Retrospective #12: The joy of David Beckham
David Beckham’s legacy is already tainted. Tainted because he will forever be remembered as the man who dated a Spice Girl as much as he would for his starring role in the final minutes of the 1999 Champions League final. Tainted because he will forever be recognised as an Armani poster-boy as much as he would for his last-gasp free-kick against Greece which helped propel England to the World Cup Finals in 2001. And tainted because all the good that he has done in his footballing career will be overlooked, unappreciated, due to his lifestyle and celebrity status. But behind the underwear adverts (er…) and the white teeth, there is arguably one of the finest players of the modern era.
It will be easy to forget just how good David Beckham was in his peak. In the treble-winning season of 1998-99, undisputedly the greatest in Manchester United’s history, he was recognised as one of the best in the world; and not at all distant and a different class from the would-be Greats at the time, such as Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo. In fact, Barcelona’s Rivaldo was the only thing standing in his way from being named European Football of the Year that season, narrowly missing out in the prestigious Ballon D’Or award. Many would argue that the impenetrable Roy Keane was the engine in that team, but they surely couldn’t have achieved what they had without the buccaneering Beckham to steer them to glory.
The game that was to change his life forever was in a 4-0 win over Galatasaray in the sixth round of matches in the 1994/95 Champions League group stage, where he had struck with a bobbling low shot before half time. That was to be his first senior goal for the club. His raw enthusiasm had helped him make a lasting impression in this particular game, his first in Europe, distinguishing himself from the rest of the academy graduates that had been promoted to the first team that night, the likes of Gary Neville and Nicky Butt included, and had provoked legendary TV commentator Brian Moore to say at the time: “Young Beckham has had a superb game on the right of United’s midfield.” That was to be the first of many.
In retrospect, Beckham had revolutionised the role of the wide midfielder. Players were modelled in the shape of him, where there was less emphasis on pace, expunging the stereotype that for a player in that position to be successful, they must be able to beat defenders with sheer speed. Beckham didn’t need to do that, for his crossing ability was enough for him to be regarded as the greatest winger (the term “winger” in an ‘English’ sense) the Premier League had ever seen.
Has there ever been a better crosser of the ball in the game? Perhaps not, for no player has quite been so consistent and freakishly accurate in doing it; and because his technique is virtually impossible to replicate, so his crossing ability will surely remain unmatched. In that glorious 98/99 season, his tally of assists numbered into the twenties and most came largely via his excellent delivery.
And as rewarding as it was to watch him cross the ball with such deadly precision, watching him net a free-kick was the ultimate joy. Whenever he set himself up to take one, the Old Trafford were expectant rather than just hopeful. He was that sort of player; like Cristiano Ronaldo had done years later, and George Best many years before, he was always tipped to do something very special. And very often, he would not let you down.
Out of the many phases he went through in his career – and we’re not talking about his ever-changing hair in this instance – the David Beckham of 1999-03 was the best of the lot. He was frighteningly consistent, and had doubled effectively as a central midfielder when required. He could do many things that he wasn’t given credit for; especially, the popular myth that he couldn’t dribble. In a European clash versus Real Madrid in 2000, he had left the defence trailing in his wake, awestruck, with a brilliant mazy run and finish. That was all in a vain as United were defeated in the end, but that moment epitomised what Beckham was all about; even when those around him were miserable, he was still able to conjure moments of magic. Football fans know all about this when he had done the exact same thing a year later, this time for England, and this time there were reasons to smile. England, trailing 2-1, had won a free-kick against Greece in a World Cup qualifier in the very last minute – and you know the rest. Beckham duly dispatched; this despite a gutless, uninspired performance from the team as a whole. Actually, this was a time where his relationship with the national team remained frosty because of the events of France ’98, but with United fans he had a sense of belonging. In scoring this free-kick for England, he had won over the largely-patriotic fans that were once prepared to disown him. “How silly was I then?” they must have thought.
In his time at United, he had also forged an unforgettable partnership with Gary Neville and, to a lesser extent, Ruud van Nistelrooy. With Neville, there was some sort of telepathic understanding. Neville loved to venture forward in order to find David Beckham down the right – and he did it as if he were some sort of catapult. The mutual understanding was something to behold and their very public friendship had gone some way to contributing to this. With van Nistelrooy, it was a shame that they didn’t play together more often. But when they did, it made for something clinical – the Dutchman always happened to be in the right place for Beckham’s crosses.
When you look back at it now, without doubt, his departure was premature. Instead he moved to Real Madrid in 2003 and, despite a few notable blemishes, it turned out to be very successful. As were his brief flings at AC Milan and even now, at LA Galaxy, there is enough about his game to suggest that he still has it. But it was at United where he was at his scintillating best. The man who has “fame beyond football” and “tattoos” listed as Wikipedia entries will be looked back at with dewy-eyed fondness, but the regrettable nature in which he left, and when he left, means he might never be regarded as a club legend. And, most tragically, he is in danger of retiring to a world where suddenly football is just a thing of the past. A world where he is seen as an underwear model or a movie star. However, there is no doubt that for a celebrity, he was pretty darn good at football.