Forget his prissiness, his pouty wife, his diva-like antics in the MLS, the unconventional and “hip” name of one of his sons (“Brooklyn”), the claims that he was overrated, his hairstyles, and the allegations that the “pretty boy” cared more about his image off the field than on it.
David Beckham’s announcement on Thursday that he would retire from soccer matters–even in the United States–because people often forget why Beckham, the man with a high-pitched voice who was less naturally talented than many of the game’s elite players, became one of the biggest global superstars with much more of an influence and reach than mega icons like Tiger Woods or current living legends of the beautiful game like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Beckham was simply a working class kid who willed his way to become great on the pitch and married a pop star after first seeing her on television. As the story goes, Beckham saw Posh Spice in a music video and turned to teammate Gary Neville and declared, “That one there, that’s the girl I’m going to marry.”
“I chose her off the telly,” Beckham told interviewers when he made his move from England to the United States to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. “It felt straight away like we’d always been meant to be together.”
Before she had even met Beckham, Victoria “Posh Spice” Adams saw Beckham in a magazine while doing an interview with a soccer magazine and was instantly attracted to the “gorgeous” superstar.
When the two finally met after a Manchester United game, she said it was “love at first sight” though both had been familiar with the other from magazines and music videos.
One can say Beckham played and achieved beyond his talents on the soccer field.
Millions of people around the world saw in Beckham the aspirational qualities that separate transcendent figures like Beckham and, to a lesser extent, Derek Jeter in the United States, from the inauthentic wannabes.
He led Manchester United to the Treble in 1999, overcame his ignominious 1998 World Cup appearance in which he got a red card against Argentina’s Diego Simeone to redeem himself in the 2002 World Cup. He became a global ambassador for the sport. He has been a champion in four different countries–England, France, Spain, and the United States. He was a winner.
But to those who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths or with silver boots on their feet, Beckham, the working class kid who left to join Manchester United as a teenager to pursue his dream on the world’s grandest stage, was someone for whom they could easily cheer.
He lacked the natural talent, strength, and instinct of some of the game’s elite players but he made up for it by willing himself to be arguably the best in the world at what he could practice–free kicks and corner kicks and set pieces. He curved the ball so brilliantly that a movie was named after him–though, in fairness, “Bend it Like Beckham” sounds a lot better than “Bend it Like Roberto Carlos.” He lacked the deft touch of a Luis Figo, the power of a Zinedine Zidane, the skills and instincts of a Ryan Giggs or Gary Neville, but he was a winner.
It was striking that some on the right who consistently talk about appealing to “new demographics” and “urbanites” not only dismissed Beckham’s announcement but failed to, as they always do, understand the root of why he was a transcendent global superstar and how powerful an authentic working class ethos resonates beyond statistics and “metrics.” These are the same people who would think it would be a smart strategy to court Southern voters by dissing SEC football.
There was much about Beckham that was worthy of mockery, but it is worth understanding why millions around the globe rooted for him. They did so because he was ultimately a winner who relentlessly worked to improve the skills that he could. And his working class roots and sensibilities were as genuine as his tears on Saturday night when he played his last game as a professional.