Johnson: Beckham was an ambassador, role model and cultural icon

 

Retiring soccer star remains one of the most popular and well known footballers the world has ever seen

 
 
 
 
(FILES) In a file picture taken on August 27, 2003 Real Madrid's English midfielder David Beckham poses with Super Cup trophy after winning against Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Football megastar David Beckham announced on May 16, 2013 that he is to retire after a glittering 20-year playing career in which he became one of the most widely recognised figures in world sport. AFP PHOTO/ Pedro ARMESTREJAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images
 
 

(FILES) In a file picture taken on August 27, 2003 Real Madrid's English midfielder David Beckham poses with Super Cup trophy after winning against Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Football megastar David Beckham announced on May 16, 2013 that he is to retire after a glittering 20-year playing career in which he became one of the most widely recognised figures in world sport. AFP PHOTO/ Pedro ARMESTREJAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images

Photograph by: JAVIER SORIANO, AFP/Getty Images

The moment is one that, today especially, keeps flickering to mind. Saitama Stadium, Japan, World Cup 2002, England vs. Sweden. And the slender blonde star striding into a corner kick on the far side of the grounds, igniting 63,000 pin pricks of light in a gathering dusk.

It was then that it hit you. The incessant Pop! Pop! Pop! of those flashbulbs. The breathtaking scope of his popularity, so often talked about, fizzed in the air, in front of you, like a trademark swerving free kick from just outside the box.

Later that tournament, the invariable battalion of TV cameras caught that same man stooping to kiss a shy Japanese schoolgirl on the cheek during a promotional visit and an entire nation swooned. Probably still hasn’t managed to get back to its feet, for all anyone can tell.

David Beckham was never, even at his peak, the greatest footballer in the world (idolotars mistaking publicity with prowess). No Messi, surely. No Pele. No Maradona. No Di Stefano. No Best. No Puskas. No Ronaldo (Brazilian version). No Zidane.

He could conjure up wonderful theatrics, yes, and play a vital role in collective success, but he lacked their level of audacity, of individual genius.

What he was was a unparalleled deliverer of the ball, particularly from set pieces, a tireless worker on the pitch, a consummate professional and, from what those who spent time any sort of around him report, an absolutely lovely lad, as well. No small feat, that last, considering the depth of his fame, his influence, the thousand different directions in which he was constantly being pulled.

He became an ambassador, a role model, and a cultural icon. Which is quite enough for one person, when you think about it.

“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 one hundred times and lined up for some of the biggest clubs in the world, I would have told you it was a fantasy,” Beckham said Thursday, in announcing his retirement.

“I’m fortunate to have realized those dreams.”

He re-packaged and re-sold soccer to the U.S. and replica shirts galore wherever his travels took him. He won 115 caps for England, scads of trophies — six Premier League titles, one Champions League crown, one La Liga in Spain with Real Madrid, two MLS titles with the L.A. Galaxy, and just recently French Ligue 1 laurels as a late addition to money-mad Paris St.-Germain — and with those obscenely good looks and that regular-guy-underneath-the-glitter persona, a worldwide following that easily eclipses that of any other current athlete, arguably of any other person.

Forbes magazine had him listed, still, at 38 and well past his prime, as the sixth-highest earning athlete on the planet, at an accumlated $40 million for 2012. His estimated net worth hovers at a tidy $256 million Cdn.

He married a pop-star wife known, purringly, as Posh (no Ethels or Alices for him!). A Buddist monk once unveiled a statue in his likeness in a Thai temple. On the eve of England’s ’02 World Cup bid, Prime Minister Tony Blair declared Beckham’s ailing right foot the greatest concern in the land. He inspired colognes and skimpy briefs and movies and a phrase, “Bend it Like Beckham”, that has become a part of our pop terminology. The press dubbed in Goldenballs and his Hertfordshire estate became known far and wide as Beckingham Palace. Paparazzi tailed him, women fell head over heels for him, and men, even those initially uncomfortable with the gel and the tats, began to be won over by an individual that worked so hard at his craft, cared so passionately about wearing the Three Lions jersey.

This is someone who, people may forget now, overcame much, villified for his country’s elimination from the 1998 World Cup for his petulant red card against Argentina in St. Etienne. It took time but he rebuilt himself, his stature, taking things to an altogether different level.

“A fantastic football player, a fantastic man,” raved his former England boss Sven Goran Eriksson. “Probably the biggest sports personality in the world. If you talk about David Beckham, all over the world they know who that it is. I remember all the matches with England and all the travelling — airports, hotels — and it was all about Beckham all the time. I rank him very, very highly.”

Sven’s vote aside, ranking David Beckham is the most troubling aspect of his career, in retrospect.

“Over the years people have obviously looked at other things that have gone on in my career and sometimes that’s overshadowed what I’ve done on the pitch,” he admitted Thursday.

“As much as I say that doesn’t hurt me, of course it does. At the end of the day I’m a footballer who has played for some of the biggest clubs in the world, with some of the best players in the world, and under some of the biggest and best managers, and achieved almost everything in football. It hurts when people — not question it — but think about other things.”

