’s ticket to the World Cup. His strike against Greece in a 2001 qualifying game is still legendary.

And so is his worst moment: getting chucked from the World Cup match against the hated Argentina in 1998 for retaliation, a move that that led to England’s losing the game on penalties. (Because England always loses on penalties.) The headline in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, which normally features pictures of topless women, was this: No [Boobs] Today Lads, Just Beckham.

And now it will be no boots, just Beckham the celebrity and Beckham the soccer executive. He’s signed a deal to be the ambassador for China’s professional league, which has been beset by corruption scandals. Becks to the rescue. If that doesn’t work out, as part of his deal with MLS, he has the option to invest in an expansion team. And there happens to be one being put together in New York City, which just might be big enough for a guy with global football ambitions and celebrity to match.

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