By Tom Taylor
Just a week after Sir Alex Ferguson retired from his job as manager of Manchester United, David Beckham has also finally hung up his boots.
On Saturday Beckham played his last home match for Paris Saint-Germain, the club he joined less than four months ago. After walking off to a standing ovation, it’s likely he’ll finish on that high and not play to the bitter end in PSG’s final road match this season at Lorient this Sunday.
Ferguson and Beckham’s careers were inextricably linked. Beckham was lucky enough to play for both the club he supported as a kid and Ferguson at United. Over 10 years, six Premier League titles, two F.A. cups and a Champions League trophy later, Ferguson also played a key role in Beckham’s exit, too.
After an F.A. Cup defeat to Arsenal in 2003, Ferguson lost it in the locker room, kicking a boot across the room and accidently hitting Beckham above the eye. It proved to be the final nail in the coffin, and by summer Beckham was on his way to Real Madrid.
Arguably, Ferguson had the greater success from then on — another five Premier League titles and one Champions League trophy compared to Beckham’s single La Liga title, two MLS Cups with Los Angeles Galaxy and PSG’s recent Ligue 1 win — and deserves serious consideration for the title of best manager of all time.
Beckham, meanwhile, was never FIFA World Player of the Year even once in his 20-year career, though true all-time great Pele nominated him among the 100 best living players in 2004, and he never won the greatest prize of all, a FIFA World Cup.
But Beckham will still go down as a true legend of the game; more than anyone else, he defined what it means to be a soccer superstar.
He was clearly a talented player, but his status, his pop-star wife — Victoria Beckham, aka Posh Spice — and his worldwide appeal were every bit as important. Real Madrid and Galaxy paid so much for his services because of his marketability — his lethal ability to cross the ball was an added bonus.
Now that he has finally kicked his last ball as a professional, it is that image that will likely live on: the global superstar who draws hoards of fans no matter what and the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador whose charitable works have extended far beyond the confines of his sport.
Away from the soccer field, the manicured world of public relations will brush over any of the blemishes from his career.
But that’s not the way I want to remember it.
Back in 1998, a new kid on the international scene, Beckham so incensed England fans for being sent off for retaliating against Argentina’s Diego Simeone in the last 16 of the World Cup that he even received death threats.
Even as recently as last June I got to see his temper flare up on the field when the San Jose Earthquakes hosted the Galaxy at Stanford Stadium. In the dying moments of the game, with San Jose appearing to be wasting time, Beckham deliberately kicked a ball at the referee, who was tending to an injured player.
But those moments weren’t those of an English-style soccer hooligan, they were of a player who loved to play so much that occasionally his emotions would get the better of him. It is hard to criticize any Englishman for lashing out when faced with soccer arch-nemesis Argentina, and last year, after working so tirelessly to promote the 2012 London Olympics, Beckham had just found out that he would not be included in the British soccer team at the Olympic Games.
It also appears that Beckham is actually a good guy; I’ve even heard reports of him pulling over to help a stranded motorist change a tire. I can’t imagine many other multimillionaires even having those sorts of rumors spread about them.
When he signed for Paris Saint-Germain, some criticized the move, after all, why was the French team wasting money on an aging superstar well past his best?
But then Beckham donated his entire salary to a local children’s charity and did what he does best, putting his all into PSG’s title bid. He quickly won over the fans, and many were sad that he spent just a fleeting moment at their club.
I never got to talk to Beckham last year at the Earthquakes game. He refused to give interviews because he just didn’t want to talk about his exclusion from the Olympics; it was still too raw. But I can forgive him that.
He may not have brought home that elusive World Cup, but he put his heart and soul into soccer. I would forgive a few extra yellow and red cards if only there were more Beckham’s out there.
Tom Taylor’s editor can’t help but notice his column’s retirement trend. To wish Tom luck on his thesis defense Friday, email him at tom.taylor ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.