James Lawton: Fitting final backdrop for a failing career

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The Independent Football

Who would not envy David Beckham as he prepares to relocate to Lotus Land? Who would not like to buy a house in Beverly Hills or maybe out at the beach at Malibu and do their shopping along Rodeo Drive? Who wouldn't want to go out to their chum Tom Cruise's for an evening cocktail and watch the sun slide down over Catalina Island? You would have to be some oddball, wouldn't you? Or maybe someone like Paul Scholes or Ryan Giggs or Gary Neville, currently driving towards a Premiership title with Beckham's old team, Manchester United.

The point is that Beckham, quite brilliantly, has achieved his ultimate coup. He has translated a failing career at the age of 31 - when most great players are still celebrating the prime of their talent out on the field - into a kind of triumph, a contract that would dazzle the hottest pitcher on the New York Yankees rotation and the certainty of celebrity status for himself and his wife Posh.

It just happens that it isn't a career climax for which a Scholes - or a Zinedine Zidane or a Pele or even a sadly woebegone George Best would have given tuppence, and certainly not after four years without winning so much as a bean.

Why? Because great players measure themselves in authentic surroundings for as long as they can.

When Best washed up in Los Angeles he spent most of his time drinking in the bar he bought down by the sea. He knew it was the end of his turbulent affair with football and when he was lionised on the sportscasts for an astonishing goal in North American Soccer League action he winced, flashed that self-deprecating smile and said: "Well, you have to say, the defending was crap."

Beckham says that he is going to America not out of defeat - a failure to make the Real Madrid first team, even the squad now - or a fabulous contract but the desire to spread the gospel of football and make a difference to American youngsters and, of course, the patrons of his "soccer school" in southern California. Only Beckham could say such things without inviting wholesale derision. Only Beckham could command the front of Britain's biggest-selling newspaper with his ultimatum to Madrid: "I Play or it's LA."

For some years now it was going to be LA - or some place like it. Some place where there was plenty of money and celebrity exposure, and where better than the environs of Hollywood? Beckham had a wonderful talent but around five years ago it was consumed by his other life, his other goals. After marrying Posh, his course was set. He was schooled in the celebrity life and some dolphins have taken to water less readily. Finally, it became too much for Sir Alex Ferguson. He was criticised viciously, but he was steadfast. He went out and signed Cristiano Ronaldo.

There is no question Beckham occupies a unique role in the history of football. No player has ever turned his talent into so much fame and so much money. It didn't happen entirely by accident. The natural skills did need honing and he did that to a remarkable degree.

He lacked, plainly, some of the qualities which announce a truly great player. He couldn't go by players in the fashion of Best. He couldn't tackle like Keane. He couldn't produce the consistent performance of a Scholes. But his right foot was a thing of wonderment. He could cross beautifully and there was a time, as Real Madrid proved, when any club in the world would have had him.

But that was a distant memory yesterday when LA Galaxy moved in with money and a ticket to Lotus Land. What did they get? A fabulous image and maybe indeed a marvellous populariser of a game which in America is cruelly saddled with the fact that women, who have no place on the gridiron or the baseball diamond, play it rather well.

What they didn't acquire, it now has to be said when the serious phase of his career is over, when his possible continued membership of an England team in which he failed to justify his reputation in five major tournaments is lost for ever, is a player who pursued his potential for greatness as far as he could.

Instead, when he noted the lukewarm interest in the big leagues of the world, when he saw that his time at Madrid was over, he said yes to a football Lotus Land. It was a choice, you had to believe, he made quite some time ago.