There are two versions of David Beckham. One is the exceptional footballer, a fine crosser, vigilant leader and one of the best right boots in the game. The other is the public hero, a celebrity in every sense of the word, and an instantly recognisable figure wherever he goes. While being a footballer essentially guarantees global popularity, Beckham took it to another level and, since his departure from England and Manchester United, his destinations have only served to enhance the = superstar in him.
The London-born midfielder left Manchester United after a highly-publicised bust-up with manager Sir Alex Ferguson in February 2003, and the following summer moved to Spain. Barcelona were seemingly the side he was set to join, with the two clubs having agreed on a transfer fee, but Florentino Pérez, hungry to add another gem to his group of Galácticos, swooped in and brought the Englishman to the Spanish capital. This was a move befitting of Beckham’s personality: Europe’s most successful club, a host of heroic teammates, and one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
At the Santiago Bernabéu, over the course of Beckham’s four-year stay, there were two common trends: underperformance and change. Given the squad Pérez had assembled, Ballon d’Or winners aplenty, there was the expectation that they would dominate and challenge for the most prestigious prizes. Instead, they stuttered.
After a promising start in Beckham’s first months, winning the Spanish Super Cup and masterminding a victory at Camp Nou – their first in 20 years – which the Englishman contributed heavily to, they slacked off, finishing fourth in LaLiga, losing in the final of the Copa del Rey and getting eliminated from the Champions League at the quarter-final stage. This was an underwhelming return to a major investment and, the next season, there wouldn’t be much that was different.
To Beckham’s credit, he did prove to be one of their more influential players, creating chances and becoming one of the league’s top assisters, but he couldn’t conjure up a major honour. In his second season, Los Blancos finished second in the league and exited the Champions League in the second round.
Much of the reason for these inconsistencies was the second big trend: change. Pérez’s chop-and-change approach to managers didn’t go down well, and the ones he did bring in perhaps didn’t suit the side. After Beckham joined the club, he had to work with the likes of Carlos Quieroz, José Antonio Camacho and Mariano García Remón.
That policy continued into the next season, where Real Madrid were once again trophyless as Juan Ramón López Caro was given the chance to try his luck at achieving success. The Galácticos project was rightfully seen as a failure, as the biggest stars lacked the right names to support them and failed to shine. But it ended strongly for Beckham, though. In his final season – 2006/07 – Fabio Capello took charge and finally won LaLiga.
It was in the middle of the season that Beckham would announce his departure and leave Europe for Major League Soccer, where a lucrative project awaited him at Los Angeles Galaxy, and an opportunity to build a legacy for himself across the pond arose – but it wasn’t before he won the league in his final game that he left. Beckham played 45 minutes of the final match before being replaced by José Antonio Reyes, who scored twice and won his team the league title. To close this chapter, Beckham’s final moments at Real Madrid saw him lift the Spanish crown.
Across the Atlantic, Beckham’s pull was difficult to resist. Without even playing a game, he would become the most popular footballer in Major League Soccer history, attracting sponsors left, right and centre, and influencing players from across the globe to join him. His effect on the pitch, though, was often in question. While he might’ve performed well in his first year, proving an influential figure, doubts were raised in 2008 as to whether he saw a long-term future in America, particularly as he wished to make the World Cup squad that was to fly out to South Africa.
Beckham would still have his moments of brilliance – including a goal from 70 yards out – but his head was elsewhere. In late 2008, it was announced that he would return to Europe, to join AC Milan, initially on a short-term loan deal until the season in the States resumed. By now, Beckham’s career itinerary since leaving Manchester included Madrid, Los Angeles and Milan – big cities befitting his icon.
After a long vacation, Beckham lacked his usual sharpness early on his time in Milan, struggling to get to grip with the intensity of the league. Having experienced a massive cultural and tactical shift, he was handed his debut in a match against Roma but failed to craft anything of note. He remained on the pitch for 89 minutes – a decision coach Carlo Ancelotti was greatly criticised for.
Fortunately for Beckham, his form picked up and he scored his first goal soon after, against Bologna. It didn’t take him long to get back to his usual self and, after around six weeks, he began receiving wide praise, becoming an integral part of the team.
A trademark free-kick soon followed against Genoa from a tight angle, and this goal only increased the adoration the locals had for the Englishman. There were now talks about making his move permanent, but Milan were unwilling to meet the $15m fee set by LA Galaxy. Instead, the loan was extended and Beckham continued to impress. At the end of the season he returned to America, but he wasn’t as welcome a figure as before.
As LA Galaxy pushed for their first MLS Cup since 2002, there were banners and chants against Beckham, which labelled him a part-time player. Soon after, more fuel was added to the fire. After losing the MLS Cup final against Real Salt Lake, Beckham would return to Milan on a second loan deal, anticipating the impending World Cup.
He would impress again at Milan, who were now coached by Leonardo. There was also a touching return to Manchester United in the Champions League, where he was given a rousing reception and even sided with the fans by placing a green-and-gold scarf around his neck – a sign that signalled the fans’ disgust towards the Glazer family’s ownership of the club.
That appearance at Old Trafford was his second-last for Milan. Soon after, he would tear his Achilles tendon in a match against Chievo. His World Cup hopes were dashed, and his time in Europe was complete. A forced hiatus ended when he returned to LA Galaxy and redeemed his status at the club. He slowly forced his way back into the team, fighting his injury concerns and fan fury, and began returning to vintage form.
In 2011, he formed a solid trident in attack with Irishman Robbie Keane and America’s finest, Landon Donovan. Together they led the team to MLS Cup success, beating Houston Dynamo in the final, as Beckham finished second in the league tally of assists and became a part of a small hallowed crop of players to have won league titles in three different nations.
The following year he ended his association with the Galaxy, albeit on a high note, beating Houston Dynamo again to win the MLS Cup. Having once endured a sour note with the Los Angeles faithful, Beckham rebuilt and restored his reputation with them and played a huge part in winning two league titles for the club. Sound familiar?
On deadline day in January 2013, Paris Saint-Germain came calling. Beckham, in the final months of his career, decided it would be the right call to donate all his earnings from his six-month stay to a local charity, and played football purely for the love of it. He would end his career by winning Ligue 1, becoming the first Englishman to win titles in four different countries.
Beckham’s time abroad, regardless of country, has been of great interest, and he made a major impact in football in America. Since his move to LA, he has broadened Major League Soccer’s reach, influenced other stars such as Keane, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimović to follow suit. He’s since set up his own MLS franchise, Inter Miami.
Although he has plied his trade for some of Europe’s biggest clubs since leaving England, David Beckham’s impact has been felt most acutely across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, wherever he went, he was respectful of the club, the local culture and the team, proving to be a revered figure in Madrid, Milan, Los Angeles and Paris.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26