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Larger than Life

Delta Sky Magazine July 2013

David Beckham photographed by Doug Inglish / Truck Archive.

David Beckham helped define what it means to be a modern celebrity athlete. He's at once a dashing pop-culture icon, a doting father and a talented player whose soccer legacy will continue to loom large both on and off the field.

On the cover: David Beckham photographed by Doug Inglish / Truck Archive.

There’s something about David Beckham that not everyone knows: He’s into Legos. Really into Legos. “If I was not a footballer, I would love to be a Lego model builder,” the world’s most famous soccer star said in 2010. That same year, faced with a sudden uptick in free time while playing for A.C. Milan, Beckham spent hours assembling the 5,922-piece Lego Taj Mahal. At one point, he happened to mention this project to a chat-show host. The day after the interview aired, according to the Lego company, sales of the $300 Taj kit jumped 633 percent.

The story fits a familiar pattern for Beckham, who retired from soccer on May 18 at the age of 38. There’s the magnetic field of extreme celebrity: Because he thought it would be fun to labor over a replica of a 17th-century Indian mausoleum, other people wanted to try it, too. There’s the ubiquity of image and marketing: The Lego Group, desperate to capitalize on its association with the star midfielder, extended a public invitation for the Beckhams to tour its headquarters in Billund, Denmark, ostensibly so that Beckham could “contribute new ideas” to the company. And then there’s the sense that, underneath it all, Beckham preserves an odd and touching genuineness. How many people who’ve married a Spice Girl and seen their names featured in movie titles still want to do Legos at all?

Photo by Robert Mora / LA Galaxy.        

Beckham the celebrity and Beckham the style icon have overshadowed Beckham the soccer player for so long that it’s easy to forget just how good he was on the pitch. Even late in his career, when most of his speed had gone, Beckham had an exquisite eye for a pass and an almost eerie sense of space. (Want an example? Go to YouTube and dial up a video of his goal from behind the halfway line for the LA Galaxy in 2008 [watch it], or his even better goal for Manchester United from the same spot in 1996 [watch it].) In his prime, before he started wearing sarongs and hanging out with Tom Cruise, he could be astonishing.

The trick to appreciating Beckham as a player is understanding that he was never a Michael Jordan-style dominator. Though he was twice a runner-up for FIFA’s World Player of the Year award, he didn’t succeed by being more talented or athletic than his opponents. What made him a vital player on 10 championship teams—six with Manchester United in the English Premier League, one with Real Madrid in Spain’s La Liga, two with the Galaxy in MLS, and one with Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue 1—was a composite mastery of the little things. Timing, field awareness, ball control, finding the precise gap in a sea of moving bodies into which he could slot a devastating through ball—that was his style. He seldom carried his squads to victory single-handedly. Surround him with talented players, though, and he could be the key that unlocked the whole team’s potential. It wasn’t an accident that he captained the English national team 59 times, the fourth-most of anyone in history.

And then there were the free kicks. Beckham may not have been the best dead-ball striker of his generation—that honor probably went to Brazil’s Juninho Pernambucano—but he was awfully close. And he had an amazing sense of occasion. Just look up the goal he scored for England against Greece on October 6, 2001 (watch it). With time about to run out, and England needing one last goal to ensure their qualification for the 2002 World Cup, Beckham walloped a last-second free kick with his right foot, an ingenious curveball of a shot that went screaming into the back of the net.

Drama like that just followed him around. He could be reserved in interviews, but everywhere else he was somehow larger than life. Playing against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, Beckham was red-carded for kicking Diego Simeone. England lost the match, which led to a massive anti-Beckham backlash: He was hung in effigy outside a London pub. Four years later, England met Argentina again in the 2002 World Cup. This time, in the electric atmosphere of Japan’s Sapporo Dome, Beckham scored the penalty that won the match for England (watch it).

Photo by Doug Inglish / Truck Archive.        

And that’s David Beckham. He doesn’t just fail, he gets mock-executed. He doesn’t just succeed, he arches an eyebrow and gets epic revenge on the largest stage in the world. You could argue, in the aftermath of his retirement, that Beckham will be remembered more for what he did off the pitch than for anything he accomplished on it. He wasn’t soccer’s best player, but for more than 15 years he was its best celebrity, the one who most fully embraced the idea of becoming a brand. He was the first high-profile player in England to demand that his soccer club pay him for the right to use his image. Later, as the most galactic star in Real Madrid’s galacticos era, he helped pioneer a distinctly digital-age idea of how a sports team ought to be assembled, one that had as much to do with media attention and jersey sales as with championships.

When Beckham moved to Los Angeles in 2007, he gave the already-rising popularity of Major League Soccer a noticeable boost. Six years later, the quality of play in the league is noticeably higher, in part because he helped make MLS a viable destination for talented European and South American players. The league has a new broadcast deal with NBC and is eyeing expansion in South Florida, with a new team to be owned in part, perhaps, by David Beckham. That soccer is both as big and as good as it’s ever been in America isn’t all his doing, but he helped.

So which is Beckham’s real legacy, his achievements as a player, or his success off the pitch? When I ask him, he finds it difficult to separate the two: “I’m incredibly fortunate to have achieved much during my career, so it’s difficult to pick one out. Playing and captaining my country was a source of great pride; I love my country, so to wear the England shirt was always something I dreamt of doing as a kid,” he says. “Not many things can beat, though, winning the treble for my boyhood club, Manchester United. We had grown up together as young players, competed for all the Academy teams, and then we reached the senior squad together. To then win the major club honors with your friends and teammates in such a dramatic fashion will always live long in the memory.

“Off the field, there is no question,” Beckham says. “I’m proudest of my role as a father to four amazing children. I’m sure all parents will feel the same way, and that trumps everything else I have achieved.”

In truth, to argue that Beckham’s business savvy is more central to his legacy than his soccer skills may be missing the point. His real legacy is that he created a seamless fusion between the two. He made it seem natural for the beautiful chaos of celebrity to coexist with the hardscrabble order of a sports arena. He built a strange world, part high-pressure free kicks, part family photos at Lakers games and part underwear billboards glowing over Tokyo at night, and it’s in that world, more than anywhere else, that today’s star athletes hope to live. David Beckham combined the building blocks of his own disparate talents into a model that other people hope to emulate. Maybe he should take that tour of Lego headquarters after all. //

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