Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Turn on the television tonight and you’d be forgiven for thinking David Beckham had died. He probably doesn’t feel far off it, in footballing terms. Neatly edited packages of his high- and lowlights on and off the field are wall-to-wall on both sport and regular news broadcasts – it seems purely to bring a lump to the throats of those of us with a soft spot for the softly-spoken midfielder.

Appearing at the World Cup this summer would have been the perfect end to the improbably cinematic narrative that has been his football career. There would surely have emerged at least one more iconic image of the man who has defined the last decade of England’s national side, one moment when the fans and the pundits and the broadcasters could cling to remember this effortlessly photogenic player forever.

We all knew it wouldn’t have been Beckham lifting the trophy – unless maybe Ferdinand, Gerrard, Rooney and Barry all got injured in the final? No?! – but it would have been something. Last time out, for me at least, it was the then-captain in tears having limped to the bench in time to watch his team crash out of the 2006 World Cup. This time round it may have been as an anxious benchwarmer watching on and biting his nails with the rest of us. Maybe it would have been the old hand swinging in a cross or a free-kick during a snatched 15 minutes-or-so on the pitch – as that’s surely all his on-field contribution might have been. Maybe he would have done a Zidane on us and ended his career the way he ended his first World Cup; with an impulsive, senseless act of stupidity. I can almost see it now – the great national icon walking past the trophy he was never destined to win, despite the amount of effort and self-belief he devoted to obtaining it, proving himself to be human after all. Sniff.

In the event, as with so many things, Beckham’s England career has ended not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s truly a sad day – and it’s hard to imagine how heartbroken he must be, especially as someone who clearly feels incredibly passionate about what he does for a living. It’s easy to dismiss the sadness or disappointment of very successful people, particularly professional sportspeople, given their lavish lifestyles and huge salaries (a sarcastic ‘boo hoo’ or a quick turn on the worlds-smallest violin is usually included somewhere). But an unforeseeable, unavoidable injury such as this crucial Achilles injury will have really hurt – as every single thing Beckham has done since standing down as captain and being ceremoniously dropped from the squad by then-England boss Steve McLaren has been focussed on playing in this tournament – the World Cup that would always have been his last and would always be the final scene in the film of his professional life.

Moving to LA Galaxy ensured first-team football and a team built around him as the big star – something that was no longer going to happen at a big European club. It also allowed him time and space to recover from the disappointment of failing to live up to the promise of the much-vaunted ‘Golden Generation’ of English stars in the early part of the decade. His first loan spell at AC Milan ensured he was in the eye line of Fabio Capello and enabled him to demonstrate that he still had a part to play in an England squad hurt by McLaren’s failure to achieve qualification for Euro 2008. His second, which has now come crashing to a premature end, was embarked upon solely to prepare him for his final act as a top-level footballer. And while there is little doubt that he would have been at best a bit-part player in South Africa, his experience, popularity with fans and players alike, role as ambassador for England around the world and the fact that he still has no clear successor in the England setup meant that he was unlikely to be left at home. Indeed, given that the FIFA administrators traditionally choose World Cup tournaments to meet and discuss future host nations, it is likely he will travel to South Africa as part of the FA’s England 2018 bid team anyway.

For British football fans of my age, Beckham’s England highlight reel is truly ingrained into the collective memory – this is probably the first career we as a generation will have followed from beginning to end. I have a feeling that his halfway-line goal against Wimbledon in 1996 might have been the first time I even noticed football on TV.

Even as the events played out in chronological order on TV today, it was easy to recite from memory what was going to come next, even involuntarily reciting the worn-out commentary tracks. Kicking the back of Diego Simeone’s leg in 1998. Scoring the last-minute free-kick against Greece to take England to the 2002 World Cup. Getting there and completing his comeback by scoring a penalty against Argentina. Running at the camera, yanking his shirt and showing the number 7 to the world. Tearfully resigning the captaincy in his final press conference at Baden Baden in 2006.

There is no other player like him for English fans, for English youngsters to admire and emulate. Wayne Rooney, the current England star attraction, is indisputably more of a throwback to an older, more traditionally English style of footballer – in the words of none other than both players’ mentor Alex Ferguson. Beckham, for all the accusations of courting celebrity and shameless self-promoting outside of the game, is the archetypal modern footballer – attuned both to what is expected of him as ‘product’ and as an ambassador for the game, as well as being well-liked among his colleagues and peers and having overcome a fair bit of professional adversity. He is, in fact, much more like the world-class Continental players he has appeared alongside since leaving England than the scruffier, less elegant footballers he left behind. Perhaps this is what made him such a natural galactico at Real Madrid and helped him slide so easily in amongst AC Milan’s band of elder statesmen last year.

I’m aware that this, too, is beginning to sound like a eulogy. David Beckham’s film will not have the fairytale South African ending he has tried so valiantly to engineer – but the fact that he has so evidently given his heart, soul and now his body to the quest for that to be the case is enough to serve him well in football fans’ collective memory. He was never going to win the World Cup for England this year – but his absence will certainly make the tournament that little bit less thrilling.

So long, Dave.

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