At a point in time when it seems English football is saying goodbye to all of that last generation of glorious talents, Beckham’s retirement is the one that perhaps catches the eye more than most.
Beckham has of course spent a few years now away from the top level, only fleetingly returning recently for Paris St Germain. But it is so easy to forget what made him the icon and star that he is today.
The midfielder burst onto the scene with a spectacular goal from the half way line against Wimbledon back in 1996. It was a majestic effort, which Neil Sullivan in the Wimbledon goal was powerless to prevent as it sailed over his head. A magnificent strike heralded the rise of one of the English game’s greatest talents.
Beckham went on to shine and excel for Manchester United, becoming a key figure in one of the greatest teams English football has seen. But 1998 saw his star on the wane as the kid with the curtains hairstyle and Spice Girl on his arm kicked out at Diego Simeone as he lay on the ground in the second round of the World Cup against Argentina. Hans Moller Nielsen showed him the red card and that was that for Beckham.
But he bounced back with customary class and determination. Roundly reviled across England for getting sent off and contributing to elimination from the World Cup, he showed his true character. Week after week he showed unbelievable quality for Manchester United in the face of immense criticism and abuse from the fans in the Premier League. And he got United to win the treble, with his right boot curled around the two corners which led to that famous Champions League win against Bayern Munich.
Oh yes of course, that right boot. At a time when English football was struggling Beckham provided it with an unbelievable weapon . His right foot was so deadly it didn’t matter that he couldn’t run very fast. His crossing was a thing of beauty, his long balls mesmeric. Few players can make a cross into the box quite as majestic as Beckham. None has been able to make a long pass look as beautiful as when Beckham plays one over the top for a striker to run onto.
Beckham was unique in English football. A player of majestic technique and intelligence, in an age where most seemed to be designed to run fast and lump the ball forward aimlessly, he brought vital poise to the England team. Over the last decade, it has been Beckham that has made England tick when at their best, his intelligence and passing keeping them going. In many ways he is the perfect player for the English, so obsessed with kick and run, physique and pace over technique and brains. Beckham understood where English teams like the ball being played, he knew when to release, and he could play the long passes and crosses they loved.
But Beckham was unlike many of his peers. Whereas today you have England players who retire in disgrace for using racist language, like John Terry, or who isolate themselves from the team, such as Rio Ferdinand, or those who lash out at the fans when they are booed, such as Wayne Rooney, Beckham was different. No matter what was thrown at him, how much abuse he got, no matter how much he was ostracised from the group, he never moaned, he always was available and would play with a smile on his face .He forced himself back into the Real Madrid team under Fabio Capello after being pushed out by the Italian for signing for LA Galaxy. He worked his way back into the England side after Steve McClaren said he wasn’t needed. No sulking or egotistical tantrums from Beckham. He was always a consummate professional. The greatest English footballer of his generation, none of his peers comes anywhere close, both in quality on and off the pitch.