James Lawton: David Beckham has taken more credit for himself than anyone else could give
There was never a time when he was among the world top 10, let alone the top two
It's all very well saying that the old stayer Fergie won the big-time football retirement stakes on the bridle but then we shouldn't forget that David Beckham has been running his for not much less than 10 years. When you remember this, a career notable for genius self-promotion could hardly be said to have ended in a whimper.
The latest lionisation was bang on cue, mostly seamless, and we can be sure that there are still lashings of hagiography in the pipeline. Still, Fergie did have it by a mile, at least in relevant impact on the football of today.
The trouble, if one has the nerve to say it, is that giving Goldenballs his due is never going to come close to that which he has, with immense dedication and skill and almost uncanny understanding of celebrity culture, awarded himself down the years.
There is not a lot of reward in saying this, beyond the suggestion that you might benefit from a visit by the men in white coats, but there it is, as immutable a dilemma as ever down all the years since he first popped into our consciousness with that remarkable goal from halfway against Wimbledon.
It is the uncomfortable, some would say dark, compulsion to say that between the accomplishments of Beckham, which are of course not inconsiderable, and the acclaim and the rewards they have received, there is a shortfall in reality, a failure of perspective, so vast it is hard to match in almost any area of public life.
This, as it happens, is not so much a criticism of the footballer as an acknowledgement of a quite remarkable phenomenon. Beckham has been the man of his times, the quintessence of fame. His knighthood is stitched on, his wealth swollen by the years and for so many of them without any relationship to his success as a player, he has more caps for England than any outfielder – a distinction limited only by the fact that Peter Shilton was arguably the greatest goalkeeper who ever lived – and, of course, from gay icon, fashion plate and perfect family man there is nary a box he doesn't tick beyond the touchline.
Except the box, and God save all of us who say it, that is supposed to contain a truly great player.
At the top of his game Beckham was an extremely good player armed with extraordinary ball skills – and his determination to work on those gifts was exemplary. Before Ferguson decided that the evolution of his lifestyle and attitudes had left him out of sync with the professional culture of Manchester United, Beckham was a vital element in a fine Champions League team, but to suggest that he was ever historically close to being one of United's – or Real Madrid's or England's – most important players is a fiction that quite some time ago could no longer, given the force of the mythology attached to his persona, be separated from fact.
The other night he was saying how proud he was to be twice elected the world's second-best player, behind the Brazilian Rivaldo and his former Real team-mate Luis Figo, and high in the heaping of accolades was the fact that he was the only Englishmen to win four titles in four different countries. In both cases reality had been brushed into the margins. Had it not been so comprehensively ambushed, someone might have pointed out that there was never a time when Beckham could be said to be among the world's top 10 players, let alone the top two, and in respect of his contribution to four national titles, surely only those at United have a presence among the top rank of individual achievement.
When Real clinched their first La Liga win in his four years there, he had already been substituted and was bound for Los Angeles Galaxy, where the third title duly arrived at a level of the game which remains somewhat less than awe-inspiring. While at Paris Saint-Germain he was pronounced, by the bible of French sport, L'Equipe, a "flop".
Perhaps no professional sportsman has ever had less reason to complain about his notices and the one in Paris is only mentioned here in the context of the claims on his behalf of a grand exit in the city of light.
Of course, Beckham sails on into an untrammelled future and there is nothing inherent in his nature that provokes a begrudging reaction to this inevitability. If he has conceits, like most of us, but for much more compelling reasons, he does not flaunt them.
If his contributions to England are lauded quite ludicrously, if the campaign launched in pursuit of his 100th cap was a sentimental nonsense – the eventually acquiescent England coach Fabio Capello said that if an Italian legend like Paolo Maldini or Franco Baresi had found himself in a similar situation such a crusade would not have happened in "a million years" – Beckham has never been strident in his demands on history or official acclaim.
He has, no one should feel hardship admitting, won for himself an extraordinary dividend on the gifts he received in the cradle. He has taken each one of them and, literally, turned them into gold. No, this is not a reason for reproach.
The problem has, after all, never been a question of how David Beckham sees himself. It is, you have to say before the knock on the door, more a question of how the world sees him. It is with flawed, idolatrous vision and some who should know better do not have the wit or the courage to say so.
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