That, sorry, is somewhat disingenuous, because those other things are what made him special, rich beyond his wildest dreams, allowed him in large part to make the impact he did. If he’d looked like, say, Nobby Stiles, had married a real-estate agent from Kent, been spared the dinners with kings and shahs and movie stars, the tabloid press in Britain, commentators the world over, wouldn’t be falling all over themselves today.

“I hope people will remember me as a hard-working footballer, someone who was passionate about the game and someone that gave everything that they have,” Beckham went on. “Because that’s how I feel.”

That, at base, is how he was.

The ‘greatest’ player in the world? No. Never. David Beckham’s was a complicated greatness, though. A greatness that could not be distilled solely to gifts on the pitch, unique in the entirety of its impact, its influence, its effortless salesmanship.

Not quite what his millions of besotted admirers may have claimed, but much more, surely, than the others could bring themselves to admit.

George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at gjohnson@calgaryherald.comFollow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH

 
 
 
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(FILES) In a file picture taken on August 27, 2003 Real Madrid's English midfielder David Beckham poses with Super Cup trophy after winning against Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Football megastar David Beckham announced on May 16, 2013 that he is to retire after a glittering 20-year playing career in which he became one of the most widely recognised figures in world sport. AFP PHOTO/ Pedro ARMESTREJAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images
 

(FILES) In a file picture taken on August 27, 2003 Real Madrid's English midfielder David Beckham poses with Super Cup trophy after winning against Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Football megastar David Beckham announced on May 16, 2013 that he is to retire after a glittering 20-year playing career in which he became one of the most widely recognised figures in world sport. AFP PHOTO/ Pedro ARMESTREJAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images

Photograph by: JAVIER SORIANO, AFP/Getty Images

 
(FILES) In a file picture taken on August 27, 2003 Real Madrid's English midfielder David Beckham poses with Super Cup trophy after winning against Mallorca at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid. Football megastar David Beckham announced on May 16, 2013 that he is to retire after a glittering 20-year playing career in which he became one of the most widely recognised figures in world sport. AFP PHOTO/ Pedro ARMESTREJAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images
FILE - In this July 13, 2007, file photo, England soccer player David Beckham holds up his new jersey as he is introduced as the newest member of the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team in Carson, Calif. The 38-year-old midfielder, who recently won a league title in a fourth country with Paris Saint-Germain, said Thursday, May 16, 2013, he will retire after the season. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2002 file photo, Manchester United's David Beckham, right, celebrates his goal against Zalaegerszeg of Hungary with teammate Philip Neville, left, during their UEFA Champions League qualifying match in Manchester, England. Beckham says he is retiring from soccer at the end of the season. The 38-year-old Beckham recently won a league title in a fourth country with Paris Saint-Germain. He has become a global superstar since starting his career at Manchester United. (AP Photo/Max Nash, FIle)
FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2005, file photo, England captain David Beckham reacts as he is booked by referee Luis Medina Cantalejo during their 2006 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Austria at Old Trafford, Manchester, England. The 38-year-old midfielder, who recently won a league title in a fourth country with Paris Saint-Germain, said Thursday, May 16, 2013, he will retire after the season. (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)
(FILE PHOTO) Former Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan, Paris Saint Germain and England midfielder David Beckham has announced his retirement from football at the end of the season
FILE - In this March 17, 1999, file photo, Manchester United's David Beckham celebrates as he leaves the field after his team tied 1-1 with Inter Milan in a Champions League second leg quarterfinal match at Milan's San Siro stadium. The 38-year-old midfielder, who recently won a league title in a fourth country with Paris Saint-Germain, said Thursday, May 16, 2013, he will retire after the season. (AP Photo/Alex Trovati, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2003 file photo, soccer player David Beckham pauses during a signing session for his autobiography "My Side" held at a London bookstore. Beckham says he is retiring from soccer at the end of the season. The 38-year-old Beckham recently won a league title in a fourth country with Paris Saint-Germain. He has become a global superstar since starting his career at Manchester United. (AP Photo/Richard Lewis, FIle)
(FILE PHOTO) Former Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan, Paris Saint Germain and England midfielder David Beckham has announced his retirement from football at the end of the season 11 Oct 1999:  Portrait of David Beckham during the Adidas Feature held in England. \ Mandatory Credit: Gary M Prior/Allsport
(FILES) In a file picture taken July 2, 2003 Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano, Real Madrid's honorary president, poses with Real Madrid's new signing, David Beckham at his official presentation at Sport city, Madrid. Football megastar David Beckham announced on May 16, 2013 that he is to retire after a glittering 20-year playing career in which he became one of the most widely recognised figures in world sport. AFP Photo/Christophe SIMONCHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
(FILE PHOTO) Former Manchester United, Real Madrid, LA Galaxy, AC Milan, Paris Saint Germain and England midfielder David Beckham has announced his retirement from football at the end of the season MANCHESTER - FEBRUARY 19:  Portrait of David Beckham of Manchester United with his infamous cut eye during the UEFA Champions League Second Phase Group D match between Manchester United and Juventus held on February 19, 2003 at Old Trafford, in Manchester, England. Manchester United won the match 2-1. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
 
 
 
 
 
 
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