How the athlete became arguably one of the most famous celebrities of our time.
From a hate figure pilloried for his sending-off in a crucial World Cup tie to a star who long ago transcended his sport, David Beckham’s globe-trotting odyssey has made him one of the most recognisable, over-analysed and well-paid celebrity figures of the age.
But as he announced his retirement from playing on Thursday, days after adding the French championship to a collection of medals that includes six Premier League trophies, plus titles in the US and Spain, the 38-year-old said he had realised all the ambitions he nurtured as a schoolboy playing on Hackney Marshes.
“If you’d told me as a young boy I would have played for and won trophies with my boyhood club Manchester United, proudly captained and played for my country over 100 times and lined up for some of the biggest clubs in the world, I would have told you it was a fantasy,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have realised those dreams.”
Sources close to the player said he was concentrating on the final two matches of the French season before evaluating the avalanche of offers that were bound to come his way. In an interview on Sky with his former team-mate Gary Neville, he said that he wanted to go out at the top.
It is 17 years since he burst into the national consciousness as a precocious talent in the “Fergie’s Fledglings” era, scoring from the halfway line against Wimbledon in a Premier League match. Shortly afterwards, he started going out with the Spice Girls singer Victoria Adams and a match made in tabloid heaven was born.
Long term, he is expected to take up an option to buy a stake in an American Major League Soccer franchise that was awarded as part of the deal that took him to Los Angeles in 2007.
When he left for the US at the age of 31, few thought he would be back to play at the top level in Europe yet he returned for two spells on loan with Milan and a swansong in the French capital with Paris St Germain. Ever mindful of his image, he donated his PSG wages to a children’s charity.
David Bernstein, Football Association chairman, said he hoped Beckham would consider becoming England’s equivalent of Michel Platini or Franz Beckenbauer, iconic players who went on to play key roles in global sports administration.
Off the pitch, Beckham – in league with his pop star-turned-fashion designer wife, Victoria (who nicknamed him “Golden Balls”) and his adviser Simon Fuller – became the perfect canvas on which successive brands and organisations were able to project their wares.
His stardust and international appeal were also put to good use elsewhere. Lord Coe has paid tribute to his role as part of the team that secured the Olympics for his hometown of London in 2005 and in 2010 he was part of the ill-fated bid to secure the 2018 World Cup, alongside the Duke of Cambridge and the prime minister, David Cameron.
The England manager, Roy Hodgson, and Bernstein immediately hinted that Beckham would be offered a role in running the game. “You could not have anyone with a stronger sort of image and position,” said Bernstein.
“If it’s something he wants to do then you’d think there is every opportunity for him to become that sort of lead, football figure that this country badly needs. As an ambassador for English football and for the FA, you couldn’t think of anybody better.”
Beckham, who holds the England appearance record as an outfield player with 115 caps, has consistently battled back into contention for the national side under successive managers who had earlier written him off.
From his very first tournament at France 98, when he scored a free kick against Colombia and was then sent off as England bowed out on penalties to Argentina, his international career has hit the highs and plumbed the depths but always shown a remarkable resilience.
His most replayed moment in an England shirt remains his act of will to pull his team round from a losing position and score a last-minute free kick against Greece at Old Trafford to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. But like others of the so-called “golden generation”, he never went beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament.
“ne of my proudest achievements is captaining my country,” he said. “I knew every time I wore the Three Lions shirt, I was not only following in a long line of great players, I was also representing every fan that cared passionately about their country. I’m honoured to represent England both on and off the pitch.”
Beckham even dominated those tournaments for which he wasn’t picked. In South Africa in 2010 he sat in the dugout next to Fabio Capello as a coach and after Stuart Pearce overlooked him for the Team GB squad at London 2012, he was immediately installed as an Olympic ambassador and cheerleader.
Fuller’s XIX Entertainment, pointedly thanked by the player on Thursday, was responsible for creating “Brand Beckham” and a string of global marketing deals.
The 38-year-old already has so many ambassadorial roles that a contract with Ferrero Rocher might be next. In recent months alone, in what may have been a clue to his retirement plans, he has taken on positions with Sky Sports and to promote football in China.
“Nothing will ever completely replace playing the game I love. However, I feel like I’m starting a new adventure and I’m genuinely excited about what lies ahead,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have been given many opportunities throughout my career and now I feel it’s my time to give back.”
Beckham now lives in London with his wife and their four children – boys Brookyln, Romeo, Cruz and daughter Harper Seven.
“I wouldn’t have achieved what I have done today without my family. I’m grateful for my parents’ sacrifice, which made me realise my dreams,” he said. “I owe everything to Victoria and the kids, who have given me the inspiration and support to play at the highest level for such a long period.”
With Manchester United between 1992 and 2003, Beckham won six Premier League titles, the Champions League, two FA Cups and the Intercontinental Cup.
A week ago he was describing Sir Alex Ferguson as a “father figure” – albeit a father who once left him nursing a cut above his eye after kicking a football boot across the home dressing room – after the Manchester United manager created international headlines by announcing his retirement. Now Ferguson’s most famous protege, who perhaps best represents what football has become in the celebrity age yet never lost his appetite for the game, has repeated the trick.
Dosh ‘n’ Becks
From Adidas to Armani, Sainsbury’s to Pepsi and H&M to Police sunglasses, Beckham’s brand has helped earn him a fortune of £165m, according to the latest Sunday Times rich list.
After persuading him to leave the football agency SFX to join his wife at XIX Entertainment, the Spice Girls svengali Simon Fuller rationalised his endorsements into a smaller number of global deals that made him one of the most famous men on the planet.
But it wasn’t just multinational brands who queued up for Beckham’s stardust – from his £30m transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2003 to his $250m deal to move to Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, his employers were buying a marketing phenomenon as well as a player with a rare ability to strike a dead ball.
Adidas, the sportswear multinational, recently estimated that he had sold 10m shirts during his 20-year career. With income from his boot endorsements added, he has sold merchandise worth more than £1bn.
Even in the twilight of his career, Forbes estimated that in 2012, even in the twilight of his career, Beckham earned £5.9m for playing football and more than £24m from commercial deals.